Close this search box.

Tuning Horns

Tom Dust | August 2019

    The double horn is the most complex brass instrument to tune. With at least eight to ten slides, a beginning hornist can be overwhelmed by the complexity and confused by the variety and discrepancy of approaches readily available in method books and online. A simplified method of tuning the instrument may encourage beginning hornists to persist and will aid in the development of a proper embouchure and breath support.

Tuning for Young Players
    Because beginning players lack the embouchure and breath control to produce a consistent tone or pitch on the instrument, attempting to tune to a standard pitch from an electronic tuner or other source is unproductive. Brass instrument manufacturers produce instruments that will play in tune at room temperature when the main tuning slide is not fully inserted, allowing for adjustments in both directions. Beginning hornists should have the main slide adjusted to this position, which will provide the best tuning possible for a young player and assist with the correct development of the embouchure and breathing muscles.

Adjusting the Instrument
    First, make sure all the slides are where they should be. Young hornists might unknowingly switch the first and third valve slides, and, in the case of double horns, insert the F slides on the Bb side of the horn and vice versa. When everything is in the correct place, find the main tuning slide for the instrument. In the case of double horns, the possible variations in the instrument’s layout can make this a challenging task. Most often, the main tuning slide is the first one you find as you trace along the pipe from the mouthpiece. To be sure, pull the slide out the instrument and try to play, if the main tuning slide is removed, the instrument will not produce a tone on either side of the instrument. The same can be done to determine the role of the other slides on the instrument. Some double horns have a small slide meant solely for water removal. Although removing this slide and then playing the horn will likely have the same result as removing the main tuning slide, but it should be obvious which is the main tuning slide, as it will have the potential for a longer adjustment than the short water slide.
    The adjustment of the horn to normal playing position is quite simple. On a Bb or F single horn, pull the main tuning slide one to one and one-eighth inch. Pull each of the valve slides one-half inch. The horn will still be slightly sharp on the open tones, even with the right hand properly inserted into the bell. This arrangement of slides provides for the smallest differences in the sharpness or flatness of certain notes on the horn and requires less lipping or right hand adjustment.
    The most common arrangement found in student-level double horns, regardless of the wrap, is to have a main tuning slide, an F horn tuning slide, and six valve slides, one for each of the three Bb valves and three F valves. With this arrangement of slides, pull the main tuning slide one to one and one-eighth inch, the F tuning slide one to one and one-eighth inch, and each of the valve slides one-half inch. As the player progresses and is able to produce a consistent tone and pitch, tune the Bb side of the horn using the main tuning slide (depress the thumb key), and then tune the F side using the F tuning slide. Horns with separate slides for main tuning, the Bb side, and the F side should be tuned in the same order, but pull the Bb slide out a bit before tuning the Bb side by using the main tuning slide.

The Right Hand 
    The right hand plays a crucial role in the tuning of the instrument. Without the correct insertion of the hand in the bell, the instrument will play sharp. Young players with good aural skills who place the hand incorrectly or do not use it in the bell at all will develop a faulty embouchure and breath support as they attempt to play in tune by altering their lip tension and their blowing. 
    The correct placement of the right hand in the bell is not only for tuning; it also stabilizes the pitch and plays a role in creating the characteristic tone of the instrument. Although beginning-level players have not yet developed their embouchure and air support sufficiently to produce consistent tone and tuning, they can still determine the correct right hand position.
    Have students form the hand into the shape typically used when swimming. The fingers are tightly together, there is no gap between the thumb and the index finger, and the hand is slightly cupped. To find the correct hand position, players should stand so the right hand helps support the weight of the instrument rather than sitting and allowing the weight to be carried by the leg. With the elbow at 90 degrees and the palm of the hand facing to the player’s left, the hand is slowly inserted into the bell until the weight of the horn is balanced on the shelf formed by the top of the thumb and the side of the index finger. As the embouchure and breath control are developed, advancing players will learn to make slight alterations to this basic position to aid tuning and tone.

    Giving attention to the correct position of tuning slides and the right hand will provide beginning hornists the best chance at developing a correct embouchure and proper breath support. This simplified approach to tuning will decrease the frustration and discouragement that can lead to band drop out and instead ensure that young hornists experience success.