The Interesting History of the French Horn

If you’re interested in horns and other brass instruments (and would like to play one someday), you may realize how they have changed and evolved in the last six centuries. The French horn is one of the common instruments in the brass family, and you may have seen it in classical music orchestras and ensembles, as well as marching bands.

Although the name is “French horn,” it is more commonly referred to as simply “horn.” It consists of a coiled tube, valves, and a wide, flared bell. It is played with the right hand in the bell to create a mellow tone and increase the available harmonics range. The usual range of the French horn is below B below the bass staff upward for more than three octaves.

The French horn is one of the most important brass instruments in classical and contemporary music. You may be curious as anyone else is: how did the French horn come to be? Why is it called the French horn? Read on to find out the history of the French horn.


Origins and history

The French horn can be traced back to hunting horns in the 16th century, used by hunters from France and Germany. Hunting horns consisted of large round hoops of tubing so that the hunter could put his arm through, allowing him to carry it easily on his shoulder to blow through while riding. 

The term “French horn” came into use during the 17th century. The French hunting horn makers were credited with fashioning the now-familiar circular “hoop” shape of the instrument. Because of this, these instruments were called, even in English, by their French names: trompe de chasse or cor de chasse, which both mean “hunting horn.” At that time, France became the leading country in hunting horns manufacture.

French horns were not seen or heard in a performance setting until they began to appear in opera scores in mid-to-late 16th century Europe. Hunting horns were intended to create sounds reminiscent of the hunt.

From its simple original appearance, the hunting horn advanced into the natural horn (hand horn or simply horn) in the 17th century. The updated horn was made of brass and had a large flared bell, developed by the Germans for use in the orchestra. The German horn makers first designed the horn with moveable slides, called crooks, so that it could be played in different keys. As a result, musicians came to use “French” and “German” to differentiate the simple hunting horn and the newer hand horn.

The double horn


By the 19th century, crooks were replaced with pistons and valves to the horns, giving birth to the modern single horn and eventually the modern double horn. The new valved design enabled the performer to make easier the transition from note to note, without the need to alter the horn’s configuration or timbre. The new design also allowed the performer to maintain a smooth and continuous sound.

As the horn became more advanced, so did the pistons and valves, allowing the performer to create a broader range of pitches and develop a more complex and harmonic sound.


The double horn

The double horn was invented in the late 19th century to improve the acoustics of the single horn. Upper pitches were challenging to perform accurately due to the proximity of overtones. In the double horn, the higher-register B-flat horn was added to the original F horn, allowing for higher passages to be played with better ease and accuracy.


Why is it called the French horn? Is it really French?

Even though it is called the “French horn,” it’s never French at all. The modern design of this horn, as you have just read, was developed by German horn makers and is most frequently manufactured in Germany. So, it’s simply a misnomer. Therefore, musicians can all agree that “horn” is a more correct (and far simpler and less complicated) term!


A list of the most notable concertos written for the French horn:

As your interest in the French horn goes further, it’s a good idea that we recommend you some of the famous French horn (or horn) concertos to listen to

  • Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major (Richard Strauss, 1883)
  • Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major, K. 495 (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1786)
  • Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major (Joseph Haydn, 1762)
  • Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra in F major, Op. 86 (Robert Schumann, 1849)
  • Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major (Richard Strauss, 1942)
  • Horn Concerto No. 2 in D major (commonly attributed to Joseph Haydn, but was possibly written by Michael Haydn, 1781)
  • Concerto for Two Horns, Strings and Continuo, RV 538 and RV 539 (Antonio Vivaldi)


Some of the famous French horn players:

  • Dennis Brain (1921 – 1957, pictured above)
  • Aubrey Brain (1893 – 1955), father of Dennis Brain
  • Philip Farkas (1914 – 1922)
  • Helen Kotas Hirsch (1916 – 2000)
  • Livia Ruth Gollancz (1920 – 2018)
  • Dale Clevenger (1940 –)
  • Froydis Ree Werke (1941 –)
  • Sarah Willis (1969 –)
  • Robert Lee Watt (1948 –)
  • David Cripps 
  • Julius Watkins (1921 – 1977)
  • Barry Tuckwell (1931 – 2020)

Design a personalized space dedicated to what you love – such as playing musical instruments like the French horn. Check out some great ideas on how to create your own hobby room!