Why you should drop everything and start learning the French horn

Mon Sep 09, 2019

Here’s a challenge: put on the 2009 "Star Trek" movie. Actually pay attention in those very first few seconds-- I’m talking immediately-after-you-press-play first few seconds. In the very beginning, the movie’s main theme will play as a sweet, emotional solo. A single instrument featuring a musical motif that will be highlighted ad nauseam throughout the movie.

On paper, this challenge isn’t challenging at all; the solo ends before the first scene even begins. In fact, the entirety of the solo lasts about a minute. But seriously, try listening to it. Can you make it to the end of that minute without feeling like your guts have been pulled out of you? Can you make it to the first scene without collapsing to the ground in a heap of emotional ruin? 

You probably don’t have to guess which instrument the solo is played on, huh? I’ll spell it out for you: it’s a French horn solo. It’s a beautiful, magnificent, heart-stopping horn solo. 

Film music in general is often horn-heavy, especially action movies. Why is this? The short answer is that the horn just generally sounds awesome. But boy do I have a long answer. 

The first time the French horn even entered my vocabulary, I was a kid sitting in a movie theater wondering why the first minute of Star Trek went so hard. I remember asking my dad what instrument was playing but not actually doing anything about it. I filed away this little fact into my little head, to be accessed at a later point when I was more willing to actually take action.   

The horn caught my attention in a serious way (read: ready to drop everything and start learning) during my first semester as a flute in the VanderCook band. In particular, I remember starting in surprise when I heard the horn part of David Gillingham’s “Be Thou My Vision,” in which the horns soar higher than even the trumpets at the climax of the song. Actually, I’m pretty sure my heart just straight up stopped that day, and I’ve been walking around as an awestruck zombie ever since.

It took me a long time to figure out how to put my love of the horn into words, but I think I’ve got it now: it’s the range. Horn has an incredible range, both chromatically and emotionally. The most obvious display of its chromatic range that I’ve come across is an all-horn arrangement of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter,” in which the range of an entire orchestra is reached with a horn ensemble (listen to it yourself at bit.ly/2ko2aOd). From the bass tuba solo at the end of the piece to the piercing violin notes all throughout, a horn ensemble is able to capture it all. And, in my humble opinion, the piece's famous melody around halfway through the song sounds so much more emotionally charged on horn-- but perhaps I’m biased. 

However, while the horn’s chromatic range is objectively quite impressive, what truly draws me to the horn is its emotional range. 

If you put a bunch of horns together and let them play a powerful, in-your-face kind of melody, it sounds like you’re five seconds away from your death. Horn can be harsh, terrifying, commanding, and as loud as you can believe. This is a big reason why horns jump to the forefront of every action movie’s score in scenes where the big bad antagonist has their final showdown or the hero goes on an angry rampage after their lover dies. My favorite example of this is Magneto’s theme from "X-Men: First Class." It’s an incredibly horn-heavy track, and the theme encapsulates every terrifying part of the antagonist's character. In my opinion, all of that steely energy comes from the horn. The horn’s tone captures anger in a way that, in my opinion, nothing else can. 

But it plays the other end of this spectrum just as well. It is able to sound incredibly sweet and gentle, tone at once fragile and full. None of the confident magnificence I was just describing. Take the first of Nikolai Tcherepnin’s 6 Horn Quartets, “Night.” Listen to that song on 100% volume and enjoy crying for six weeks straight. 

And yet, what’s even more impressive is the horn’s ability to somehow integrate both into the same tone when the situation calls for it. It can be at once as full and terrifying as possible while keeping its sweet, dulcet tones in tact. It can be at once so fragile and yet so strong. It can fill a room with a seemingly unbreakable tone, strong and composed, yet keep its sweet texture intact, like it’s telling you a secret. A good example of this is, as silly as it sounds, the soundtrack to Disney’s “Dinosaur” (2000) by James Newton Howard. I don’t know who gave that movie’s soundtrack permission to go that hard, but it does. 

