French horn

French horn

The French horn (commonly known simply as the horn) is a brass instrument made of tubing more than 20 feet (6.1 m) long, wrapped into a coil with a flared bell. Another common name for the French horn is the double horn in F/B♭, which is what most professional bands and orchestras use. The main tubing on an F Horn is ~12–13′ long and that associated with the valves adds additional length to achieve ~20′ of tubing overall. A musician who plays the French horn is called a horn player (or less frequently, a hornist).

Pitch is controlled through the adjustment of lip tension in the mouthpiece and the operation of valves by the left hand, which route the air into extra tubing. Most horns have lever-operated rotary valves, but some, especially older horns, use piston valves (similar to a trumpet’s) and the Vienna horn uses double-piston valves, or pumpenvalves. The backward facing orientation of the bell relates to the perceived desirability to create a subdued sound, in concert situations, in contrast to the more-piercing quality of the trumpet. A horn without valves is known as a natural horn, changing pitch along the natural harmonics of the instrument (similar to a bugle). Pitch may also be controlled by the position of the hand in the bell, in effect reducing the bell’s diameter. The pitch of any note can easily be raised or lowered by adjusting the hand position in the bell.

Three valves control the flow of air in the single horn, which is tuned to F or less commonly B♭. The more common double horn has a fourth valve, usually operated by the thumb, which routes the air to one set of tubing tuned to F or another tuned to B♭. Triple horns with five valves are also made, tuned in F, B♭, and a descant E♭ or F. Also common are descant doubles, which typically provide B♭ and Alto F branches. This configuration provides a high-range horn while avoiding the additional complexity and weight of a triple.

A crucial element in playing the horn deals with the mouthpiece. Most of the time, the mouthpiece is placed in the exact center of the lips, but, because of differences in the formation of the lips and teeth of different players, some tend to play with the mouthpiece slightly off center. Although the exact side-to-side placement of the mouthpiece varies for most horn players, the up-and-down placement of the mouthpiece is generally two-thirds on the upper lip and one-third on the lower lip. Usually, in order to play higher octave notes, the pressure exerted on the lips from the mouthpiece is increased. But, although some pressure is needed, excessive pressure is not desirable. Playing with excessive pressure makes the playing of the horn sound forced and harsh as well as decreases endurance of the player by about half.


The name “French horn” is often used because the word “horn” by itself, even in the context of musical instruments, may refer to nearly any wind instrument with a flared exit for the sound. Nevertheless, the International Horn Society has recommended since 1971 that the instrument be simply called the horn, despite the ambiguity of the term.

General characteristics

The horn is the third highest sounding instrument group in the brass family, below the cornet and the trumpet. Horns are mostly tuned in B♭ or F, or a combination of both. In some traditions, novice players use a single horn in F, while others prefer the B♭ horn. The F horn is used more commonly than the B♭ horn, especially in school bands. Compared to the other brass instruments in orchestras and concert bands, it has a very different mouthpiece, but has the widest usable range – approximately four octaves, depending on the ability of the player. To produce different notes on the horn, one must do many things – the seven most important are pressing the valves, holding the appropriate amount of lip tension, raising the soft palate, positioning the tongue, lowering the larynx, blowing air into the instrument, and placing the hand in the bell. More lip tension and faster air produces higher notes. Less lip tension and slower air produces lower notes. The right hand, usually cupped at a “three o-clock” position in the bell, can lower the pitch, depending on how far into the bell the player puts it, by as much as a semitone in the instrument’s midrange. The horn plays in a higher portion of its overtone series compared to most brass instruments. Its conical bore (as opposed to the cylindrical bore of the trumpet or trombone) is largely responsible for its characteristic tone, often described as “mellow”.

Today, music for the horn is typically written in F and sounds a perfect fifth lower than written. The limitations on the range of the instrument are primarily governed by the available valve combinations for the first four octaves of the overtone series and after that by the ability of the player to control the pitch through their air supply and embouchure. The typical written ranges for the horn start at either the F♭ immediately below the bass clef or the C an octave below middle A.

