Why is my Horn Sharp?

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One common question is that some models of horn seem to be built rather sharp, as in the main slide needs to be pulled quite a ways, perhaps so far that it is pulled as far as possible and you are still sharp. Why?

It could be your playing, but there are other factors that are part of it.

better-sharpIssue 1 — Old School Designs

I am not going to name brands in this article, but some of the classic horn designs are often reported to be quite sharp, which I would agree with. Among the many possible reasons for this are two major factors:

  1. They were designed originally to be played with a rather covered hand position and
  2. They were designed to be played with a rather deep and large bore mouthpiece

To point 1, as a student in the early 1980s I was actually somewhat shocked to first hear live performances by a couple of the older, big name players of that day. They used rather covered hand positions of a type rarely heard today. A more covered hand position sounds “darker” (more muffled, really) and results in a lower pitch level for the horn.

To point 2, the large mouthpieces used in the past are not nearly so often used today. A deep mouthpiece with a large bore produces a lower overall pitch level on a horn, and a shallow mouthpiece with a small bore produces a higher overall pitch level.

The combination of these two factors has left these classic horns of older design history playing sharper and sharper in a modern context. Time has seen the horn world trend toward smaller mouthpieces and more open hand positions, aiming for a tone with more clarity and presence out in the hall.

Issue 2 – Horns Aimed at a European Market

Second, the horn market is international, and most areas outside the USA are not playing at A=440. A horn that is made in and for an area where A=442 is standard will need to be pulled out a good bit to produce A=440. Some instruments will accommodate this pitch issue better than others in terms of slide lengths.

And More …

It should also be mentioned that an older horn with leaky valves may get a bit wonky for pitch, valve rotations need to be right, no objects stuck in your horn, oral cavity shape, etc.

Know what your slides do!

And even a very good horn, if played with a mouthpiece that does not fit right or suit the horn, may have strange pitch tendencies.

This article is obviously not comprehensive, but will hopefully relieve a bit of stress if you feel your horn is constantly sharp. In short, while there could be some production problem on your end of the horn, if it is persistently sharp it is not necessarily your problem, you may need to either pull out more in general or, if that is not an option, get a different horn. Be sure in any case to try other horns and have others try your horn to know better what the tendencies are you are fighting.

For more on tuning your horn see this article.

University of Horn Matters