Skip to main content

Natural horn – is a general term for wind instruments built in a form similar to modern brass horns or other instruments, from which sound is produced using a mouthpiece or other mouthpiece-like form, where the player blows air into it like a pipe – the blown air enters through the thinner side and comes out at the thicker end, often ending with a resonating bell.

The natural horn does not have any holes, keys, valves, or a slide like a trombone – the use of these technical conveniences would mechanically shorten or lengthen the airflow and thus change the pitch.

Only natural sounds can be produced on such an instrument – with natural, untuned intonation, arranged according to the harmonic series.

An exception to this are instruments in which the player can change the pitch by using a technique that blocks or partially blocks the airflow in the resonating bell of the natural horn.

Materials used for construction:

Natural horns were built, as described earlier, from various materials. Those we know and use today are most commonly made of copper or copper alloys with other materials such as gold, and then lacquered or polished. Various decorations can also be found, most often on the bell ring (the so-called flare) or at the beginning of the mouthpiece tube, where the mouthpiece is inserted. Tuning slides (used for tuning and emptying the instrument of condensation during playing) are made of steel alloys.

Forms of natural horn construction:

The oval shape of the horn as an instrument is largely due to practical reasons. An appropriate length of the acoustic tube is necessary for the correct pitch and soft tone. The air blown and intoned by the player travels a long way through many bends and turns. As a result, the sound is never as clear and sharp as, for example, on a trumpet or trombone.

The oval construction also has a practical character. The metal from which the instrument is made can be bent after being heated. This allows the instrument to be relatively easily transported.

Depending on the type of instruments (natural horns), historical traditions, and acoustic needs, we encounter different combinations and groupings of instruments. Natural horns can be found as solo instruments, in groups of the same instruments in unison, polyphonically, or in groups of horns of different construction and tuning.

Typical natural horns can be divided into the following groups:

a) Alphorn (Alpine horn)

Due to the blowing technique, it belongs (like all wind instruments) to the group of Aerophones and is made of special wood. It does not have keys, slides, or valves – therefore, only natural sounds can be produced on it.

The Alphorn has a specific mouthpiece (similar to the modern mouthpiece used in valved horns) that allows for shaping the pitch and tone. Its length ranges from three to seven meters depending on the tuning and tone of the instrument.

The Alphorn is audible from a distance of 5-10 kilometers depending on the terrain. Also often referred to as a mountain horn, it is found in many countries, often with very different cultures: the Alps, the Carpathians, Tibet, the Pyrenees, Kyrgyzstan. It should be added that the Alphorn has gained/maintained its greatest popularity resulting equally from passion and tradition in Switzerland.

The first known and verified documentation of this instrument dates back to 1527. In the account book of the St. Urban monastery, there is a record of payment of an honorarium to two horn players playing on mountain horns during the festive celebrations in honor of Saint Boniface.

In classical music, only a few composers created works for the Alphorn. The most famous include Leopold Mozart – SINFONIA PASTORELLA for Alphorn and string orchestra in G major and Jiri Druzecky (Georg Druschetzky) PARTITA FOR PEASANT INSTRUMENTS.

To this day, we can find workshops specializing in the production of Alphorns in Switzerland and Bavaria. Modern instruments may have tuning holes and are made not from one but from several pieces of connected wooden parts.

Lengths of Alphorns divided by tuning:

ES – 405 cm (Switzerland), E – 389 cm (Switzerland), F – 366 cm (Germany), FIS/GES – 347 cm (Switzerland).

The largest Alphorn built to date was constructed in Switzerland in 1994 and is 46 meters long. It is tuned to “B”.

b) Parforcehorn

From it, the hunting horn and the princely horn were developed in the further stages – a brass wind instrument from the aerophone family is very similar in its construction and functionality to the hunting horn. Its historical use was primarily in hunting, where signals organizing the hunting ceremony and coordinating the movements of the hunters were played on this instrument.

The construction form with a large opening in the middle serves so that the player can carry the instrument over their shoulder and head – then they have both hands free for riding a horse.

This instrument was tuned to ES or B. Later, instruments with a valve changing the tuning from ES to B were also built.

The player held the instrument only in the right hand. The left hand served only to lightly support the instrument. Unlike the modern French horn, the player did not hold the right hand in the bell (flare) – the player played on an open instrument.

The original mouthpiece for the Parforcehorn is funnel-shaped with a very thin rim, which characterizes a very penetrating and sharp sound – audible from a great distance in natural conditions. During hunts, it was not about the romantic beauty of the sound but about the dynamics and the effect of combining and playing on one or more instruments simultaneously.

In classical music, the use of these instruments had a similar character. Their appearance on stage or in the orchestra symbolized scenes related to hunting. The most popular include: Carl Maria von Weber’s “Hunters’ Chorus” from the opera “Der Freischütz”; Josef Haydn; Oratorio “The Seasons”; Giaccino Rossini: Opera “William Tell”.

c) Lur

Lur is one of the oldest and most noble instruments from the horn family. Also often called Krigstrompette – war trumpet – it consists of a mouthpiece in a cup shape and several interconnected, soldered tubes. The length of the Lur is 1.5 to 2 meters shaped in an “S” form.

The oldest discovered Lurs come from Norway, Denmark, southern Sweden, and northern Germany – built in the 13th – 7th century BC – in the early Bronze Age. To this day, about 60 original instruments from this period have been found.