The standard range starting from a low F♭ is based on the characteristics of the single horn in F. But there is a great deal of music written beyond this range, on the assumption that players are using a double horn in F/B♭. This is the standard orchestral and concert band instrument and its valve combinations allow for the production of every chromatic tone from two octaves on either side of the horn’s written middle C (sounding F immediately below the bass clef to F at the top of the treble clef). Although the upper range of the horn repertoire rarely exceeds high C (two octaves above the horn’s middle C, sounding F at the top of the treble clef), skilled players can achieve yet higher pitches.

Also important to note is that many pieces from the Baroque to Romantic periods are written in keys other than F. This practice began in the early days of the horn before valves, when the composer would indicate the key the horn should be in (horn in D, horn in C, etc.) and the part would be notated as if it were in C. For a player with a valveless (i.e. natural) horn that is a help, showing where in the harmonic series a particular note is. A player with a modern instrument must provide the final transposition to the correct pitch. For example, a written C for horn in D must be transposed down a minor third and played as an A on an F horn.


Horn with three Perinet valves

Horn with three Perinet valves

As the name indicates, humans originally used to blow on the actual horns of animals before starting to emulate them in metal. This original usage survives in the shofar, a ram’s horn, which plays an important role in Jewish religious rituals.

"How to shout and blow horns."—Facsimile of a miniature in a manuscript of the hunting manual of Gaston Phoebus (15th century)

“How to shout and blow horns.”—Facsimile of a miniature in a manuscript of the hunting manual of Gaston Phoebus (15th century)


Early metal horns were less complex than modern horns, consisting of brass tubes with a slightly flared opening (the bell) wound around a few times. These early “hunting” horns were originally played on a hunt, often while mounted, and the sound they produced was called a recheat. Change of pitch was effected entirely by the lips (the horn not being equipped with valves until the 19th century). Without valves, only the notes within the harmonic series are available. The horn was used, among other reasons, to call hounds on a hunt and created a sound most like a human voice, but carried much farther.

A hunting horn on the insignia of the Danish "Huntsmen Corps" (Jægerkorpset)

A hunting horn on the insignia of the Danish “Huntsmen Corps” (Jægerkorpset)

In orchestral settings, the horn (or, more often, pairs of horns) often invoked the idea of the hunt, or, beginning in the later baroque, determined the character of the key being played or represented nobility, royalty, or divinity.

Early horns were commonly pitched in B♭ alto, A, A♭, G, F, E, E♭, D, C, and B♭ basso. Since the only notes available were those on the harmonic series of one of those pitches, they had no ability to play in different keys. The remedy for this limitation was the use of crooks, i.e., sections of tubing of differing length that, when inserted, altered the length of the instrument, and thus its pitch.

Orchestral horns are traditionally grouped into “high” horn and “low” horn pairs. Players specialize to negotiate the unusually wide range required of the instrument. Formerly, in certain situations, composers called for two pairs of horns in two different keys. For example, a composer might call for two horns in C and two in E♭ for a piece in c minor, in order to gain harmonics of the relative major unavailable on the C horns. Eventually, two pairs of horns became the standard, and from this tradition of two independent pairs, each with its own “high” and “low” horn, came the modern convention of writing the 1st and 3rd parts above 2nd and 4th.

In the mid-18th century, horn players began to insert the right hand into the bell to change the length of the instrument, adjusting the tuning up to the distance between two adjacent harmonics depending on how much of the opening was covered. This technique, known as hand-stopping, is generally credited to Anton Joseph Hampel around 1750, and was refined and carried to much of Europe by the influential Giovanni Punto. This offered more possibilities for playing notes not on the harmonic series. By the early classical period, the horn had become an instrument capable of much melodic playing. A notable example of this are the four Mozart Horn Concerti and Concert Rondo (K. 412, 417, 477, 495, 371), wherein melodic chromatic tones are used, owing to the growing prevalence of hand-stopping and other newly emerging techniques.

Around 1815 the use of pistons (later rotary valves) was introduced, initially to overcome problems associated with changing crooks during a performance. Valves’ unreliability, musical taste, and players’ distrust, among other reasons, slowed their adoption into mainstream. Many traditional conservatories and players refused to use them at first, claiming that the valveless horn, or natural horn, was a better instrument. Some musicians, specializing in period instruments, still use a natural horn when playing in original performance styles, seeking to recapture the sound and tenor in which an older piece was written.

