4 Tips on Orchestration and Horns


In “Composers who Can’t Write for the Horn” John Ericson made some very good points for composers to pay attention to.

At a number of the church-related gigs I do, music arrangements are purchased or done on-the-fly for the occasion. More often than not, the horn parts are not very idiomatic to the instrument. This holds true for both the traditional and contemporary services.

At one time I studied both composition and orchestration at Eastman. While this does not make me an expert, I have written a few original works and arrangements; this — in combination with performing experience — does offer some insight.

Echoing John’s suggestion:

    The coda of a 4-page chart. While there are some rests, this doubled both 1st trumpet and clarinet.
Ay Dios mio!
  • Writing horn parts that are too high.
    The French horn is not a trumpet. Just because the orchestration book says that the horn (or any wind instrument for that matter) has a certain range, it does mean that players can sustain high notes ad infinitum.

    In a recent job, most of the charts I played from doubled first trumpet or first clarinet. (Ouch!)

    In the example at right, I ended up taking most of this page — the coda of a 4-page chart — down one octave. This part would have worked better as a 3rd trumpet part.

For arrangers, I would add:

A hymn with a D.S. for 5 verses. Sacre bleu!
  • Writing horn parts that have no rests.
    Even with a horn part that is written in a moderate range, over time this can wear out a player’s endurance and stamina – possibly for the rest of the performance.

    The example at right presented a few small challenges.

    However with five repeats for five verses it was virtually unplayable. I had to tacet a few phrases. Meanwhile, the music director gave concerned looks — I see notes for the horn here in my score, why aren’t you playing?!

  • Overusing the “rip.”
    I enjoy a ripping good time as a much as any horn player, but musically speaking the upward harmonic/glissando effect might be better thought of as a spice rather than as the main entrée.

    Besides, as with high notes, rips can be very tiring on the lips.

  • Heavy orchestration in solo passages.
    A solo horn does not have the same ability to cut through thick orchestration as a trumpet or saxophone. In a physical environment too, where the horn section might be situated in front of a choir — which can absorb most of the sound — a horn solo can get lost.

    Take a lesson from Gustav Mahler. Even a robust solo like this one from his 4th symphony has a fairly light orchestration under it.

    Keep the orchestration as light as possible during horn solos. If this is not possible, consider making the solo a soli, and double the melody with two or more horns.

  • Bad page turns
    Horn playing involves the use of both hands at all times. Quick page turns that might be possible on the keyboard do not translate to the French horn. If the music continues from the front of a page to the back, allow time for a page turn or rearrange the layout to remove the page turn entirely.

    Writing “V.S.” or “turn the page quickly!!” is not a good solution.

University of Horn Matters