Horn Wars – Scoring 1/2, 3/4 vs. 1/3, 2/4

One of the most frequently asked questions in the Orchestration Online Facebook group is “How should I score horns – 1/2, 3/4; or 1/3, 2/4?” This refers to the placement on the standard two-staff layout of horns in pairs. In other words, should horns be scored like the left sample or right sample below?

Scoring Horns 1/2, 3/4 vs. 1/3, 2/4

The problem with short answers to this question is that they bypass an essential amount of history, practice, and working knowledge of the orchestra. One could say “always the first,” or “always the second,” or even “whichever is convenient.” But the problem is this: the question gets asked because a developing orchestrator needs an answer, right now, so they can continue working on a score. They’ll read the replies, follow whatever advice seems reasonable, and then quickly get on with their work. Unfortunately, though, this is a situation where making a quick decision robs the question of its full context, and may even lead to a lot of uninformed scoring. So I must politely insist that every orchestrator with this question takes the responsibility of asking it. Educate yourself to the fullest about the issue.

In The Beginning…

There’s a whole history to orchestral horn playing that has led to its standard placement in a score of four horns on two staves. The first orchestral use of horns was in operas and cantatas, accompanying royal processions and hunting scenes. Eventually, this led to their use in symphonies. Since horns of that time were natural rather than chromatic, their notes were limited to the pitches of the harmonic series: a perfect 5th in the first octave; a dominant seventh chord above that; and a diatonic scale in the top octave, becoming ever more difficult to play after the 5th step. This meant that the horns were tied to the keys of each movement. Horns could alter the range of available tones only by attaching a crook: a piece of tubing that lengthened the pipe downwards.

If a composer needed more harmonic variety, horns would have to be pitched in two different keys. This led to the use of two pairs of horns, each with different crooks. One set of horns was pitched on the tonic, to give emphasis to the tonic and dominant, and the other would be pitched in such a way as to give ample room for modulation and underlining certain pitches like a major or minor third.

Horn Pairs

This created a situation in which two pairs of players sat side-by-side. The first and second players teamed up on one set of pitches, and the third and fourth on another. The first and third players played the higher notes of each pair, and the second and fourth the lower notes. These notes were bound to intersect, and when they did, it was much easier for the players to stay in tune. Eventually, the standard orchestral horn became a chromatic instrument pitched in F, but the seating arrangement and scoring philosophy were preserved. Horns 1 & 2 worked together as the primary pair, and horns 3 & 4 as the secondary pair, interlocking on three-part and four-part harmonies.

There was an overriding logic about this, which had evolved serendipitously with the orchestral roles, having to do with intonation. Horn is essentially the trickiest instrument to tune – it’s a lifelong struggle, one which is beset by tinnitus, self-doubt, and nights on which one’s ear simply doesn’t want to work. To combat this, there are ergonomic and psychological structures built right into the seating of the section. First, the ergonomics: consider a row of horns playing in four-part harmony:

Horns 4-part Harmony

Let’s assume that every player is playing their part in order of seating. The first player on the right is playing the top B, the second the G#, the third the middle B, and the fourth the bottom E. This is actually far from ideal. It means that the fourth player is three seats away from the high note. The first pair of players is playing a high G# 3rd, not difficult for them; but the other pair of players hangs off the bottom, isolated from the top notes. They’re tuning to each other in their own little world, and if things aren’t clear in the rest of the music, then the results can be less than perfect.

Now switch the middle two notes, so that the second player gets the middle B, and the third player the G#. Now the first pair of horns are playing an octave on the same pitch, an enormously secure tone. From that tone, the third player sitting next to them can easily tune a G#. Finally, at the far end, the fourth can hear the harmony much clearer, adjusting the intonation of that low note to the third’s middle high note, as well as the more distantly placed first and second players’ octave.

This arrangement works so well that even publishers take it for granted quite often. While players most often prefer to get individual parts (i.e. with only their notes on them), they may also get a part that’s extracted right out of the score, with first and second horn on one, third and fourth on the other. Sometimes, in a sweeping, complex score like a Mahler Symphony, it can actually help the players to see what’s on their partner’s part.

And that naturally leads to the second factor, psychology. If the two high players were sitting on the right, and the two low players on the left, then the sense of security would also be eroded. Each pair of players has a leader and a follower. The first’s most intimate teamwork is with the second, pairing off in carefully-tuned intervals. Ditto for the third and fourth players. If the middle-high player sits next to the high player, then both low players lose their intimate bond. And consider this very important point commonly left out of both orchestration manuals and most discussion threads on this topic: psychological support is crucial for horn intonation. When players lose their confidence, the tuning goes to hell in a hurry. This is why conductors are advised not to glare at the horn section – it only makes the problem worse!

The historical and practical factors that I discuss above are the reason why nearly every concert score of the past contains horns arranged 1/2, 3/4 in the staff layout. Conductors rely on this a great deal, because they’d like to know who to cue, and rehearsal time is never enough. When the horns are set up in different configurations, it means more preparation time for the conductor if the horn section needs help, or there are essential cues placed in intricate order.

