Why do we call it a 'French horn' when it isn't French at all?

The horn is originally derived from 16th-century hunting horns, which were used by hunters in France and Germany. The horn pictured is an E-flat alto horn, played in early brass bands. Wim van 't Einde/Unsplash

Editor's note: Classical MPR digital assistant Emily Green recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in horn performance.

Hot-button topic: Is it the French horn, or is it just the horn?

My experience when explaining my college degree program to non-musicians usually ends in them staring at me, looking confused.

Non-musicians wrinkle their foreheads and say, "Oh, really, you study horn performance? What kind of horn do you play? English horn? French horn? Trumpet? Trombone?"

Caroline Lemen, adjunct professor of horn at the University of Minnesota School of Music, recalled a memorable exchange that took place between her and an ensemble library staff member years ago. A staff member sent out a notice for all horn-playing students to contact Lemen with their questions regarding the University of Minnesota's ensemble placement auditions.

Lemen had to email the ensemble staff member back, saying, "I don't know what you put in your email to students auditioning for ensembles, but I am getting all kinds of emails from students, not just horn students, about audition repertoire. Some young players think that horn means any wind instrument, so I am getting requests from trumpet, trombone, tuba and even clarinet students! Could you send another one out, specifically saying that only horn, or better yet, French horn, students contact me? I don't want all these students to be confused."

The term French horn is often misconceived, with Americans today understanding the orchestral horn as being a French horn — one term, with no indication that the word "French" is an adjective describing "horn."

Andrew Pelletier, president of the International Horn Society, says that it's the world against the United States on this one; every other country solely refers to the instrument as the horn. Which is why, for clarity's sake, the International Horn Society declared in 1971 that horn be recognized as the formal name for the instrument in the English language.

Emily Green performed her senior horn recital at the University of Minnesota this past spring. Joel Green

But, why do so many Americans still call it the French horn?

From my experiences as a horn player, the instrument is referred to as the French horn throughout primary and secondary education; musicians usually don't recognize it solely as the horn until their late college years and beyond.

"I was in middle school when I joined the International Horn Society," says Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, who plays horn with the Minnesota Orchestra and is an adjunct professor of horn at the University of Minnesota. "This is when I found out that the horn is not French! This information wasn't a big deal to me at the time. It wasn't until many years later when I became a professional and began to play the natural horn that the name horn took on a more historical meaning to me. I began to think about how to get others to understand this rich history."

There are many theories that argue why the French horn moniker came about in the United States and survived.

British horn players, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, played French-made horns. This varied from other European horn players, who preferred German-made horns. British players, playing on their French horns, were proud to label their horns as such and wanted to set themselves apart from other European horn playing.

With the growth and popularity of jazz in 20th-century America, any instruments that could be blown into were called horns, including clarinet, trumpet, trombone and saxophone. Classical horn players often kept the name French horn to distinguish their instrument easily from the jazz world.

Some people say it was called the French horn by the British to distinguish it from the angelic horn (which later became known as the English horn).

Others say there's a theory that the horn came across the English Channel from France, and therefore it was deemed to be French.

History and development of the horn

The horn can be traced back to 16th-century hunting horns, which were used by hunters in France and Germany. Hunting horns were large round hoops of tubing that the hunter could put his arm through and carry on his shoulder to blow through while riding. They were not heard in a performance setting until they began appearing in opera scores in Europe during the mid-to-late 16th century. The use of hunting horns was limited but was intended to create sounds reminiscent of the hunt.

Two trumpet players and two French horn players of the Queenswood College Orchestra perform in 1932 in Hatfield, the only full girls' school orchestra in England. Fox Photos/Getty Images

From its original hunting horn state, the horn advanced into the natural horn (hand horn) in the 17th century. The natural horn was a metal (brass) musical instrument with a large flared bell, developed by the Germans for orchestral use. It was differentiated by its lack of valves; horn players were only able to produce pitches in the harmonic series and used their air speed and lip embouchure to change pitches.

By the time the 18th century rolled around, Germans had introduced moveable slides, called crooks, which came in various lengths and altered the key of the horn. Small pitch variances could be created using hand stopping, which meant completely stopping (plugging) the sound of the horn in the bell with the player's hand.

By the 19th century, pistons and valves (instead of crooks) were used, giving birth to the modern single horn. The new valved design enabled easier transitions between notes without having to alter the instrument's timbre or configuration, and allowed performers to maintain a smooth, uninterrupted sound. The advancement of pistons and valves made the horn a completely chromatic instrument, giving horn players the facility to create a wider range of pitches and develop a more complex, harmonic sound.

The double horn arrived by the late 19th century and was invented to address some of the acoustical challenges of the single horn. Upper pitches were difficult to perform accurately due to the close proximity of overtones. The double horn added a second, higher register horn (commonly a B-flat horn) to the original F horn, which allowed for higher passages to be played with greater ease and accuracy.

Even though the term French horn is widely used in the United States, its modern design was manufactured by German horn makers. Horns today are modeled after their design, and therefore are not French in any way.

Pelletier says, "I think we can all agree that 'horn' is correct, and far simpler!"