The use of valves, however, opened up a great deal more flexibility in playing in different keys; in effect, the horn became an entirely different instrument, fully chromatic for the first time. Valves were originally used primarily as a means to play in different keys without crooks, not for harmonic playing. That is reflected in compositions for horns, which only began to include chromatic passages in the late 19th century. When valves were invented, generally, the French made smaller horns with piston valves and the Germans made larger horns with rotary valves.

In English, the term “French horn” is often used because the word “horn” by itself, even in the context of musical instruments, may refer to nearly any wind instrument with a flared exit for the sound. Nevertheless, the International Horn Society has recommended since 1971 that the instrument be simply called the horn, despite the ambiguity of the term.

Types of horns

Horns may be classified in single horn, double horn, compensating double horn, and triple horn as well as the versatility of detachable bells.

Single horn

Single horns use a single set of tubes connected to the valves. This allows for simplicity of use and a much lighter weight. They are usually in the keys of F or B♭, although many F horns have longer slides to tune them to E♭, and almost all B♭ horns have a valve to put them in the key of A. The problem with single horns is the inevitable choice between accuracy or tone – while the F horn has the “typical” horn sound, above third-space C accuracy is concern for the majority of players because, by its nature, one plays high in the horn’s harmonic series where the overtones are closer together. This led to the development of the B♭ horn, which, although easier to play accurately, has a less desirable sound in the mid and especially the low register where it is not able to play all of the notes. The solution has been the development of the double horn, which combines the two into one horn with a single lead pipe and bell. Both main types of single horns are still used today as student models because they are cheaper and lighter than double horns. In addition, the single B♭ horns are sometimes used in solo and chamber performances and the single F survives orchestrally as the Vienna horn. Additionally, single F alto and B♭ alto descants are used in the performance of some baroque horn concertos and F, B♭ and F alto singles are occasionally used by jazz performers.

Dennis Brain’s benchmark recordings of the Mozart Horn Concerti were made on a single B♭ instrument by Gebr. Alexander, now on display at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Double horn

The valves of a Conn 6D double horn. The 3 lever keys (above the large valves) can be depressed toward the large outer tube. The thumb key (near the left-most valve) moves inward toward the 3 finger keys.

The valves of a Conn 6D double horn. The 3 lever keys (above the large valves) can be depressed toward the large outer tube. The thumb key (near the left-most valve) moves inward toward the 3 finger keys.

Despite the introduction of valves, the single F horn proved difficult for use in the highest range, where the partials grew closer and closer, making accuracy a great challenge. An early solution was simply to use a horn of higher pitch—usually B♭. The use of the F versus the B♭ horn was a hotbed of debate between horn players of the late 19th century, until the German horn maker Ed. Kruspe (namesake of his family’s brass instrument firm) produced a prototype of the “double horn” in 1897.

The double horn also combines two instruments into a single frame: the original horn in F, and a second, higher horn keyed in B♭. By using a fourth valve (usually operated by the thumb), the horn player can quickly switch from the deep, warm tones of the F horn to the higher, brighter tones of the B♭ horn. The two sets of tones are commonly called “sides” of the horn. Using the fourth valve not only changes the basic length (and thus the harmonic series and pitch) of the instrument, it also causes the three main valves to use proportionate slide lengths.

In the USA, the two most common styles (“wraps”) of double horns are named Kruspe and Geyer/Knopf, after the first instrument makers who developed and standardized them. The Kruspe wrap locates the B♭ change valve above the first valve, near the thumb. The Geyer wrap has the change valve behind the third valve, near the little finger (although the valve’s trigger is still played with the thumb). In effect, the air flows in a completely different direction on the other model. Kruspe wrap horns tend to be larger in the bell throat than the Geyer wrap horns. Typically, Kruspe models are constructed from nickel silver or German Silver, while Geyer horns tend to be of yellow brass. Both models have their own strengths and weaknesses, and while the choice of instrument is very personal, an orchestral horn section is usually found to have either one or the other, owing to the differences in tone color, response, and projection of the two different styles.

