When I casually stated the other day that the French horn was the most beautiful instrument ever, my friend argued, “No it’s the harp – you can put a mermaid on it.” Funny story, but I was actually talking about the horn’s sound.
Obviously, everyone has a different idea of what sounds beautiful. As a musician who grew up listening to and performing classical music, I’d like to call attention to the horn’s glorious power of expression.
The horn resembles the human voice, and our voices are by nature the most expressive instrument, since we use them to evoke emotion through sound. Instrumentalists are often prompted to imitate a “singing” voice when they play violin, piano, even percussion. Since horn players blow air through their instruments, they produce a round sound that can soar, swoop, and bend pitch like the human voice. But the horns pack more power than our voices, while its smooth tone contrasts with the plucked or hammered attacks of instruments like the harp or piano.
The horn blends with and enhances the tone of other instruments, but can also stand out as a solo voice. It’s mellow enough to hang out with woodwinds and bold enough to kick ass with the brass and percussion. Composers harness the emotional power of the horn for both epic and quiet moments. Its marching band equivalent, the mellophone, also has a powerful effect on the field.
All instruments are beautiful in their own way (even the harpsichord, I’ll begrudgingly admit, which has been accurately compared to “skeletons copulating on a tin roof”), but the horn’s voice comes with a special warmth. It’s a deep tissue massage, a gulp of warm soup. Sometimes, the horn emits a battle cry that makes you want to join forces with Darth Vader, and sometimes it sings a tune of such pureness that you start shedding tears.
And if we’re discussing appearances, look how well the horn fits into the Golden Ratio. That’s mathematical beauty right there.
Here are some musical examples.
My favorite piece of music includes my favorite horn solo of all time: the finale of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird, with a bonus harp for atmosphere effect. It has lots of other great horn moments that conspire to make me cry with joy, especially when paired with graphics in Disney’s Fantasia.
Here’s the Vienna Horns chamber music ensemble performing on Vienna horns, a variation of the more commonly used French horn. The group plays popular pieces like the soundtracks for Pirates of the Caribbean, Jurassic Park, and Titanic. They produce tons of different tones, from a lush singing voice to a brassy bass.
John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and other movie composers feature the horn frequently in their movie soundtracks. Star Wars, How to Train Your Dragon, Harry Potter, and Transformers come to mind. Video game soundtracks are also good places to find the horn. Shout-out to Marc Papeghin, who does some of the best French Horn arrangements I can find on YouTube.
Here’s a horn dallying with a flute in Dmitri Shostakovich’s epic 5th symphony. Its iconic rich tone pairs nicely with the brightness of the flute.
A concert band piece called Kingfishers Catch Fire by John Mackey first made me fall in love with the horn. The horn section does a swoop from low octave to high at the very end that gives me goosebumps. It’s much more obvious live, but here’s the link anyways.
Finally, luxuriate in this majestic horn solo from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
The horn’s power and versatility makes it extremely capable of evoking emotion. There are many more moments in various pieces where the horn creates beautiful moments with its mere presence. It’s quietly modest rather than glamorous, but so brilliant once you get to know it.
Horn players need plenty of experience to consistently produce the signature warm tone, especially since it’s such a difficult instrument to learn. Composers also have to know how to use it well in their compositions. But combine a fine musician with an epic piece, and the sound of the horn is nothing short of heavenly.
Disclaimer: I am a percussionist. While the horn is my favorite instrument to listen to, percussion is still the most fun to play. 🙂
This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write a post for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.