The Alphorn: Frequently Asked Questions

©Laura Nelson: Swiss Alphorn Composer, Instructor & Performer

How does one travel with an alphorn?

Fortunately it disassembles for travel, havng three sections. Everything stores safely inside a (very large) hard case for air travel.

How long is it?

About 12½ feet, slightly less for F#. A bass alphorn would be 25 feet long, a contrabass nearly 55 feet. Laura wrote a piece, SuperBass, featuring the bass alphorn.

How did Laura start playing alphorn?

She had the chance to play one when she was 15 years old. Laura had a great horn teacher who was into all sorts of natural horns. He pulled out two alphorns and they played in her backyard. She was smitten with the warm, wonderful sound and promised hersefl when she grew up that she would get one. So she did!

What is the range of the alphorn?

The lowest note is F1, going as high as F5. The alphorn is a natural horn, which means it can only play in one key. Like all natural horns, it has no valves and can can only play on the "open partials" of the fundamental tone. This is a fancy way of saying all the note changes are done via lip power, and since there are no valves not every note in the scale is possible to play. What the alphorn lacks in notes the performer makes up for in creativity.

How is it tuned?

Fine tuning is not possible, apologies. The alphorn is not tuned according to the mordern system. It exists in its own universe, ever expanding, getting higher in pitch as it gets higher in register. The key of F# is typical in Europe. Here in America many players use alphorns in the key of F. The difference in sound is noticable, with F# sounding brighter than the warm, darker sound of the key of F.

Is it difficult to play?

Any difficulty comes from the athletic nature the instrument requires to play it. Compared to a trumpet it takes much more lung power. Trumpets can play for hours but only a few very strong alphorn players can. Lip power gives out quickly, unfortunately. Another factor to consider with th alphorn is altitude. Very often alphorn players obtain work in extremely thin air. Laura has regularly performed at over 10,000 ft. which adds to the difficulty even more.

What is the alphorn made of?

Spruce trees. The modern alphorn is essentially unchanged from ancient times: a tree cut down, hollowed out and put back together. The wrapping is made from rattan to make it weatherproof. Now custom made mouthe pieces are available, as well as alphorns made from other types of wood like walnut.

Is there a lot of music written for the alphorn?

Yes. While not as much as has been written for other instruments, there is quite a lot of alphorn music available. Check the Resources page for place to buy alphorn music.

What kinds of places does the alphorn play in?

The alphorn is a versatile instrument. Obviously, outdoor concerts are a favorite, such as summer concert series for orchestras. Ski resorts and festivals regularly hire alphorns. Traditional music festivals, Oktoberfests and Swiss/German Heritage Societies all feature the alphorn. Playing with symphony orchestras is becoming more and more popular and there are several incredible concertos written for it. The alphorn repertoire includes pieces for organ or piano, chorus, band, and brass band as well. Laura Nelson has played in nearly every possible venue from private parties on the Sunset Strip to the famed Hoffbräu Keller in Bavaria to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.