In Europe the most popular horns are arguably those made by Gebr. Alexander, of Mainz (particularly the Alexander 103), and those made by Paxman in London. In Germany and the Benelux countries, the Alex. 103 is extremely popular. These horns do not fit strictly into the Kruspe or Knopf camps, but have features of both. Alexander prefers the traditional medium bell size, which they have produced for many years, whereas Paxman do offer their models in a range of bell throat sizes. In the United States, the Conn 8D, a mass-produced instrument based on the Kruspe design, has been extremely popular in many areas (New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia). Since roughly the early 1990s, however, for reasons ranging from changing tastes to a general dislike of Conn’s newer 8Ds, orchestras have been moving away from the popular Conn 8D. Geyer model horns (by Carl Geyer, Karl Hill, Keith Berg, Steve Lewis, Jerry Lechniuk, Dan Rauch, and Ricco-Kuhn) are used in other areas (San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Houston). The CF Schmidt double, with its unique piston change valve, is occasionally found in sections playing Geyer/Knopf model equipment.

Compensating double horn

The first design of the double horn did not have a separate set of slides pitched in F. Rather, the main key of the horn was B♭ (the preference of German horn players) and it could be played in F by directing air through the B♭ slides, an F extension, and another set of smaller slides. This “compensated” for the longer length of the F slides, producing a horn now called the compensating double. It was, and still is, widely used by European horn players because of its light weight and ease of playing, especially in the high register.

Triple horn

This relatively new design was created to afford the player even more security in the high register. It employs not only the F and B♭ horns, but also a third, descant horn. This descant horn is usually pitched an octave above the F horn, though it can be alternatively pitched in E♭. It is activated through the use of a second thumb valve. The triple horn was met with considerable resistance when it first appeared. Horn players were reluctant to spend far more money for a triple horn than they would for a double horn, and a feeling that using a triple horn to help with the high register was “cheating” was rampant among prominent horn players. Also, the horns were much heavier than the average double horn. Players noted that their arms became fatigued much faster. Moreover, the combination of three different horns creates issues with sonority, because the piping shared among all three sides (that is, the lead pipe and bell) are mathematically disproportional to two or all three horn lengths. Horn makers have had to make concessions to “even out” the sound between all three, often to the loss of sound quality of each side or entire ranges of the instrument. Advances in horn production are gradually eliminating these drawbacks, and the triple horn is gaining popularity. They are rarely available in anything lower than professional quality. Like double horns, triple horns can come in both full and compensating wraps. Today they are found being played in many professional orchestras, although the substantial cost difference between double and triple horns limits their usage elsewhere.

Detachable bell

The horn, although not large, is awkward in its shape and does not lend itself well to transport, especially on commercial airlines. To compensate, horn makers can make the bell detachable; this allows for smaller and more manageable horn cases. A detachable bell also allows the use of different bells on the same horn, somewhat alleviating the need for multiple horns for different styles.


The Sotone is a model of horn made by the British firm Boosey and Hawkes during the late 19th and early 20th century. It is based on the natural horn, and plays a good deal closer to the way a natural horn does than a conventional French horn.[citation needed]

Related horns

The variety in horn history necessitates consideration of the natural horn, vienna horn, mellophone, marching horn, and Wagner tuba.

Natural horn

A natural horn has no valves, but can be tuned to a different key by inserting different tubing, as during a rest period.

A natural horn has no valves, but can be tuned to a different key by inserting different tubing, as during a rest period.

The natural horn is the ancestor of the modern horn. It is essentially descended from hunting horns, with its pitch controlled by air speed, aperture (opening of the lips through which air passes) and the use of the right hand moving in and out of the bell. Today it is played as a period instrument. The natural horn can only play from a single harmonic series at a time because there is only one length of tubing available to the horn player. A proficient player can indeed alter the pitch by partially muting the bell with the right hand, thus enabling the player to reach some notes that are not part of the instrument’s natural harmonic series – of course this technique also affects the quality of the tone. The player has a choice of key by using crooks to change the length of tubing.’

