Why are French Horns written with no key signature?

• Aug 17, 2021 - 00:32

I am looking at a French score of the Ravel arrangement of Pictures At an Exhibition by Mussorgsky and I notice that no matter what key the piece is in, the horn part never has a key signature. The score labels the parts as "4 Cors Chrom. En Fa" I noticed the same is true in a score of the Rite of Spring and in one of Turandot.


It's an old habit, dating back to the baroque period iirc. At the time horns (and trumpets) were almost always in the same key of the piece and thus were in the written key of C major, and did not require a key signature.
For some reason this rule is still used by some composer nowadays, even though it doesn't make sense for a modern instrument (and as a horn player myself I can confirm this). However this is only done in the orchestra repertoire, in other genres of music (like concert bands and solistic repertoire) the horn has a key signature like everybody else.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

To further clarify, the transposition is not necessarily for horns in F. The part will state horns in ... whatever. For example, I am looking at a score for Dvorak's New World Symphony 1st movement. It is scored for four horns: I and II in E, III and IV in C and none of them have key signatures. Concert pitch instruments have one sharp. Interestingly the trumpets are marked as "Trombe in E" and also have no key signature.


In reply to by SteveBlower

Not sure what you mean by "transposition is not necessary". if you mean, because MuseScore does it for you, then yes. But the horn parts in a transposed score are transposed as appropriate (e.g., written a fifth above sounding pitch). Assuming, of course, you don't mean a horn in C as is shown here (but those may transpose at the octave).

And yes, in some scores, you'll see trumpeted scores with no key signature as well. Similar historic reasons but that practice has died out more completely, I think, than for horns.

In reply to by looptailG

Very interesting question and answer(s). If there are no key signatures - is it just a "tradition" that players know what key a piece is in? That would be an issue - even allowing for transposition.

Does it actually cause confusion amongst horn players, or do modern editors "correct" the situation by inserting key signatures in? Surely there is no need to carry on a perhaps confusing tradition or practice from several centuries ago?!?

Perhaps there were historical reasons - such as the player was supposed to figure out how to modify his instrument for different passages - though that would only work with some instruments with adjustable pipe work before the invention of valve instruments. The original instruments would have been fixed, so to play in different keys different instruments might have been needed.

What happened if there was a key change within a piece? Some form of text annotation? Word of mouth? Common knowledge? Maybe there were no key changes!

In reply to by dave2020X

Either the players know which key the piece is in, or they don't care because every accidental is written explicitly anyway. I've never seen a modern edition "correct" this, but if it were to be done horn players would understand, like I said earlier in most genres of music the horn already has a key signature.

Regarding the technical limitations of older instruments that's true only partially. Baroque horns could not play altered notes anyway (apart from some very or of tune F# and Bb) so a key signature was mostly pointless.
However with the development of the playing techniques for the natural horn, composers started to write music that was more cromatic and required more altered notes. Some of this music, despite being written for a valveless horn, does in fact have a key signature, for example the Preludes and the Gran Caprices by Galay.

If the horn part in the original piece doesn't include the Key signature, but it does include what you engraved in the Musescore, you've probably set it up for the wrong horn transposition. Use the correct transpose instead of clearing/hide the key signature. If it is not specified which transpose will be used in the piece, you can guess by looking at the tone of the piece. You can find this by going down 4 notes from the key of the piece: eg: if the piece is in F major, you should use F Horn. Thus, the horn part is always in C major.

Note: It is not enough to write E Horn, A Horn in text, this transpose must be set in the instrument properties or the correct instrument must be selected when choosing an instrument.

To be a little more clear:
A Baroque (and early classical) horn player showed up to a gig with his basic instrument and a rack of 8 or 10 "crooks." These were extra lengths of tubing that could be added to the horn to make it play in different keys. This was because there were no valves in his horn. If a piece was in Bb, he had the Bb crook installed. If the next piece was in F, he took out the Bb crook and replaced it with the F crook. Whatever piece the player looked at, the key always looked like C major.
Today there are players who play the original parts and transpose in their heads as they go along. Personally, I write all my horn parts in F because that is the modern chromatic instrument they all play.
And then there is the legacy of E trumpet and A clarinet and others. Dvořák wrote in a time when many wind and brass instruments were under going dramatic change. There were also very strong traditions as far as what instruments to use and how to use them. In music, the old ways die hard. There is the claim that they wrote for A clarinet because of the sound. Many professionals carry at least three different clarinets because of this. An A clarinet may sound a little more mellow or richer than a Bb model. Yet if you hear two different players play a Bb instrument, they will not sound alike. Plus one might sound more like an A then the other. It depends more on the player and make of clarinet, than the pitch. Of course an A clarinet can sound different from a Bb. But there is more to it than that. Composers wrote for the instruments they had at the time. Some of those instruments don't exist any more. Are we to not update music that was written for them to modern standards? Baroque and early classical music was written for woodwind instruments that had only three to five keys. They played and sounded differently than our modern instrument that have, in the case of a clarinet, 17 keys. Why don't we insist on using a two key flute. All violin family instruments from the Baroque period (like Strads) have been heavily modified and fitted with longer necks and steel strings so they can compete in the modern orchestra. They don't sound like the once did. And yet we think nothing of leaving those parts alone, in favor of worrying about horn parts.

In reply to by bobjp

A practical difference between Bb and A clarinets is that the A can play a C#3 (written E3) but a standard Bb can only get down to a D3 (written E3). Some fairly rare Bb clarinets are extended and fitted with an extra low Eb key, often as a post-manufacture modification, allowing them to be used for A clarinet parts.

In reply to by SteveBlower

Sure. And there are pieces where the composer has used that lowest note. What is the Bb player supposed to do? I have to wonder why any composer would write the lowest note possible (because of sound quality). And sometimes below. I played trumpet parts written for Bb trumpet that went a half or whole step below the range. I'm not talking about pedal tones.
And yet we don't question someone like Mendelssohn. He would often go out and sit under a tree, and write an orchestra piece. He would draw some staff paper and scribble notes on it. Then go in and hand it to a copyist. I'm looking at his Fingal's Cave. It's scored for two A clarinets, one D horn and one D trumpet, and the rest of the orchestra. The copyist may have had more to do with the use of A clarinet. It what was used more at the time. Or the range. I had an antique Bb trumpet that had the tuning slide marked so that you could play in A.

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