9 Ways We can Tell that a Composer or Arranger Does Not Know how to Write for the Horn


Periodically we at Horn Matters have touched on the topic of bad horn writing. Horn players reading this already have a good idea, intuitively, what is characteristic for the horn (especially heroic lines) but it is something that is not necessarily intuitively understood by composers and arrangers. In this article I brought up these topics:

  • Too high
  • Too much bass clef
  • No time for mute changes
  • Stopped notes in too loud a context

I expanded on the high range thought here and here as well, and Bruce has a nice rundown of his own with further notes on the high range and three more key items:

  • Writing horn parts that have no rests
  • Overusing the “rip”
  • Heavy orchestration in solo passages

To those lists I have two more items to add, which are opposite extremes but we have all seen them both.

“Mary had a Little Lamb” horn parts. Some composers/arrangers are clearly afraid of the horn. Perhaps they had a bad experience, perhaps they just don’t know how to write for the horn. In either case, parts completely devoid of any technical challenge relative to that seen in other parts in other instruments are a big clue that you don’t “get” how to write for the horn.

“Saxophone” parts. These may sound awesome in Finale or Sibelius but really, there is a type of music that just has too many notes to sound good on horn even if a fine player can manage it. Give those to saxophone or something else.

My final suggestion for now for composers or arrangers is to talk to several actual horn players that are not your friends and honestly listen to their feedback. I recall one time a composer who I knew in school had written stopped very loud very high horn parts in an orchestral tutti. There was no possible way they could ever project through the texture. I asked the composer about it and he said that another horn player I knew said that we could do that effect. Which was true, sort of, except it could not be done loud enough to carry over the orchestration.

Not too long ago a video hit YouTube that I would like to conclude with. It is titled “Trumpet Tips 3: Confessions” and I recommend it (and the series in general) highly. The work the anonymous trumpet player encounters in the video is titled The Swinging Pendulum of Death Drenched in the Tears of the Afflicted** by the composer Vhrech Taless Trehnchkote-Huberr. Of course, the video is a parody but really, Jeff Curnow brings up great points that any aspiring composer would be wise to think about. I have a final thought on special effects after the video.

In short, I do actually enjoy playing special effects but if you ask for an effect, even if is possible to play, it does not mean that anyone will actually hear the effect if it does not fit the orchestration. It is not as extreme as the closed mouth scream in this screen grab of the musical example from the video, but you kind of feel like they have asked you to do something close to that when it is an effect that you know basically no horn player can ever pull off in an actual performance context.

**Using Google translate, the original German title should be something like Das schwingende Pendel des Todes Drenched in den Tränen der Betrübten.

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