Vienna horn

Vienna horn

Vienna horn

The Vienna horn is a special horn used primarily in Vienna, Austria. Instead of using rotary valves or piston valves, it uses the Pumpenvalve (or Vienna Valve), which is a double-piston operating inside the valve slides, and usually situated on the opposite side of the corpus from the player’s left hand, and operated by a long pushrod. Unlike the modern horn, which has grown considerably larger internally (for a bigger, broader, and louder tone), and considerably heavier (with the addition of valves and tubing in the case of the double horn) the Vienna horn very closely mimics the size and weight of the natural horn, (although the valves do add some weight, they are lighter than rotary valves) even using crooks in the front of the horn, between the mouthpiece and the instrument. Although instead of the full range of keys, Vienna horn players usually use an F crook and it is looked down upon to use others, though switching to an A or B♭ crook for higher pitched music does happen on occasion. Vienna horns are often used with funnel shaped mouthpieces similar to those used on the natural horn, with very little (if any) backbore and a very thin rim. The Viennese horn requires very specialized technique and can be quite challenging to play, even for accomplished players of modern horns. The Vienna horn has a warmer, softer sound than the modern horn. Its pumpen-valves facilitate a continuous transition between notes (glissando); conversely, a more precise operating of the valves is required to avoid notes that sound out of tune.


Two instruments are called a mellophone. The first is an instrument shaped somewhat like a horn, in that it is formed in a circle. It has piston valves and is played with the right hand on the valves. Manufacturing of this instrument sharply decreased in the middle of the twentieth century, and this mellophone (or mellophonium) rarely appears today. Amati still makes circular mellophoniums.[13][14][15] The second instrument is used in modern brass bands and marching bands, and is more accurately called a “marching mellophone” or mellophone. A derivative of the F alto horn, it is keyed in F. It is shaped like a flugelhorn, with piston valves played with the right hand and a forward-pointing bell. These horns are generally considered better marching instruments than regular horns because their position is more stable on the mouth, they project better, and they weigh less. It is primarily used as the middle voice of drum and bugle corps. Though they are usually played with a V-cup cornet-like mouthpiece, their range overlaps the common playing range of the horn. This mouthpiece switch makes the mellophone louder, less mellow, and more brassy and brilliant, making it more appropriate for marching bands. Often now with the use of converters, traditional conical horn mouthpieces are used to achieve the more mellow sound of a horn to make the marching band sound more like a concert band.

As they are pitched in F or G and their range overlaps that of the horn, mellophones can be used in place of the horn in brass and marching band settings. Mellophones are, however, sometimes unpopular with horn players because the mouthpiece change can be difficult and requires a different embouchure. Mouthpiece adapters are available so that a horn mouthpiece can fit into the mellophone lead pipe, but this does not compensate for the many differences that a horn player must adapt to. The bore is generally cylindrical as opposed to the more conical horn; thus, the “feel” of the mellophone can be foreign to a horn player. Another unfamiliar aspect of the mellophone is that it is designed to be played with the right hand instead of the left (although it can be played with the left). Intonation can also be an issue when playing the mellophone.

In orchestral or concert band settings, regular concert horns are normally preferred to mellophones because of their tone, which blends better with woodwinds and strings, and their greater intonational subtlety—since the player can adjust the tuning by hand. For these reasons, mellophones are played more usually in marching bands and brass band ensembles, occasionally in jazz bands, and almost never in orchestral or concert band settings.

While horn players may be asked to play the mellophone, it is unlikely that the instrument was ever intended as a substitute for the horn, mainly because of the fundamental differences described.[16] As an instrument it compromises between the ability to sound like a horn, while being used like a trumpet or flugelhorn, a tradeoff that sacrifices acoustic properties for ergonomics.

Marching horn

The marching horn is quite similar to the mellophone in shape and appearance, but is pitched in the key of B♭ (the same as the B♭ side of a regular double horn). It is also available in F alto (one octave above the F side of a regular double horn). The marching horn is also normally played with a horn mouthpiece (unlike the mellophone, which needs an adapter to fit the horn mouthpiece). These instruments are primarily used in marching bands so that the sound comes from a forward-facing bell, as dissipation of the sound from the backward-facing bell becomes a concern in open-air environments. Many college marching bands and drum corps, however, use mellophones instead, which, with many marching bands, better balance the tone of the other brass instruments; additionally, mellophones require less special training of trumpet players, who considerably outnumber horn players.

