Anatomy of the Double French Horn

The name of the french horn is actually a misnomer: in fact, the horn is a German innovation. With roots in the earliest and humblest of monotone hunting horns, today's double french horn is now an engineering marvel combining almost twenty feet of interwoven brass tubing and slides.

Some players find it is good practice to develop the foundations of technique and tone on a single french horn before stepping up to a double. It is lighter than the double french horn and somewhat easier to play. However, as the player becomes more advanced, it is likely that they will need to graduate to a double horn, which is the standard professional instrument.

The double horn is actually two instruments fit snugly into a single frame: the original single horn keyed in F, and a second, higher horn keyed in Bb. Opening the fourth rotary valve on this type of horn accesses the second sides higher tone, plus it adjusts the three main valves into proportionate slide lengths.

If you know how to make a beautiful sound on a double french horn, then you might already know all the parts and pieces of a modern double horn listed below. Combined into one, the double french horn produces a sound that is like no other instrument in the orchestra.

To be the best you can be at your double horn playing, you should know all the common names of the parts of the horn and what function they perform. You should also know how individual double french horn parts can be removed and replaced, how horn parts should be serviced and maintained and what to do if you think a part of your double horn is damaged or broken.

Let's learn about the anatomy of a typical double french horn from end to end. If you'd like to jump ahead, use the anatomy chart above to click a part you'd like to read about first.



The bell amplifies and scatters the sound waves powerfully out to the listeners.

The double french horn's bell is designed to optimize the tone production of the horn. It shapes and scatters the sound waves as they emerge at last from the instrument. The bell is hammered into a large expanse of beautifully polished metal: the perfect complement to the french horn's gorgeous tone.

The bell has been experimented with rigorously over the centuries to enhance its contribution to tone, volume and clarity, resulting in a fairly standard shape now seen on most horns. When describing horn size, instrument makers often use the term "flare" instead.

When playing the double french horn, players generally place their hand lightly into the bell. This has both an acoustic and a practical purpose. Historically, before the french horn had evolved into a completely chromatic instrument, players covered the bell with their hands to produce certain tones of the scale in a technique known as "stopping." While impressive, the technique was extremely difficult to perform consistently and well. The invention of valves in the 1800s brought a true chromatic scale to the horn which made this practice unnecessary.

The tone of the double french horn is partially owed to the materials that were used to make the bell and other parts. Double french horns made of brass that have been plated with gold are often described as having a round tone while double french horns made of brass plated with silver tend to sound brighter and sharper in tone.

Polish gently with a soft cloth to remove unsightly dirt and fingerprints. Remember that the bell scratches and dents with ease if mishandled. Removing these blemishes can be expensive or impossible, so you should never put the double french horn down on the ground, even on a carpet. Store it in its case when not in use.

Touching the bell with bare hands should be avoided. Oil and moisture from your hands can and will most certainly break down the finish of the double french horn over time if you do not remove it promptly.

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The finger hook provides a stable place for the player's hand to grip the horn and use the valve keys.

The finger hook is a sturdy metal hook located on top of the double french horn just above the valves. Using the finger hook, the player can hold the instrument steadily in one hand while still using that hand to depress the valves. Some models have adjustable finger hooks to accomodate different hand sizes.

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The leadpipe is a length of metal tubing that runs from the mouthpiece to the first tuning slide.

The leadpipe is a long metal tube that extends all the way from the mouthpiece receiver to the main tuning slide. It is important to treat your french horn with care when handing it to be sure accidental bumps don't leave dents in this leadpipe. The precise shape of the horn was engineered by acoustic experts over centuries, so you will find that even a small change to the shape of the french horn lead pipe could possibly introduce sonic impurities to its pure tone.

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The main tuning slides are used to adjust the overall pitch of each side of the double horn.

The main tuning slides are c-shaped metal tubes that can be moved in and out to finely adjust the tuning of the instrument. The further out the slide is pulled, the lower the tone the double french horn will produce. There are two on the double french horn: one for the Bb side and one for the F side.

A small water key is usually found on the side of the smaller tuning slide through which the player can blow excess moisture out of the double french horn.

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The horn's mouthpiece directs the flow of air and vibration from the player into the horn.

