Writing Music for Film: Horns

There are a couple of things we’re pretty much guaranteed when it comes to Hollywood film scores; the soaring strings through an emotional love scene, and the blasting of the horns through an epic action scene.  For some composers, the use of horns in modern scores is used so much, it’s almost overdone. Today we’ll look at some examples of how horns are used (and abused) in Hollywood film scores.

The Blast

One of the things that the horns have beyond all of the other instruments in the orchestra is dynamics and power. If your scene is in need of some heavy, loud, attention getting parts, the horns are the first in. They’re also great for one off shots and accents in a percussive intensive scene. Careful considerations have to be made when scoring horns with other sections because the dynamics and doublings have to be adjusted. Horns will pretty drown out every other instrument…and section!

The Pad

Just to show how versatile the horns are, they’re actually just as useful for the opposite effect. They’re great for creating a subtle pad or underlying layers. You can use everything from simple moving intervals (to great effect) to intricate 5 part voicings that are so subtle that the listener may not even be aware that they’re there. In this way they can also serve as great support for single line melodies on the woodwinds or solo strings.

The Double

Composers also use the horns to double certain lines and voices to great effect. They can add power to lines or create a brand new texture. Be careful not to overdo it here though as it’s easy for the horns to overpower other instruments. Dynamics are really important here. Generally a single horn will usually suffice and even then, the dynamic is usually at least one marking lower than the melody line. Experiment with different combinations, some are much better than others. (We’ll cover good and bad doublings in a future post).

Sound FX and Stabs

Since the horns are so dynamic they make great tools for different kinds of sound fx; especially ones that are loud and obnoxious. There are clusters, builds, falls, trills and all sorts of other fx. And then I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the number one thing most composers use horns for and that are the stabs. They’re irreplaceable for accentuating hit-points and shots. And of course the most overused is the crescendos and sforzando. The build and stab is present in pretty almost every action film ever made; strictly electronic scores notwithstanding. (Although a great many utilize the ‘faux synth shot’ (be careful, very cliche!)).


This is another Hollywood standard. When it comes to creating drama and tension, clusters are usually the first thing in. Clusters are simply 4 or 5 (or more) part harmonies in close voicing; usually 2nds. Although these are very effective with the strings, the horns are just as popular when it comes to using this effect.  The horns can make great cues when the cluster is used with the crescendo. The Matrix Trilogy (among many other films) is littered with this effect.


Like all other instruments, all of the horns have their most effective ranges. With the horns though, the higher the pitch, the louder it’s going to be. If you’re hoping for a quiet, subtle line placed in a trumpet’s higher range…think again. Also, unlike the strings, the horn’s timbre can change quite dramatically over the range of the instrument. Whereas the strings can be quite homogenous, horns (and woodwinds) have varying timbres across their range. You have to be very aware of where the note is on the range of the instrument. Lines in the upper range can be quite brash whereas a line in the lower range can easily get quite muddy.and unclear.

Proceed with Care!

As you can see, the horns can be one of the most useful tools in the composers arsenal. You have to be careful and know what effect you’re going for and how to use the horns effectively. It’s easy to overuse them in action scenes and place them improperly in a more subtle cue. Get to know each horn separately. Listen to how they sound in each of their respective ranges. Get a player to show you some of the fx and intricacies of the instrument. That way, when you need to score something for horns, you’ll know how it’s going to sound before even putting pen to paper (or mouse to sequencer).