the Music Master

Why Is the French Horn French?

Have you ever wondered whether the French eat French Toast? How about French Fries or French Dip? Do the Canadians really eat Canadian Bacon? The list goes on. Every lifestyle and trade has its own unique set of words and terms--nomenclature--which are self-defining. Sometimes these words and labels can be deceiving, and quite often their real meanings have long been forgotten.

The world of music is abundantly blessed with the most curious of instruments and puzzling names. One of the most grand of all orchestral instruments is the French Horn. Its range is enormous, being capable of playing very low and quite high. Its sound can be manipulated to grace the royal barge of a princess or crash down a devilish mountain. It can sound far away or trump for the herald angel.

But it is only in American orchestras that this instrument bears the name "French." Everywhere else it is merely the "horn." Should you ask a musician why it is called a "French" Horn, you likely will receive any number of curious answers. No one is truly certain. It is generally thought that during its long evolution from a conch shell, a ram's horn, through wooden horns, and finally one of brass, it passed through the hands of the French. In the mid 1600's the French used it as a hunting horn. Its circular and coiled shape was designed to permit carrying over the shoulder. Some credit the French for developing its tone from "coarse and vulgar" into viable orchestral usage. Soon thereafter they introduced it to Bohemia, and from there throughout Europe.

There are many bizarre instruments that are not in common use today, with names equal to their sound and shape. The ophicleide, crumhorn, and basset­ horn are just a few. Perhaps the most frequent excuse for labeling the snail shaped brass horn "French" (maybe escargot would be more appropriate) is so as to not confuse it with the English Horn. Now that's another story.

the Music Master

String Quintet


Return to Music Master