But enough about the horn’s tone; if I go on any longer, I’ll die of a heart attack at my keyboard. Let’s move on. 

Aside from the fact that it’s an incredibly nice instrument to listen to, it’s a fun instrument to play. Having come from a flute background only, I have no context on how it compares to brass instruments, but other experts often say that it’s one of the more difficult ones. The reason for this is the close positioning of the partials (series' of notes sometimes called "harmonic series'") relative to each other within the range most commonly played. In other words, it's really easy to hit the wrong note because they're really close to each other. 

It’s like a fun guessing game. Unless you have perfect pitch (which I certainly don’t), you’ve got to guess the note you want and hope for the best. Most often, the keys you press with your fingers are more like vague guidelines; most notes can be bent into shape with simply your lips, regardless of finger position. In this way, you can’t press your first finger down and be guaranteed a B flat (the system which I was basically accustomed to on flute). You’ve actually got to know the note you’re about to play, know it enough to actually sing it in your head, which is so much more intimidating than it sounds.  

And not only do you have to know it, you’ve got to be confident about it. I’ve heard countless times that the horn is really a confidence game more than anything. Even while singing the note in your head, sometimes you’ll hit a note just above or below the one you want. Due to the close positioning of the partials, it’s incredibly easy to hit a note close to but not exactly on the one you want. To increase your chances, you’ve got to be perfectly confident about the exact location of that A natural you’re about to belt out. Because of this, the horn has taught me more about self-confidence than most other things. That might be an incredibly cheesy thing to say, but it's also completely true. 

I know what you’re thinking. It’s probably, “Wow! I’m having such a good time reading this article, but I wish it would go into more detail about the horn’s history.” Oh, that’s not what you’re thinking? Well, it should be, because in that case you’re going to be in for an extremely pleasant surprise. 

I can’t end this article without stating the one horn fact that everyone likes to toss around: it’s not French. Despite the unfortunate misnomer, the “French” horn is actually German in origin. Then why is it called a French horn, you ask? Why have I deceived you in this way?

The term "French" horn actually only exists in English, and it's due to a misleading colloquialism developed in the 17th century. Yeah, it's confusing, sorry. In musical circles it’s more commonly known as simply the “horn,” leaving the inaccurate adjective out. 

A much earlier version of the horn was called a postal horn-- this is the kind of horn that shows up as the emoji on your phone. It’s got no “valves,” no twisty tubes inside the horn, so it’s basically one big loop with a bell and leadpipe (where the mouthpiece goes). 

Playing the horn without the valves we have now made it even more of a challenge, as the horn could only play a specific series of notes; some notes were simply unreachable. Players would have to move their hand within the bell between notes in order to adjust the tuning so drastically that they reached another note entirely, physically change to a different horn that was in a different key and therefore reached a different set of notes, or manually insert things called “crooks” that adjusted the tuning. Playing the horn back in the day was even more of an extreme sport than it is today-- and some people still play on this “natural horn” just for fun.

Have I given you enough reasons? Here's another: although I have no basis for comparison, I'd bet that the VanderCook College of Music, only three steps away for an Illinois Tech student, is one of the very best places to learn. Not only is it filled with other students who are similarly learning new instruments (as VanderCook students are required to learn a whopping 19), which guarantees you that someone else is also struggling with those same lip trills you are (because man are they hard), but it also has an absolutely irreplaceable horn professor. Peter Jirousek is not only an inconceivably talented musician, he's an incredibly patient, kind, and generous individual, making him a fantastic professor.  

Hopefully I’ve convinced you by now that you should immediately search online for a place from which to rent a horn (I use Quinlan and Fabish). But even if I haven’t, with any luck I’ve at least given you a heightened awareness of its necessity in film music, the start of an appreciation for its superiority of range, and a reason to respect those that are actually good at playing something so difficult. Perhaps, like me, you will consider proposing to someone immediately after they tell you they play horn.

And the next time you listen to the first minute of “Star Trek” (2009), I hope you enjoy your death.



Appears in
2019 - Fall - Issue 2