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What is an Alphorn?

The alphorn is closely associated with Switzerland and the Alps.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2014
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Alphorn is both another name for the specific instrument called the Alpenhorn, a pastoral instrument from the Alps, as well as the name used for a group of what are sometimes called folk trumpets. Instruments in the alphorn family or bearing a marked resemblance have been used since ancient times for warnings and signaling. Among the earliest examples of similar instruments are the ram’s horn shofar used by the Israelites and the wooden didjeridu of Australian Aborigines. Although the name alphorn has strong associations with Switzerland, similar instruments can be found in Sweden, Russia, Romania, Germany, and Hungary.

A true alphorn is made of wood — whether birch, cherry, spruce, fir, lime, or poplar — and secured with bark, such as birch bark, cane, gut, or root material. Some horns have carving or elaborate painted decoration. The bell may be straight or curved. There are two types of alphorn mouthpiece: some are made from wood, either fashioned at the end of the alphorn body or carved separately, or a cornet mouthpiece is attached to the alphorn body. Today, twenty Swiss companies manufacture alphorns, using beech or plastic for the mouthpiece, and they are tuned using electronics.

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An alphorn can be from 4 to 12 feet long (1.2–3.7 m.). Because of its great length, the end of the alphorn is often rested upon a little specially made stand on the ground. The alphorn is played similarly to brass instruments: the pitch is controlled by the embouchure, and can cover up to four octaves. The alphorn only produces tones in its harmonic series. Alphorns have a mellow tone, somewhat similar to a French horn.

Alphorn melodies are referenced at the end of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. Several alphorn concertos were written in the twentieth century, and recordings are still being made in the twenty-first century.

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