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Classical 101 | Is It A French Horn or Just A Horn?

By Michael Vincent on December 3, 2015


There is a meme going around that described the colloquial termed “French Horn”, (“Horn” by others)  as “an instrument of mental torture designed to embarrass the user as much as possible while collecting as much spit as possible.” While this might be true, especially the part about collecting spit, the horn has always been a bit of a misunderstood instrument. Firstly the name, “French Horn” is a problem, not only because the modern horn is not French, but also because it’s actually German.

While the type of German horn used in most orchestras around the world is known simply as a “horn” in all but three countries (U.S., Britain, and Canada), it has somehow become attributed to the French, who had little to do with it. Even in France it’s called a cor. To make matters worse, few can agree how it became known as French Horn at all. It would have made just as much sense to call it Yugoslavian horn.

It’s time we get to the bottom of this.

A Little History

To understand the etymology of the term “French horn” we need to understand the history of the instrument for context. Ever since the woolly mammoth roamed the earth, animal horns have been used by humans as signaling instruments. They weren’t necessarily used for music, but eventually, after centuries of using animal horns, humans realized they could fashion them out of wood and metal, and used them for things like rallying troops for war and intimidating the enemy.

In the 17th century hunting became a popular sport for the nobility and they began using horns during game hunting. Its physical design began to change from a straight cone to curved shapes that extended the length of the tube, allowing for a wider range of pitches.

They developed four different types of horns: Le grand cor (big horn); le cor qui n’a qu’un seul tour (horn with one turn); cor à plusieurs (horn with many turns); le huchet (calling horn).

Composers really liked their sound and started using them in the concert hall as special effects to depict hunting. Jean-Baptiste Lully was one of the first to do this in his 1664 Ballet. At this time, horns were not capable of playing reliably. But this was about to change when the German Count Franz Anton von Sporck (and hunter and arts patron) brought some horns from France back to Bohemia. The Germans started to get better at playing them.


As the playing became more reliable for musical performances, Baroque composers began writing parts for them. At this time horns could only play in certain keys, thus requiring many different horns to play a single piece of music. It was difficult and expensive.

By 1700, a virtuoso horn player named Anton Hampel developed a way to use a single horn to play music in different keys, by using his hand inside the bell of the instrument, and the use of individual crooks (see image below). The Classical era Horn was born, and composers Mozart and Haydn welcomed it in their works. You can hear Mozart’s enthusiasm for it in his famous horn concerti.

Natural horn with crooks for playing in different keys.
Natural horn with crooks for playing in different keys.

In the early 1800’s a major advancement was made in Germany by Heinrich Stölzel. He figured out a way to change the length of tubes in a horn by using pistons, and later rotary valves, which eliminated the need for cumbersome mouthpiece crooks. This new valve-fitted horn was to become the “German Horn”, which eventually became known simply as the “Horn” or “Horn in F.” In Germany, they call them “Waldhorn” (Forrest Horn) or “Horn”.

The question is, how did it become known as the “French Horn” in Canada, the U.S. and Britain?

Hypothesis A

One possibility is that the term “French Horn” may originate from Count Franz Anton von Sporck, who originally brought French hunting horns with him back to Germany. Because these were the ones used in France, some may have described them as “French Horns”. The term may have been brought to Britain, and then onto the new world of Canada and the U.S. by those who used the national distinction.

Hypothesis B

British and French Hunting Horns are different sizes, and when it began being used as a musical instrument in Britain, the size reminded them of the larger French hunting horns. Colloquially they liked to call them “French Horns”, rather than German Horns, which they were.

Hypothesis C

In the late 17th century, the best horns were made in France. They created the famous circular shape of the instrument. The German makers contributed the crooks that enabled them to be played in more keys. In England, around 1730, the instruments were becoming popular and were distinguished between the simple hunting horns and the circular hoop-shaped newer ones using the national designators “French” and “German”.


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While some Horn players continue to cringe when people call it a “French Horn”, it is an interesting part of the instrument’s history and nothing to denigrate.

The controversy surrounding the proper name started in 1971, when the International Horn Society, made a point of adding the distinction as a rather surly slogan:

The International Horn Society recommends that HORN be recognized as the correct name for our instrument in the English language. [From the Minutes of the First General Meeting, June 15, 1971, Tallahassee, Florida USA]”

The recommendation was used up until a few years ago and figured prominently on the IHS website and print publications.



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Michael Vincent
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