The English Horn & French Horn

Two of the most interesting and yet disparate, members of the symphony orchestra, are indisputably the English horn and the French horn. Some people may think they are somehow related and from the same family of instruments – not!

About the only thing they have in common is, they are both aerophones, meaning they both produce sound by the vibration of air. In truth, they are different as night and day. The English horn is a woodwind instrument and the French horn is a brass instrument.

English Horn

The English horn has a rather disputed history. The name itself is a misnomer as the instrument is not of English origin, nor is it a horn in the strictest sense. In French the instrument is known as Cor anglais, a corruption of Cor angle, meaning bent horn. The early English horns were bent in the middle. Later they were made straight, like their cousin the oboe. The present-day straight horn was made by Frenchman, Henri Brod in 1839. Actually the English horn is an alto oboe or lower pitched oboe.

Musicologists are unsure why it is called English horn. By the 1830’s the English horn was an accepted member of the orchestra. There are generally three oboe players in an orchestra and one of the three usually plays English horn.

The English horn is made of wood with a slightly conical bore and a pear-shaped bell on the end. It is longer than the oboe, hence it has a lower pitch. It is played with a double reed – two thin cane blades tightly bound together by a string. The reed is on a bent metal, small hollow tube, attached to the top of the instrument. In the double reed instruments the reed is the mouthpiece. The fingering and key work is similar to the oboe.

The English horn is a transposing instrument that sounds a fifth lower than written. It is customarily written as a solo instrument; its tone is rather soft, somewhat melancholy with an expressive timbre (quality of sound). It can express music of sorrow, sadness and solitude very well.

Famous English horn passages in the following works are:  Dvorak, Symphony in E Minor from The New World Symphony; Franck, Symphony in D Minor; Wagner, Tristan and Isolde Shepherds Tune; Sibelias, Swan of Tuonela; Berlioz, Roman Carnival Overture and Vaughan-Williams, London Symphony.

English horn parts are also written for concert band scores.

French Horn

This noble sounding horn has the distinction of being referred to by musicians as “The Horn.”  It is a lip-vibrating wind instrument belonging to the brass family.       The horn is a beautiful and expressive instrument when well played. It has a very wide range, the widest of any brass instrument, with a rich, warm elegant sound that composers have exploited over the years.      

The ancient ancestors of this instrument were actually made of animal horns with their characteristically curved shape. Other materials used were tusks; wood; bamboo; ivory and metal. Early forms of the modern instrument were hunting horns. Long before its admittance into the orchestra it was used for calls to the hunt. Hunting horns had no valves or crooks (brass tubing of a given length). The French called them Cor-de-chasse (horn of the chase). The horn was also commonly used in the military for signaling and other calls to battle. Ceremonial use was also one of its functions.

Modern style horns before Beethoven’s time were termed natural horns. This means the horns had a given length of tubing and consequently had one harmonic series possible. A harmonic series is a series of notes or overtones that vibrate above a fundamental note or pedal tone. Different lengths of tubing have a different harmonic series therefore the early natural horns had different lengths of tubing to produce different sets of harmonics. This was obviously a restriction on the composer and the player. If the key of a piece changed the player would have to change horns to accommodate the new key. This all changed when it was possible to add length to the instrument by changing the length of the tubing or pipe. By 1718 it was possible to do this by adding a crook to the natural horn. This was a huge step forward and much more practical for the player. It was much easier to change crooks than to change horns.

Construction of modern-day horns have a narrow conical bore that is wound into a spiral ending in a large flaring bell. It has a funnel-shaped mouthpiece. An important invention that revolutionized both horn playing and composers writing was the work of Bluhnel in Silesia (Prussia) and Stolzel in Berlin (Germany). They invented the valve around 1815.

Valves open sections of tubing that change the length of pipe both singly and in combination. There are three valves on the French horn. This enables the horn to execute a complete chromatic scale forever freeing it from the confines of a single harmonic series. Prior to 1750, horns had a rather coarse and sometimes vulgar tone, somewhat like early trumpets. After 1750 they had a more mellow timbre.