Most Lurs were found in pairs, harmoniously tuned, which suggests that they were played in pairs, with two instruments.

Historically, the Lur had great significance – evidence of this is the fact that many of them were found in the tombs of ancient rulers. In addition, many paintings and drawings from the Bronze Age depict lur players, always in pairs symbolizing victory, abundance, and glory.

d) Winter Horn

also known as the Advent Horn. The translation comes from German and means (Middewinterhorn, Mittewinterhorn, Mirrewinterhorn, Midwinterhorn, Mittwinterhorn, Dewertshorn, Adventshorn) taken from the Plattdeutsch dialect “In der Mitte des Winters” – “In the middle of winter”. The middle of winter traditionally, in the folk dialect of the North Germanic peoples, refers to the Christmas season.

Traditionally during these holidays, in the middle of winter, this instrument was used as the culmination of the importance associated with religious tradition.

Unlike the Alphorn, the player did not rest the Winter Horn on the ground but held it outstretched. The instrument, with a length of 1.3 to 1.8 meters, required not only technical skills but also considerable strength from the player.

Eight different pitches can be produced on it. It is made of wood and is a solo instrument – it was played individually – different specimens had different sizes, which made it impossible to tune them and therefore create groups of instruments with the same intonation.


e) Post Horn

is one of the most popular natural horns. Used since the Middle Ages as a signaling instrument. Built in an oval shape, made of brass, it has a very characteristic, sharp, penetrating, often heard from a very long distance tone. Devoid of valves, the post horn allows only natural scale sounds to be played.

Long before organized postal services began, the first to use post horns as a signaling instrument were cattle breeders. Blowing horns made from buffalo horns, they signaled the departure with the herd to new mountain pastures, which was a signal that they were ready to accept mail and letters from other villagers remaining in the village to be passed on to neighbors, relatives, or other addressees in neighboring settlements.

The first metal post horns date back to the 15th century. Already from the 16th century, this instrument became an integral part of the postman’s equipment, signaling the arrival and departure of mail coaches. The postman used the hunting horn in the same way we modern people use a car horn – a horn. Postal transports were privileged vehicles, and the postman was obliged to clear his way through acoustic signals produced using the hunting horn. In Switzerland, we can still hear the classic passage when the yellow postal car squeezes through a crowded or uncomfortable and dangerous mountainous serpentine road.

Gioaccino Rossini used this motif in the ANDANTE part of his overture to the opera “William Tell”.

To this day, the POST HORN is a symbol of the Post, Postage Stamp, Taxi, in its various forms also the coat of arms of many cities.

f) Conch Horn

also known as the “Conch”, “Shell”, “Snail Trumpet” belongs to the oldest known wind instruments. It is made of large, natural sea shells or snail shells, where the narrow end is cut off or replaced with a metal mouthpiece with a characteristic cup-shaped mouthpiece typical of French horns or trumpets. When playing this instrument, a specific, typical for the group of horn-like instruments, penetrating sound is produced.

The conch horn found its reflection in many cultures, where it was attributed various meanings.

In Tibetan Buddhist culture, it is known as SANKHA or DUNG KAR. Two players are juxtaposed here in order to produce an uninterrupted tone – while one player is taking a breath, the other replaces him – this gives the impression of an infinite sound. In addition, in this culture, it is used as a tool to repel negative energies and, in addition to the SUN UMBRELLA, VASE, FISH, LOTUS FLOWER, VICTORY FLAG, ENDLESS KNOT, WHEEL – the Conch Horn is the eighth symbol of auspicious signs.

Similarly, in Japanese culture, we find great importance of these instruments, especially in the Buddhist YAMABUSHI. In many parts of this country, Conch Horns are still an accompaniment to religious rituals, and in high mountain regions, they signify values characteristic of individual regions.

In Hinduism, the Conch Horn is, along with the Wheel and Lotus, one of the main symbols of VISHNU – the God of Protection and Survival. In Hinduism, it is perceived as the ninth incarnation of VISHNU – therefore, in Buddhist paintings, we often encounter the characteristic scene where the Old God INDRA gives the Buddha the Conch Horn as a symbol of truth, righteousness, and faith.

In Oceania, Conch Horns were primarily used as signaling instruments.

The oldest discovered instruments come from the area of ancient Syria, where they were used as cultural instruments already 2,000 years before Christ.

There is also evidence that the Conch Horn was used in religious ceremonies in South America – in Mexican culture, it is known as TECCIZTLI, PUTUTU, or QUIQUIZTLI and was used during prayers and offerings to the Rain Gods.

We will be discussing natural horns during the Horn Masterclass at the Music Academy in Łódź from 7-12.07.2024.

For this year’s edition of the Horn Masterclass, we have managed to invite wonderful lecturers – professors such as Peter Arnold, Tomasz Bińkowski, Monika Paprocka-Całus, and David Bagoly will be with us. Accompanying us on the piano will be the wonderful pianist Joanna Kowalewska.

Don’t hesitate and register now!! #WKM2024 is a great opportunity to develop your skills and meet new people with a passion for music and the horn. To sign up for the course, simply visit the MikulskiART Foundation website, where the registration form and more information about the event are available.

Here is the link:

Sign up for the newsletter

I will inform you about events, concerts and news.