The alternate scoring layout of 1/3, 2/4 evolved in band scores, contemporary music scores, and film scores. Not that it’s necessarily the default in any of these cases! But it still shows up in those genres so often that I’ll often read the claim that it’s the default.

This new way of scoring seems to be based on visual convenience: if both high horns are playing the top line in unison, and ditto the low horns on the lower line, then why not just conjoin the high and low parts on their own staves? And so the approach crept its way into scoring, to the point at which it’s commonly accepted by many orchestrators, even defended with some heat.

But the fact remains: if one is going to score 1/3, 2/4, it still means that the players are arranged in the seating order of 1/2/3/4. They will still be listening to one another and supporting one another in those pairs. Nothing on the ground has changed. So it behooves the orchestrator, no matter what approach they adopt, to think of their harmonies intersectionally, and to be aware of who is tying their playing to whom in reality. There are just so many examples of scoring in which this is not considered, like long passages of intervals played between the first and third players just because they happen to share a staff in this new arrangement. Or even worse, the second and fourth will share a long passage of intervals that dip lower and lower: neither player being a leader or having the most secure intonation can lead to disaster.

So for me, I’m sticking with 1/2, 3/4. I read it, understand it, think it, and score it. It’s what’s actually happening physically in front of the conductor, and aurally for the row of players. Choose what you will, but score in a way that makes the horn players love the score you give them, instead of saying “oh no, not again!”

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 “Horn Wars – Scoring 1/2, 3/4 vs. 1/3, 2/4

  1. Thanks for posting Mr.Goss. I Excellent focus to understand the way someone should write for horns.

  2. Hi Thomas! No doubt you have had PLENTY of input on this from your dearly beloved! As a horn player I just thought I’d throw my opinions into the ring, mainly to back yours up!

    I completely agree with what you say about the history and conventions of horn playing. We always play in high/low pairs, other than in contemporary music written by composers who have either failed to learn, or decided to abandon this convention (and let me say that this does not go down well with players!!).

    In terms of arrangement on the score, it doesn’t really make much difference to players, but given that any score written for natural horns would be arranged in pairs based on the key of their parts – 1/2 and 3/4 – then it makes sense that a score for 4 horns in F would follow this convention, if only for consistency. It also ensures that the lines on the score correspond to the seating within the section…

    One additional word regarding horn parts. We don’t like combined parts on a single score – it’s too confusing to read. We HATE having parts combined as 1/3 together and 2/4 together. As a low (2nd and 4th) player I am used to playing the lower line of any combined part. If a composer puts 2nd and 4th together then the 2nd player must read the upper line, which goes against instinct. Generally speaking, and in support of what you say above, 2nd players dislike being consistently scored higher than 3rd players. It feels wrong and uncomfortable.

    If you must include more than 1 line on a part then it’s preferable to use separate staves – it can sometimes be helpful to see what the other half of my pair is doing. The problem with this is that it leads to more page-turning, and to be honest, we are usually competent musicians – if we are confused about what each other is playing then we tend to talk and sort it out!

    So, in conclusion…. Horns ALWAYS work in high/low pairs – 1/3, 3/4, 5/6, etc etc….. If you must combine parts then stick to these pairings or be prepared to be very unpopular!!

  3. Hi again – just one more small comment….. and I’m splitting hairs here, but in your discussion of scoring the (written) E major chord you say,

    “Now switch the middle two notes, so that the second player gets the middle B, and the third player the G#. Now the first pair of horns are playing an octave on the same pitch, an enormously secure tone. From that tone, the third player sitting next to them can easily tune a G#. Finally, at the far end, the fourth can hear the harmony much clearer, adjusting the intonation of that low note to the third’s middle high note, as well as the more distantly placed first and second players’ octave.”

    As the 4th horn, I would NOT be tuning my low E (the root of the chord) to the G# (3rd horn and 3rd of the chord!). The 3rd is the weakest and the most dangerous note in the chord. I’d be tuning to the octave 5ths in the 1st and 2nd horns, and playing my E loudly enough to give the chord a solid foundation. It’s up to the 3rd horn to make the G# fit to us!!! True, generally I will follow the 3rd horn in intonation, rhythm, style etc. but not in that particular example.

    Obviously this has no bearing on the point of the article, but I thought it was worth pointing out, if only for the sake of pedantry!!

    Great article Thomas, and nice to have a composer recognise and clarify how we work as a section.

  4. Hi Thomas,

    A little off-topic but I have a question about writing for horns. What do you consider the lowest practical note? I always learned it as the c below middle c but while working as a copyist I see horn parts written at least down to the a below that. No one seems to complain – but these are also top-tier orchestras. What do you think? Thanks so much for all of the effort you put into creating these resources!

  5. As a professional horn player, let me put it simply.
    1 and 3 high. 2 and 4 low. This is what we expect.
    It may require a bit of extra thought as you’re scoring but you’ll be doing the right thing.

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