Extended Composition Techniques for the Horn

As a both a horn player and a composer, I can tell you that the horn is a tremendously versatile instrument capable of producing unique and interesting colors outside of the standard open and stopped tones.  Today’s composer should be aware of the wide range of techniques the performer is able to render!

As always with contemporary techniques, the notation is not standardized so the composer should include very clear instructions to the performer as to the desired effects and their intended method of execution.


-highest note possible (often a pinched sound with some additional static; request “with a clear tone” to guarantee that the performer will not attempt a pitch above his controlled range)

-lowest note possible (a soggy, uncentered and perhaps wavering sound, very slow to speak; request “with a solid sound” to avoid an over-attempt for range if so desired)

-plunger mute (“wa wa” possible; not frequently used; numerous pitch problems; must describe degree of cover desired)

-cup mute (hollow, somewhat covered sound; may project a jazz-like quality; not frequently used and not readily available; allow at least 5 seconds before and after use)

-whispa mute (very distant, completely muffled sound; also called a practice mute; very seldom used)

-glass mute (12 oz. bottle with small neck; a hard, less vibrant sound that a straight mute; not frequent but effective)

-cloth mute (medium sized rag; totally muffled sound; many pitch problems; usable in the middle and upper registers)

-gradual transition (mute to open, vice versa)

-unmeasured rapid mute changes (a subtle wa-wa effect in upper two octaves; may project more like a timbral “vibrato”; very subdued effect, must less audible than other brasses; mute might hit the bell surface)

-rhythmic mute changes (a prescribed rhythmic application of the subtle wa-wa effect)

-unmeasured rapid mute changes with multiple tonguing (non-coordinated combination of effect which works best in second octave because of the occasional break; causes an almost cartoon-like sound; quite effective in multiple voice groupings)

-¾ stopped or ½ stopped (most effective from pp-mf; excellent echo effect; use instead of cloth mute)

-half-step hand glissando (a smooth slide to the subsequent note with an obvious tone color change; effective, often-used; gives a sigh-like sound)

-unmeasured rapid hand changes with multiple tonguing or rapid tonguing (much more versatile that rapid mute movements and more audible; volume will fluctuate between the open and closed sounds)

-“scoop up” into a note, “scoop down” into a note (tends to have jazz connotations)

-attack without the use of the tongue (“h”) and rhythmically undulate the air flow

-intentionally sloppy attack

-gradual change from crisp distinct attacks to smooth and gentle ones with less separation

-flutter tongue

-spit tongue attacks (very short, loud, sudden, indiscriminate pitch; purse lips together as in the consonant “p” and force out what little air is between the tongue and the aperture approximating the sound “pt”)

-flexible speed trills

-alternating trills (between half and whole step)

-irregular speed trill

-contour glissando (a smooth, elongated, gliding glissando which follows the approximate contour designated in the notation; do suggest the use of half valve)

-slow glissando (a very gradual slide to the resultant note)

-jazz effects:  bend/dip, doink/doit, fall-off, flip

-plop (a quick drop downward into the notated pitch)

-ghost tones (a half-valve pitch used within a regular line)

-half-valve harmonic (a double tone with the upper octave ringing as if from a distance; play a c2 on the F horn and partially depress the first valve until the upper octave appears)

-white noise pitch (an actual pitch with added and consistent static; difficult to sustain; good flexibility not likely; not possible at loud extremes or mid and low ranges; flatten or clamp down the aperture opening and force air through, holding a consistent distortion of the tone)

-sucked pitch (a kissing or squealing sound of indefinite pitch, possible only in mid to high ranges; suck air inward through the aperture causing a vibration at the lips which will be amplified by the horn)

-sing through the horn (falsetto)

-in a perfect fifth, play the bottom note and sing the upper note (results in a “chord”)

-unison singing and playing

-horn used a megaphone (whisper/speak/shout into the horn)

-air sounds (blow through the horn without buzzing; can be articulated and/or with valve sounds)

– mouthpiece alone (hand pops, kissing, muted)

-fingernail tapping on bell

-play into a piano, a drum head, a tam-tam, or a sizzle cymbal

-use a mouthpiece of a different instrument

-bowing the bell (usually a bass bow works best)

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  1. Hi! Thank you for the useful information! I’m wondering, if half valve technique works on all horn in F? I want to write a low tone that is unclear, similar to breathy tone on flute (but much lower than flute’s range), will using half halve produces the similar results?

    Thank you!

  2. Hello – Q re notation of “natural” horn in the part(s). Should fundamentals be notated at concert pitch or transposed like the parts? I’ve been told to keep fundamentals in concert pitch (Ligeti’s practice, therefore players expect it I was told). Do you agree?
    Thanks for your reply!

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