Wagner tuba

The Wagner tuba is a rare brass instrument that is essentially a horn modified to have a larger bell throat and a vertical bell. Despite its name, it is generally not considered part of the tuba family. Invented for Richard Wagner specifically for his work Der Ring des Nibelungen, it has since been written for by various other composers, including Bruckner, Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. It uses a horn mouthpiece and is available as a single tuba in B♭ or F, or, more recently, as a double tuba similar to the double horn. Its common range is similar to that of the euphonium, but its possible range is the same as that of the horn, extending from low F♭, below the bass clef staff to high C above the treble staff when read in F. These low pedals are substantially easier to play on the Wagner tuba than on the horn. Wagner viewed the regular horn as a woodwind rather than a brass instrument, evidenced by his placing of the horn parts in his orchestral scores in the woodwind group and not in their usual place above the trumpets in the brass section.


Paxman horns

Paxman horns

Discussion of the repertoire of horns must recognize the different needs of orchestras and concert bands in contrast to marching bands, as above, but also the use of horns in a wide variety of music, including chamber music and jazz.

Orchestra and concert band
The horn is most often used as an orchestral and concert band instrument, with its singular tone being employed by composers to achieve specific effects. Leopold Mozart, for example, used horns to signify the hunt, as in his Jagdsinfonie (hunting symphony). Once the technique of hand-stopping had been developed, allowing fully chromatic playing, composers began to write seriously for the horn. Telemann wrote much for the horn, and it features prominently in the work of Handel and in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 1. Gustav Mahler made great use of the horn’s uniquely haunting and distant sound in his symphonies, notably the famous Nachtmusik (serenade) section of his Symphony No. 7.

Many composers have written works that have become favorites in the horn repertoire. These includes Poulenc (Elegie) and Saint-Saëns (Morceau de Concert for horn and orchestra, op. 94 and Romance, op. 36). Others, particularly Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose friend Joseph Leutgeb was a noted horn player, wrote extensively for the instrument, including concerti and other solo works. Mozart’s A Musical Joke satirizes the limitations of contemporary horn playing, including the risk of selecting the wrong crook by mistake. By the end of the 18th Century the horn was sufficiently established as a solo instrument that the horn player Giovanni Punto became an international celebrity, touring Europe and inspiring works by composers as significant as Beethoven.

The development of the valve horn was exploited by romantic composers such as Bruckner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss, whose father was a well-known professional horn player. Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks contains one of the best known horn solos from this period, relying on the chromatic facility of the valved horn. Schumann’s Konzertstuck for Four Horns and Orchestra is a notable three-movement work. Brahms had a lifelong love-affair with the instrument, with many prominently featured parts throughout his four symphonies. Unlike most of his contemporaries Brahms composed for the older natural (valveless) horn, feeling it to be superior in tone to the valved instrument. However players today typically play Brahms on modern valved instruments.

Horn music in Britain had a renaissance in the mid-20th century when Dennis Brain inspired works such as Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and other works from contemporary composers such as Michael Tippett, who stretches horn ensemble playing to its technical limits in his Sonata for Four Horns. Peter Maxwell Davies was commissioned by 50 amateur and professional UK horn players to write a horn piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brain’s death.

Much of the horn repertoire is scored as featured parts for the orchestral players, especially the principal horn. It is common for leading horn players to move from principal positions in the great orchestras to distinguished solo careers, a path followed by Brain and many since.

Because of the heroic quality of the horn’s sound, it is often used in film music. Bernard Herrmann’s score for On Dangerous Ground, however, uses four horns (and anvils) during a chase sequence to suggest a wild state of mind.

Chamber music

There is an abundance of chamber music repertoire for horn. It is a standard member of the wind quintet and brass quintet, and often appears in other configurations, such as Brahms’ “Horn Trio” for violin, horn and piano. Also, the horn can be used by itself in a horn ensemble or “horn choir”. The horn choir is especially practical because the extended range of the horn provides the composer or arranger with more possibilities, registerally, sonically, and contrapuntally.

Orchestral and concert band horns

A horn section in a military concert band

A horn section in a military concert band

A classical orchestra usually contained two horns. Typically, the 1st horn played a high part and the 2nd horn played a low part. Composers from Beethoven onwards commonly used four horns. Here, the 1st and 2nd horns played as a pair (1st horn being high, 2nd horn being low), and the 3rd and 4th horns played as another pair (3rd horn being high, 4th horn being low). Music written for the modern horn follows a similar pattern with 1st and 3rd horns being high and 2nd and 4th horns being low.