The french horn mouthpiece is a small, funnel-shaped metal cup that feeds into a small metal tube. A player can choose from a variety of mouthpiece sizes and materials that complement their own playing style and desired range. The most common material for mouthpieces is brass.

To produce a sound, the player generates a buzzing sound with the lips inside the mouthpiece. The sound waves this creates resonate sympathetically with the horn's tubing and valve slides and generate all the notes of the chromatic scale. This might seem like a simple thing now, but it took many years to develop workable, well-intonated horns that could accomplish this engineering feat.

The mouthpiece is removable and typically gets cleaned lightly after every use. It is a good practice to run water through it, rub it lightly with a mouthpiece brush and store it separately from the double french horn in the case.

If your mouthpiece has been dropped, check it to be sure that it hasn't developed any marks or nicks. Sharp metal and lips are inevitably a painful combination.

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This metal cylinder holds the mouthpiece in place firmly while the horn is being played.

The french horn's mouthpiece receiver is a small metal cylinder that is fused to one end of the leadpipe. It has a vital role: connecting the mouthpiece to the horn. The mouthpiece is gently twisted into the leadpipe before playing begins to secure it firmly but not too tightly for playing. It is then taken out for cleaning and storage after playing is finished.

Place the mouthpiece in the receiver with light firmness, then give it a small quarter turn while applying light pressure to place it firmly. Never apply excessive pressure! The mouthpiece will get stuck or could even damage the mouthpiece receiver.

If your mouthpiece is stuck, there is no need for worry, but you should not try to remove it yourself. Take the double horn in to your teacher or instrument shop for repair. There they will have special tools to extract stuck mouthpieces that will remove it safely from the receiver.

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The rotary valves act to change the horn's pitch while playing.

Rotary valves have hard metal cylinders inside with holes bored through in spots which are exposed when the corresponding valve key is depressed. They are known as the first valve, second valve, third valve and fourth valve, with the first being closest to the player when the double french horn is held in playing position.

The player uses combinations of fingerings and varying amounts of air pressure to produce different pitches. The rotary valves direct the stream of air and sound waves into one or more of the valve slides. When the player depresses a key, the holes are exposed and the flow of air enters tubing circuits that are larger or smaller depending on the fingering. The longer the route of air, the lower the tone generally will be.

Each valve should be occasionally oiled lightly with a few drops of valve oil. This will keep the valves moving effortlessly in their casings and ensure service-free performance for years to come. Without the oil, you could potentially introduce scratches on the inside of the casing and damage the playability of the double french horn.

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The valve keys work in concert with the horn's rotary valves to change the pitch of notes during play.

The valve keys are small metal levers that sit within easy reach of the hand when the horn is held in playing position. They spin a corresponding cylinder inside the rotary valves, exposing the valve slides to the flow of air and sound waves and ultimately change the pitch of the instrument.

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The horn's valve slides are opened by the keys to access the two sides of the horn and change the pitch.

On the double french horn are found four valve slides: the first valve slide, second valve slide, third valve slide and fourth valve slide. To change pitch, the player presses down varied combinations of valve keys, which in turn feed air into one or more of the valve slides. Each slide is placed at a precise point in the flow of air inside the instrument to produce a specific note in the series.

The player can accomplish micro-adjustments to the tuning of the double french horn by moving the slides in and out. The slides hold their position by themselves, but they can be moved in and out with a small effort. Depending on your model, one or more of the valve slides might have a small ring at the end which makes for easier adjustment.

The double french horn's valve slides should be removed and cleaned on a regular schedule, including light cleaning after every playing session. Slide grease is available that works perfectly to make the slides moveable but prevents them from moving under typical playing pressure. If the valves become stuck, you should never attempt to force them loose. Take your double french horn to your teacher or a technician for service.

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Using the water key, the horn player can expel moisture from the double french horn.

This small metal lever is easily pressed to open a small hole in the main tuning slide and allow moisture to escape. During play, tiny amounts of moisture generally collect in the tuning slides and tubing, creating acoustic issues if not removed. Water can be expelled quickly by pressing the water key and blowing sharply into the horn through the mouthpiece.

On the end of the water key is found a tiny felt disc that seals the hole when the water key is closed. The disc should be kept clean to provide a good seal. You don't want dirt or mold to collect on any part of your double horn. If the felt disc appears to need replacement, take it to be serviced.

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