What’s In a Horn Section? Term Demystified

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You know? This seems like such a simple question, but the answer is surprisingly nuanced! When is a horn a horn and when is it a woodwind? Why is instrument classification such a mess?

Colloquially, “horns” can be used to describe the saxophone section. Technically, some definitions of “horn” include instruments that use a bell-shaped tube to project sound, which definition encompasses the saxophone–while other definitions are limited to instruments that make sound via lip-vibration.

So, is that it? Well, almost! I’ll try and make this abundantly clear here in a second.


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What Is In A Horn Section?

The answer to this is a bit nuanced because it really depends on the context of the question.

In A Concert Band/Orchestra

If you were in a concert band, and the band director were to say, everyone play except the Horn Section, that would mean everyone play except the French Horns.

Confusingly, if in the same concert band, the band director were to say: everyone play except the horn instruments, then that would mean that everyone would play except the tubas, trombones, sousaphones (if in a marching band), french horns, and the trumpets or cornets.

Do you see the subtle difference? The Horn Section in a concert band is the French Horn section, while the horn instruments are essentially all the brass instruments.

Notice, however, that saxophones would typically be excluded from the horn instrument classification in a concert band.

In a Jazz Band

In a Jazz Band, the horn sections are:

  • Trumpets (Oftentimes includes less common trumpet-like instruments like the Flugelhorn)
  • Trombones
  • Saxophones
    • Soprano Saxophone(s)
    • Alto Saxophone(s)
    • Tenor Saxophone(s)
    • Baritone Saxophone(s)

Is a Saxophone A Horn?

The answer is kinda.

In Wikipedia, a horn is:

Horn (acoustic), a conical or bell shaped aperture used to guide sound

Horn (instrument), collective name for tube-shaped wind musical instruments


But according to the Oxford Languages dictionary, a horn is:

[…] a wind instrument, conical in shape or wound into a spiral, originally made from an animal horn (now typically brass) and played by lip vibration.

Oxford Languages

Then again, Merriam-Webster is a bit looser by describing a horn as:

[…] a wind instrument used in a jazz band

especially TRUMPET


It all depends on context.

In a Concert Band

If you are in a concert band, when someone is talking about the horn section, they are talking about the French Horn section. Even though the trumpet and trombone sections qualify as horns without any dispute--the term “horn” when spoken in Concert band means French Horn.

To make this all the more confusing, in a concert band, the saxophone is lumped in with the woodwinds, which you would typically only think of including flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, etc. (ever wondered the difference between a saxophone and a trumpet? Check out our article here to find out.)

In a Jazz Band, things are different. There is no “woodwind” section in a Jazz band.

In a Jazz Band

In a Jazz band, the term horn is a lot more inclusive. Many times “the horns” can mean several things.

It is not incorrect to call a saxophone a horn, or the saxophone section “the horns”. Or even to refer to trumpets, saxophones, and trombones all as “horns” in a Jazz Band.

If a Jazz band director wants to just hear the jazz flute parts with the rhythm section, they could say, “I want to hear everyone else without the horns.”

When Saxophonists Are Talking About Their Instruments

Saxophonists use the term “horn” when talking about their instruments. While some may say horn, others may say “saxophone”, or just “sax”.

A hypothetical example: For me, behind the mouthpiece, the second half of the upper register and palm keys aren’t as bright as my other tenor horn.

So Can You Call a Saxophone a Horn?

It depends. If you’re in an orchestra, you might not want to call a saxophone a horn, because the French Horn has claimed that honor in an orchestra. If you’re in a Jazz Band, go right ahead.

If you’re among saxophonists, also feel free to call your saxophone a horn.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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