Today, the Industrial Revolution transforms musical
machines. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The word French horn is a
slang term for a long hunting horn that's been bent
into a coil. The proper word, in any language, is
simply horn. And it traces straight back to the
first animal-horns that played only one pitch.
Animal horns had mutated into a huge array of wind
instruments by 1600, but most were still straight
tubes, flared toward one end. A lot of hunting and
military horn-playing was done on horseback, so
horns stayed short and high-pitched. Then
horn-makers started bending instruments to make
them more compact.
In no time, longer horns with richer tones appeared
fully coiled. Horns were suddenly being bent about
in remarkably complex ways. A French horn is really
just a Swiss Alpenhorn. Of course, a 15-foot
Alpenhorn will no more fit into an orchestra pit
than it will on a horse. So the orchestra brasses
took on a wild profusion of forms. Some became real
Horn players have always used their lips to vary
pitches. Players then and now set up different
standing waves by changing the set of their mouths.
But that alone gives a limited range of pitches.
Music, like machinery, underwent a great change
during the Industrial Revolution. That Revolution
also produced Beethoven and the demand for
orchestras with a far greater range of sound. In
the decade before Beethoven's death, French horns
took on sophisticated valving just as the new steam
engines had. Valves let players splice small
lengths of tubing into the coils so horns would
play naturally in more convenient keys.
By the 20th century you could buy a double horn --
a pair of horns, in different keys, coiled together
with a single mouthpiece and a single bell. With
one of these, a player is secure in the upper
registers while he keeps the nice tone quality of
the lower notes.
French horns now come in a thousand variations:
single, double, and even triple horns are made in
four keys or combinations of keys. Three kinds of
valving, many coil arrangements, extra valves, and
different bore sizes! Choosing a horn poses a
startling combinatorial problem.
Mechanical sophistication was the outcome of the
Industrial Revolution, and it touched the whole
orchestra. The modern piano emerged, with
enormously complex mechanisms and a structure that
reflected the new iron bridges.
Today, musical instruments are wed to 20th-century
electronics, yet the ideal is the same. The
technology of every age has been used to enhance
the beauty of natural sounds -- blown animal horns
and reeds, resonant cavities, and vibrating
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Morley-Pegg, R., The French Horn. New
York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1960, 1973. (This is the
classic text on the history of the horn.)
Tuckwell, B., Horn. New York, Shirmer,
1983. (This more recent book, by a contemporary
virtuoso, includes a summary of mechanical
I am grateful to Houston horn-player and horn
expert Leo Sacchi for the background material on
Adapted from clipart
The evolution of an instrument
From the Yale University
collection of Musical Instruments, Photo by John
A two hundred year old valveless French horn
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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