Writing for the Natural Horn (hand horn, not baroque horn)
This page is intended for composers writing for the natural horn, but it may also be helpful for the horn student.

The simple answer about how to write for natural horn is the primary notes need to be written in the harmonic series, notated as if C were the fundamental.

Step one:
The natural horn is played by a french horn player, there is very little difference between the range of the modern horn and the natural horn.

A professional horn player should be able to play a range of almost four full octaves; from pedal E (concert A below the cello) to High D (concert G just above the treble clef staff). There natural horn is no different, but it has many more limitations and color changes, good notes and bad. Similar to the way Kenny G sounds on the saxophone but with more weird random tone changes. These tone changes flavor the music and if done correctly enhance the tonality and expression of the music.

Step two:
The horn is like a bugle it has a set of notes that are played just like the modern horn, with the hand in the bell in a generally open position.


These notes (above) are played normally and could be played by any pro so they sound like the modern horn.

The following notes are played open, with the hand out of the bell, and these notes were seldom played soft in classical music. The Bb was almost always done FF, the F# and A, seldom written except in fast scale passages. I would not appreciate phase that peaks on high A, it is beastly to be in tune on.


(Grace notes are the open "anchor tones" that are easy "bugle" reference points that are important to keep the horn play on key and in the right place on the overtone series.)

The following notes are played mostly covered, if they are played loud or forced the will sound stopped or brassy as we hear a lot in the writing of Mahler. These tones should be written quietly. As a matter of fact, these tones are the key to volume of the instrument . The open tones should balance these quite covered tones.


The echo stopped tones. These notes, as do the notes in part four, are part of the notes that are quite easy to do on the NH. The can be played a little louder than the notes in part four, but are still covered tones and can't be blasted.


The stopped notes. These notes are harder to play, and often get the nasty stopped sound no matter how hard the player try to smooth them out.


The pedal notes:
These notes are seldom used, but Beethoven used them in his sextet as a descending then rising slow chromatic line, accuracy of pitch is quite a problem for most players here. Fast jumps to these notes are not possible.

The full range of the natural horn then sounds like this:

(work in progress; October 2007)

The choice of horn key

There are two basic items to understand when writing for natural horns,

(1)  the key of the horn and (2) the quality of the choice of notes.

The simpler of the items to understand is the key of the horn. As a composer you most likely will have some concept of what tone center or centers you will want to use. Writing for F horn if you want the center to be in F may not be the best choice. The horns keys are divided into three sets Low Bb, C, & D are dark horns, Eb, E and F are “normal” and the G, A & high Bb are bright. This choice of brightness or darkness must be balanced by questions such as if you want to write a fast or more energetic horn part, or not. The low dark keys sound production reacts slower than the other keys. Thus the low keys work well for slow music without much calisthenics to the horn part or hand use.

If you are writing in the key of F it would be advisable to use a horn keyed with F as a open tone and maybe more advisable, depending or personal preference, with F and C as open notes, so the keys with this

When writing phrases for the natural horn it is generally best, unless you really know what you are doing, to start and end the phrase with a simple note.
It is important to think about the choice of notes in terms of the speed of the hand change needed, if you as a composer can sing the part as if from “sight” then the part  should be readable by the horn player.
The concept of Hornisticness is important to the writing of melodies for the natural horn . The horn is not a fast instrument, it has deep expressiveness and soul.
Anchor concept: you can't start a phrase on a weird note, a phrase must start on an easy open tone. The height of a phrase also should be an open tone, unless you want a really serious sounding phrase or tragedy etc.