Horns – No Key Signatures, Please!

Despite what several modern orchestration texts may claim, horn and trumpet players prefer not to have key signatures.

I picked up the Alfredo Casella orchestration text in an English translation a while back. Some of the presentation of principles is truly original, and I can recommend it as a supplement to a more thorough book like the Adler. However, there are several glaring inaccuracies with regard to his writings about horns. Apparently, each chapter was proofed by a different professor of its relevant instrument, so perhaps certain approaches and philosophy of horn playing may be different in Italy.

One thing he states about horn I have never found to be true: “At one time in all music for horn, as in other brass instruments like the trumpet, accidentals were not put in the part, nor was there a key signature. Each note, therefore, had to be altered where necessary. Today, however, this practice no longer exists nor can it be justified. The key is given as in any other instrument.”

This rings false to all practical experience I have ever had with real live horn players. Horn players don’t appreciate Professor Casella’s hornsplaining, nor do they care for key signatures either. Yes, they will play them without complaining, especially if they are professionals. But if you ask them what they really want, you’ll get anything from a polite suggestion to a lengthy dissertation on why key signatures are irrelevant to horn. Those of you who I wont convince with this tip should go check that key-signatured horn part that they got back from their premiere – there’s at least a 70% chance that the sharps or flats from the key signature have been marked on many notes – and a 5% chance that the horn players has drawn silly cartoons and frowny faces over it as well.

There’s a greater issue here as well, in that many orchestral composers are abandoning key signatures, particularly in film. I still use them – but I’m a tonalist/populist, and am fascinated by the unplumbed depths that yet remain in the exploration of keys and modes. Most of you are not, and more power to you if so – we need huge variety of compositions in a world with hundreds of thousands of times the concert music audience of the Classical Era. The bottom line is that you may be avoiding key signatures for anyone, so why not make the horn and trumpet the first in line in that case?

As to Casella’s pronouncement that “this practice” can no longer “be justified” – let’s honestly and fairly look at the entire scope of horn repertoire. A very slim percentage of it has key signatures – perhaps only 5-10%, if that, and most of that will be by composers who are not experienced with horn, or are getting a student reading, or honestly believe things like this (and no one has been polite enough to point out the fallacy).

The rest of horn repertoire is either modern with no key anyway; mid-Romantic to early Modern, in which the chromatic horn was under development; or Baroque to Early Romantic, composed for natural horn. Now imagine a horn player playing all of this repertoire without a key signature, and then getting a part with a key signature, particularly one with many sharps or flats. The impression they get is of a composer dipping their pinky toe into an idea and hoping the horns will fly with it. They’ll snort, or smile to themselves, or even think “whatever, let’s get it over with” – but they’ll seldom thank you for it. Trumpets get key signatures more often, but most players I’ve met are indifferent to them as well, and would rather see the accidentals marked on each note.

The important thing to remember, no matter what possibilities of chromaticism may exist with trumpet or horn, is that both instruments are based on the harmonic series. They play over a set of overtones that add up to a chord plus a fragment of scale at the top. Valve and piston positions are basically moving that chord up and down, and intersecting the musical idea with the right partial of the appropriate tubing extension is what gets you the sound. On top of that, a key signature seems almost arbitrary.

In the excerpt below from the 1st horn part of my orchestral legend Battle of the Mountains, you can see another advantage to no key signature – the horn may phrase alternately with sharps or flats, playing whichever represent the simplest in sequence, thereby leaving out double sharps and double flats. That’s more than a “justification,” it’s a great benefit in getting your piece played with accuracy.

Horns - No Key Signatures, Please!

Added comment [by me]: One important thing I want to add here is that Sibelius automatically assumes that you want key signatures on your horn and trumpet parts in its templates. Entry-level users don’t know how to change this around, or why they should – meaning that key signatures automatically become the hallmark of an inexperienced composer. So right there, with that one simple act, the problem is multiplied several hundred thousand times.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

6 thoughts on “Horns – No Key Signatures, Please!

  1. As someone who plays trumpet and has, in the past, played horn, I’d like to chime in here. In the US, brass players start their music careers with Wind Band repertoire, which almost always includes a key-signature. Much of our solo repertoire, too, also includes key-signatures, unless the piece is mostly key-less. Brass choir/Brass Band music also almost always includes a key-signature. Church music with trumpet parts ALWAYS has a key-signature.

    If a piece is tonal, I like to see the key-signature to give me a small refrence point, whether I’m on Bb Trumpet, C Trumpet, Eb Trumpet, etc… For non-tonal or loosely-tonal (Hindemith/Genzmer) music, it’s more acceptible to skip the key-signature. In BOTH cases, courtesy accidentals are welcomed. An extra tid-bit for trumpet parts: not everybody uses C trumpet (France, US Orchestras, Norway, Sweden), and not everybody used Bb trumpet (Britain, Italy, Russia, US Bands). Make sure we know what trumpet the part is for, so that we can transpose if/when necessary (nothing is more grating than finding out you’ve been playing a C part in Bb).

  2. This post isn’t correct at all. Horn players-much like any other musician on earth- are fine reading key signatures. Furthermore, with a key signature a player can easily and immediately alter the tuning of chord tones to match just intonation. No real horn player has any ill-will toward key signatures.

  3. As a horn player, I’d like to say that on my end this is dead wrong. It’s much easier to have a key signature than to read a soup of accidentals. There are of course exceptions, but on the whole if a piece is tonal (even if it’s not totally tonal), key signatures are easier to read. Sure, a lot of old music doesn’t have a key signature, but that’s because it has to be transposed in a different key rather than played as written. This is 2016, use a key signature. And don’t use old notation for bass clef.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for adding your perspective. My tip above is based on working with a number of horn players from many different orchestras, from San Francisco Symphony to down here with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Key signatures seem to have worked their way into concert music scoring from band tradition and from contemporary composers trying to be helpful. The sense I get from working with concert players is that they’re a bit annoying, and occasionally downright infuriating when scored by an inexperienced composer. For instance, marking a new key signature every time the music modulates. Or scoring a piece in one key but designating another key for the signature. What I’m seeing in the long run is that key signatures for horns (and timpani) are a zero-sum game. Most of the great concert literature composed for horn lacks a key signature; much of today’s concert music and nearly all of its film music, ditto; horn players don’t actually need them in order to play a piece; therefore they’re superfluous. You claim that key signatures are easier to read, and I accept that perspective from your experience. Yet I have to weigh that against dozens of jokes I’ve heard from other pros, or accidentals scribbled in on key-signatured parts, or just plain griping at the pub after the show after the composer’s gone home. Jon Ring of SFSO told me on my first serious work for horns (actually a Wagner tuba quartet + bass tuba), “Score it in F transposing, no key signatures. We don’t need ’em, it’s easier without them.” I’ve taken that advice to heart, and I’ve never had a single issue with my horn parts. And yet I’ve heard the occasional and not-so-occasional gripe from hornists (including my wife, who’s Horn II for the Orchestra Wellington) about silly things they’ve seen in scores, including very unapt uses of key sigs. Since my tips are targeted at developing composers, what could be better advice than to leave them out? It certainly errs on the side of caution, and lets the player just focus on the music.

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