This configuration serves multiple purposes. It is easier to play high when the adjacent player is playing low and vice versa. Pairing makes it easier to write for horns, as the 3rd and 4th horns can take over from the 1st and 2nd horns, or play contrasting material. Horn music was first written for the natural horn, which could only easily play certain notes. This required that the 1st and 2nd horns be in a different key from the 3rd and 4th horns, so that more notes could be played. For example, if the piece is in C minor, the 1st and 2nd horns might be in C, the tonic major key, which could get most of the notes, and the 3rd and 4th horns might be in E♭, the relative major key, to fill in the gaps.

Many orchestral horn sections today also have an assistant[18] who doubles the 1st horn part for selected passages, joining in loud parts, playing instead of the principal if there is a 1st horn solo approaching, or alternating with the principal if the part is tiring to play. Often the assistant is asked to play a passage after resting a long time. Also, he or she may be asked to enter in the middle of a passage, exactly matching the sound, articulation, and overall interpretation of the principal. The assistant is occasionally referred to as a bumper.

Some pieces (like Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Holst’s The Planets and Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote) have called for 6 horns, or as many as 20 horns, as found in Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Here the pairing remains the same, with the odd horns being high parts and the even horns being low parts. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring calls for 8 horns.

A modern concert band horn section generally has between four and six horns.

In jazz

The horn has been rarely used in jazz music. Notable exponents, however, include composer/arranger Gil Evans who included the horn as an ensemble instrument from the 1940s, first in Claude Thornhill’s groups, and later with the pioneering cool jazz nonet led by trumpeter Miles Davis, and in many other projects that sometimes also featured Davis, as well as Don Ellis, a trumpet player from Stan Kenton’s jazz band. Notable works of Ellis’ jazz horn include “Strawberry Soup” and other songs on the album Tears of Joy. Notable improvising horn players in jazz include Julius Watkins, Willie Ruff, John Graas, David Amram, John Clark, Vincent Chancey, Mark Taylor, Giovanni Hoffer, Arkady Shilkloper, Adam Unsworth, and Tom Varner.

Notable horn players

Gerd Seifert – 1956 winner of the ARD International Music Competition and former principal horn in Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Hermann Baumann – 1964 winner of the ARD International Music Competition and former principal horn in various orchestras, including the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Nobert Hauptmann – 1969 winner of the ARD International Music Competition and former principal horn in Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Radek Baborak – Famous Czech horn player, former principal horn in Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. 1994 winner of the ARD International Music Competition, Winner of the Concertino Praga in 1988 and 1990, holder of a Grammy Award (1995).
Dennis Brain – former principal horn of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia, with whom Herbert von Karajan made well-known recordings of Mozart’s horn concertos.
John Cerminaro – current principal horn of the Seattle Symphony and former principal horn of the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Dale Clevenger – former principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1966–2013).
Vincent DeRosa – former principal horn for a number of Hollywood studios and composers including John Williams.
Richard Dunbar – a player of the French horn, playing in the free jazz scene.
Philip Farkas – former principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, developer of the Holton-Farkas horn and author of several books on horn and brass playing.
Douglas Hill – former principal horn of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. notable teacher and composer
Philip Myers – principal horn of the New York Philharmonic since 1980.
Jeff Nelsen – Canadian Brass hornist since 2000 and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music horn faculty since 2006.
Giovanni Punto – horn virtuoso and hand-stopping pioneer, after whom the International Horn Society’s annual horn playing award is named. He was also a violinist, concertmaster and composer.
David Pyatt – winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1988 and current principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Gunther Schuller – former principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and played with Miles Davis.
Barry Tuckwell – former principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra and author of several books on horn playing.
Radovan Vlatkovic – 1983 winner of the ARD International Music Competition, former principal horn and soloist of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and professor at the Mozarteum University of Salzburg.
William VerMeulen – Internationally renown horn soloist and former principal horn of Honolulu Symphony Orchestra current principal Horn of the Houston Symphony Orchestra and professor at Rice University reputed to have the highest placement rating of his students in American Orchestras.
Stefan Dohr – current principal horn, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Stefan de Leval Jezierski – longest serving horn, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

People who are more notable for their other achievements, but also play the horn, include actors Ewan McGregor and David Ogden Stiers, comedian and television host Jon Stewart, journalist Chuck Todd, The Who bassist and singer John Entwistle, and rapper and record producer B.o.B.