The horn is a transposing instrument that is written a fifth higher than it sounds. Playing technique includes a method of placing the hand in the bell, called stopping. Experienced players use this technique to not only change the pitch, usually by a semitone (half step) but also change the timbre of the tone produced.

The modern orchestra has four horns, sometimes five, the fifth is an assistant first horn. Composers write four parts from high to low. Interestingly, the higher parts are played by first and third horns and lower parts are played by second and fourth horns.  They dovetail.

Some famous horn passages occur in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the Andante movement;  Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from Midsummer’s Night Dream; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Trio of the Third Movement and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Prelude to Act III.

Both the English horn and the French horn, although not related, are valuable members of bands and orchestras and are not to be treated lightly. If you are considering learning to play either instrument be aware that they are expensive and require patience and long hours of practice.

Of the wind instruments the French horn is probably the hardest to play well. One needs to have a keen ear for pitch as there are many notes available with each fingering. Many horn players start on trumpet and then transfer to horn.

Rarely does one start out on the English horn as players almost always begin on the oboe. After learning it well, they then add the English horn. Because it becomes very costly to buy two expensive instruments; the player needs to be very dedicated and serious about investing in an oboe and an English horn.

Choosing these instruments will always put you in demand for most bands and orchestras. The satisfaction gained from mastering these elegant instruments will provide lifelong pleasure and pride for the musician.

Bob Williams, French horn player in the Danville Community Band and Director of the Pleasanton Community Concert Band, kindly contributed to this article.     

 Please submit your questions and comments to Visit our website at for up-to-date information about the Danville Community Band.


The Case for Christ

I always find it interesting that when a catastrophe hits we are inundated by prayers.  I couldn’t believe the first few days after 9/11; the church pews were full of Americans praying for the victims, their families, and the country.  You can call it fear, concern or just getting back to our primarily-Christian roots, but it happens.  Even our recent hurricanes and wild fires had Facebook and Twitter humming with prayers for the victims. 

I am wondering if the answer to these phenomena could be found in the movie, The Case for Christ. Lee Strobel wrote the best-selling book of the same name, and this story is his story, well, his and his wife, Leslie.

Lee (Mike Vogel) graduated from the University of Missouri and went on to receive a Masters of Studies in Law at Yale Law School…no lightweight.  As an award winning journalist, he worked for the Chicago Tribune. He had “arrived,” or was well on his way as an investigative journalist.

After Leslie (Erika Christensen) became a Christian, Lee almost walked away from their marriage. Instead, he was challenged to not prove her belief right but to prove her wrong. This investigative journalist and self-proclaimed atheist decided he would do what he was trained to do: disprove the existence of God.

He attacked this goal with the fervor of the pit bull investigator that he was. He left no stone unturned; no expert or worthy opponent not interviewed.  

Lee has since written more than twenty best sellers and yes, he is on staff at the megachurch where Leslie found God when it was still holding services without even a building of their own in which to worship.They are happily married and Lee, as you might have guessed, is a believer.

Don’t stop here!

The United States of America, as well as most European countries was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Our very system of government reflects the depth of those very beliefs, despite some recent erosion. Most of us, when we reflect back, had parents or grandparents who were “believers.” We can get all uppity and say that we’ve become more enlightened, but come on, really?  It’s more likely that we’ve become too busy and became detached from the question.

I met a lovely young woman the other day who shared that her father had been a pastor but her husband didn’t like to go to church so they didn’t attend as a family. She also shared that both of her teenagers not only attended a church youth group, but two different church youth groups—voluntarily. Hmmm.

I not only suggest that God is real but that Christ is real, and challenge you to watch The Case for Christ.  Remember, the movie and the book it was based upon was written from the vantage point of an atheist—a place you might recognize. You might be surprised at which side of that argument you find yourself on. At the very least, it might clarify the argument in your head, when you do take the time to think about it.

As always, I welcome your comments or questions at