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Descant and Triple Horns

What is a descant horn?Descant Horn Triple Horn
Although they are made in other keys, the vast majority today are produced in B-flat/high F. They are made to stand in B-flat, the same B-flat as on a double horn, but when you put the thumb valve down the instrument goes to high F an octave shorter than the low F on a double horn. Thus the descant horn has a more secure high range than the double horn and is of great use in high horn playing.

I have performed professionally many times on descant horn in orchestral and solo situations. Drawing on this experience I wrote one of the only articles that has ever been published on the descant horn, which appeared in the May, 2001 issue of The Horn Call, "Playing the Descant Horn," and my new book on high horn playing. More on that in a moment.

Two instruments of mine are illustrated at the top left of this page, both by Paxman. On the left is a older model descant in B-flat/high F and the other is a model 83 compensating triple in F/B-flat/high F.

What is a triple horn?
The triple horn is best thought of as a combination of a double horn and a descant horn. Although the horn at the above right looks a lot like a descant, it is in fact a compensating triple. Most commonly however triples are constructed as a "full" triple in F/B-flat/high F. I prefer mine to "stand" in low F, as do most players using these instruments in the United States. This is because double horns normally stand in F; the triple will operate very much like a double horn with a descant on top.

Triple hornWhen should I start playing descant or triple horn?
I was aware of them when I was in high school but I started playing them as an advanced grad student. The time to start learning about descant and triple horns is in that time frame when you are getting serious about auditions and winning a job.

Practically every full time high horn player owns either a descant or triple horn and many own both. These instruments are not a way to "cheat." They are tools that used wisely can only enhance your ability to play difficult horn parts with freedom and artistry.

In my own case, as a grad student at Eastman and then later Indiana University, I was working very hard and had made the finals for auditions but there were still certain high horn excerpts that were causing me trouble. One particular audition for principal horn in Columbus in the late 1980s was a key one for me in terms of equipment. It was a bit of an odd audition as they advanced only one player, me, to the semi-finals. In those semi-finals they asked me to play the excerpt from Haydn 31 that goes up to the high C-sharp. At the time I was playing a 500,000 series Conn 8D. It was really not the right horn for that excerpt, and I did not win the job.

Descant hornThe first instrument I owned with a high F side was the instrument above, which is a very early Paxman full triple made in 1965. I liked things about the horn (that is a much younger me holding it in the photo above, taken by my dad) but it was quite heavy and the low range was rather stuffy. It was replaced with this Holton descant, which served me well in auditions and when I performed third horn in Nashville. In this period I used the descant only for certain works; I primarily performed on double horn. More recently that instrument was replaced, with ultimately a Paxman compensating triple for works with a big sound and a Paxman descant finding use on works where I want a lighter sound, such as Baroque concertos, seen at the top of this page.

And I still have a double horn! It is my main instrument, but for sure there is a place for all three types of horns in the music performed by horn players today.

Descant and triple horns are topics that I always cover with advanced students in the ASU horn studio. It is also a topic that, along with high horn playing, about which very little has been published. This fact led me to write a book:

Playing High HornPlaying High Horn: A Handbook for High Register Playing, Descant Horns, and Triple Horns

A great resource with an emphasis on the effective use of descant and triple horns. Includes complete parts for the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and B Minor Mass of Bach, Concertos by Telemann and Förster, the Symphony No. 31 and Divertimento a tre of Haydn, the Symphony No. 40 of Mozart, the Schumann Concertstück, excerpts from other works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Dvorak, Ravel, and Shostakovich, exercises for range development, notes on equipment and fingerings, and much more. 116 pages.

Among my publications initially this was the bestseller. Playing High Horn was a book about all things high horn--high range development, use of descant and triple horns, high range solos and excerpts, tips of various types, etc. It was a little hard to categorize in a way as it was a combination method and excerpt book with solos and more, a fact that ultimatly led me to withdraw it from publication. However, I have now released a new version of this publication slimmed down as an E-Book! Purchase this PDF version securely from Horn Notes Edition.

Descant hornsBONUS ARTICLE:

The Little Descants
Not commonly seen today, this article is an online exclusive tribute to early descant horns. Instruments of this type are around and still worth investigating.

Periodically I post items on descant and triple horns and high horn playing in Horn Matters, a great new resource on all things horn. Search in the category "Descant and triple horns."

There is a time coming soon when every serious, advanced horn student owns a descant or triple horn, much as every serious trumpet, trombone, or tuba student owns several instruments at different pitch lengths that they use in different works.

The days have passed when a professional horn player, especially a professional high horn player, can own just one horn. Don't be the last one to learn about these instruments and check out the new version of my high horn book at

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