Fun Facts, History and Information about French Horns, Tubas and Other Brass Instruments

Fun Facts, History and Information about French Horns, Tubas and Other Brass Instruments
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The tuba of course, makes the deepest sounds. Occasionally you will see a Sousaphone in a marching band, named after bandmaster John Sousa—it fits around the body with the horn bell facing forward of the player’s head.

Brass bands typically have more defined horns such as the flugelhorn, which is like a cornet but houses a wider tube and bell. The Euphonium is similar to a tuba but smaller and has a velvety, rich sound. Bands often divide the brass sections into alto horns, mellophones, bass trombones and baritones.

Difference between Brass and Other Wind Instruments

The basic shape of a horn can be as simple as a tube with a mouthpiece to blow into at one end and a bell-shape horn that releases the sound at the other.

The difference between brass and other wind instruments are: One, they produce sound by the vibration of the player’s lips, and two, air pressure supplied by the body’s diaphragm is sent down the tube-shaped resonator, which makes waves of air and creates the frequencies that are dependent on the distance of the tubes.

A trained horn player knows how to purse his lips and use correct muscular control. The instrument can be a “natural” tube, or it may need valves or slides to adjust the tube length for different sounds. In Western music, it typically needs to produce intervals of the octave scale and the fifth upon which music is based.

Ancient Horns: War

During ancient Egyptian times (3,500 years ago), decorated trumpets were found in tombs of kings like Tutankhamun and, may have been used to signal a battle. A war trumpet used by the Celts called a carynx was shaped like an animal head with an open mouth. The sound it made was meant to frighten enemies.

Ancient Horn: Holidays

In ancient societies, people made horns from a variety of objects. The Jewish men played a shofar—a horn made from a ram’s horns. It is still blown on holidays such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The shofar was also a vehicle to announce important religious events.

A Dung-Chen is a Tibetan trumpet, which is a simple instrument with tube, mouthpiece and bell or flare at the end. This instrument is popular in Buddhist celebrations, usually played in pairs, and the Dung-Chen can be up to ten feet (or 3-meters) long. Heard in the high mountains of Tibet, it produces a low, eerie sound worthy of its religion.

Ancient Horn: Churches

A strange looking horn invented in France in the 1590s, is the Serpent—a wooden snake body with finger holes in groups of three, it boasts a metal mouthpiece. Popular in churches and then with military bands in the 1600 and 1700s, it really did resemble a serpent. Stretched out the horn was too unwieldy so this very long instrument got a makeover as the tubes were wound into a circle.

Ancient Horns: Odd Materials

Some horns were not technically real horns but made from shells—like a huge conch shell—a large sea creature that gives a low, mellow sound when blown in to. During medieval times, a horn might be carved out of the ivory of an elephant tusk. Called oliphants, an ancient word for “elephant,” only the rich generally owned these horns. Nobles carried Savernake Horn, named for the Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, England. Bound with silver and engraved with animal icons, nobles used them when hunting.

Aboriginal people of Australia and New Guinea played the didgeridoo, crafted from eucalyptus tree branches. The method of creation was pretty cool. The branches were buried in the ground and termites hollowed out the insides.

Huge alphorns were crafted from wood. The slender shaped horn that ends in a huge bell that is placed on the ground and can be up to 16 feet (or 5 m) long. It is a great vehicle to play sounds out over the mountains of Switzerland.

A lur is another Scandinavian horn made from bronze. It is a curved tube topped by an oddly shaped flat disk. Since they were typically around 7 feet (2 m) long, two men carried them in battle to freak out enemies. Archeologists have found them in bogs in Denmark.

Ancient Horn: Military

A bugle is a horn with no valves. A variety of calls could be sounded on the battlefield to communicate rules such as go forward and cease fire to soldiers. It is also used to play Taps at soldier’s funerals and to signal the beginning and the end of the day in camp.

Today, racetrack use bugles to call the horses to post.

French Horn Beginnings

Hunters often used the sounds of a horn to signal to the rest of the group over large areas and wooded grounds. They were referred to as “trompe de chasse.” There were several different types based on their design: le grand cor (the big horn), cor a plusiers tours (the horn of several turns), le cor qui n’a qu’un seul tour (the horn, which has only one turn) and le huchet (the horn with which one calls from afar).

History of the French Horn

The earliest ancestor of the French horn dates back to Scandinavian times, when clans used the brass horn during battles. According to The Cyberhorn Museum, the horn made a loud, obnoxious sound that was designed to strike terror into enemies’ hearts.

We have talked about sporting horns but during the mid-1600s, horns showed up as musical interludes in concert halls and at orchestral performances where hunt scenes needed authenticity. The horn itself was still too loud and uncontrollable to be a part of an ensemble, but by this time musicians in Bohemia, Austria, and Germany had developed a more refined way of playing the horn.

Making the Tube before the Seamless Model

You cannot imagine the amount of work to create a horn before seamless tubing became available. The worker would use a piece of sheet metal gotten from a rolling mill or, before the eighteenth century, from a stamp battery mill where ingots were made from copper mixed with zinc and hammered into brass sheets. J. Samuel Halle, in Germany in the mid-1700s, requested sheets (called No.8) and they were six feet square and 1 1/2 inch thick.

The tubing was placed over mandrels and brazed with spelter, filed and polished. He would need the help of this wife and they would work late into the night. It would require much expertise using different hammers and anvils in order to make the metal do what was required. Narrow tapers such as those in the mouthpiece were made by shrinking the tube over a tapered mandrel and pushing it through graded holes in a fixed block and then smoothing it off in a lead die or press.

Tubing could be bent into u-bends after filling with molten lead that was oiled to prevent sticking or by filling it with a concoction of pitch and resin. Creases needed to be taken out before working the bend with countersunk holes in a steel plate before melting. Where the metal was joined, it had to be a lap joint or butt joint under a collar and soft solder was used to join them. And we haven’t even gotten into the sockets that the mouthpieces went into! For true mouth cups, animal horn would be sawn off at one end, and you could create a blowing cavity by burning it out with hot implements was one method.

For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, musicians worked on changing the length of the instrument’s tubing in order to expand the instrument’s range of sound. This included adding the crook, an adjustable piece of tubing that could change the tuning and range of the horn, and later creating a system of various sized crooks that had to be changed every time a director wanted the range of the horn to change.

In 1816, Heinrich Stölzel, a German horn player, and Friederich Blümel, professor of Musicology in Kiel University, were granted a Prussian patent on a valve and rotary system for the horn. This copyright allowed a system of crooks to be replaced by a set of valves attached to the instrument to change the horn’s pitch giving it much more flexibility in tone.

The French Horn Today

Apparently, today many international horn societies are working to remove the “French” designation from the instrument’s name and call it F horn or simply horn. In the 1680’s, Count Franz Anton von Sporck visited France and participated in a hunt where the cors de chasse sounds took place. A fan of music, he was responsible for the first permanent opera theater in Prague. Duly impressed after hearing the French hunting horns, von Sporck instructed two men of his ensemble be taught to play the instrument. These two, Wenzel Sweda and Peter Röllig became the source from which horn playing in all of Bohemia and Germany grew. Throughout the centuries it seems most of the people working with horns and improving them from an outdoor hunting tool to an orchestra or play-environment instrument were German, Austrian or Bohemian.


  • Baines, Anthony, Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Dover Publications, 1993.
  • International Horn Society
  • Ganeri, Anita. Brass Instruments. Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media, 2012. Book.