French Horns: What Lives Inside

by Eileen Coyne

Written for Liberal Arts Freshman Seminar: Consumption and Waste (LARTS 221, Fall 2010)

             Excited to hear James Sommerville play Elliot Carter’s Horn Concerto, you dash to Boston’s Symphony Hall. When you arrive in the building, you’re taken aback by the beauty of the performance space. The stage, framed by gold designs, seems gigantic. A few musicians walk out onto the stage and start warming up. The sound coming from the stage is unmistakably gorgeous. The lights start to dim as the rest of the musicians walk out onto the stage. After the concertmaster comes out and the tuning note sounds, a stage door opens and James Levine, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), and James Sommerville, the BSO’s first horn player, walk onto stage, their entrance met with great applause.

             Sommerville makes his entrance and a full, pure tone fills the hall. You look and listen in awe, his appearance every bit as classy as the shiny French horn in his arms. His attacks are so clean, his notes placed purposefully. But the pure sound and outside appearance of the horn covers the truth. What you don’t know is that the inside of the French horn makes a wonderful breeding ground for harmful bacteria. What you don’t know is that playing an unclean French horn can severely inflame your lungs, give you a sore throat and fever, and potentially lead to serious infections. Not even a dealer of French horns would inform you of these risks. If you were aware of all these problems, and could see the insides of a dirty French horn, would you still think it was a pure instrument?

            A condition called “trombone players’ lung,” which can develop from playing any unclean brass instrument, is becoming better known among musicians. Scott Bean, a trombonist, practiced many hours each day, completely unaware that his instrument was the cause of his health problems: “I coughed. I had a horrible deep barking cough—especially when I played trombone. I had a sore throat, lost 60 pounds at a time, and had a low-grade fever” (Orson 1). Doctors examining him believed that Bean was suffering from asthma, but none of the therapies were successful. After fifteen years of suffering, Bean went on a vacation without his trombone and suddenly started to get better. Dr. Mark Metersky, a professor in the University of Connecticut Medical School’s division of pulmonary and critical care, studied Bean’s trombone: “This stuff inside the trombone was causing an allergic reaction, which led to hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a severe inflammation of the lungs. Microscopic organisms were breaking off and getting into Bean’s lungs each time he inhaled” (Orson 1). His trombone caused the disease that he suffered from for fifteen years. Like most brass players, he rarely cleaned his instrument.

             After evaluating Bean’s trombone, Dr. Mark Metersky continued to study professional musicians’ instruments. His findings were repulsive: “Things plopped out. It was disgusting. Imagine the worst thing you’ve found in your refrigerator in food that you’ve left for a few months, and that was coming out of these instruments” (Orson 2). After testing ten instruments, Metersky gave up; all of the instruments were filthy.

            How does the bacteria form inside the instrument? Christopher Woolnough-King explains that “[w]hen brass or woodwind instruments are played repeatedly, large amounts of organic matter can quickly build up within the mouthpieces and tubing. These sites, in particular the tubing where the environment is not as susceptible to drying, are excellent localities for the growth of microorganisms because mouth commensals can easily spread to these sites when the instruments are blown. In addition, epithelial debris and food particles suspended in saliva provide nutrients” (1). When finally cleaned out of the horn, this mix is a sludgy brown liquid. Epithelial debris includes the outside layer of cells that cover all the free open surfaces of the body. Imagine cells from the skin and mucous membrane going into your lungs. Many people switch instruments for fun. Do you want to be breathing in your friends’ skin and mucous membrane cells, along with a buildup of mold hidden in the pipes of the horn?

            How do you know that you’re cleaning the instrument correctly? Bean suggests, “I use a rod with a cloth and use alcohol—rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol—pour it down, and it cleans out the germs” (Orson 2). You need to clean your instrument on a daily basis, not only for your own health, but to ensure the lifetime of the instrument. If you don’t clean your instrument properly, the bacteria from your saliva can eat away at the instrument, and, in some extremely unclean horns, make the instrument completely impossible to play. I hadn’t been cleaning my horn every day, and after a year of owning it, one of the triggers stopped moving completely. I freaked out, and when I sent the horn in to get repaired, the repairman discovered a pile of blue mold surrounding the base of the trigger inside the horn. He said that because I hadn’t been putting oil and running a cleaning snake through my horn, this mold had built up, and that if I didn’t start cleaning my horn everyday, the blue mold would build up again, and eventually, the horn would become unplayable. The horn was only two years old.

            It turns out that not only do young musicians slack on the upkeep of their instruments, but professionals do too. Gay Hawkins, teacher at the School of Media and Communications at the University of New South Wales, theorizes that “[t]he desire for purity has personal, moral, and environmental dimensions, but its motivational trigger is often disgust” (Hawkins 39). A person can be told to clean their horn because it’ll help preserve the instrument’s lifetime, but disgust may be a much more compelling reason. I had been told to clean my horn every single day, but I didn’t. I was too lazy to complete what I thought of as a mundane task. But after learning about the harmful bacteria that builds up when I don’t clean my horn, I now make sure I clean my horn every day.

            Musicians can be forgiven for their ignorance about the unhealthy effects of playing since “[v]ery little research has been carried out over the past forty years on the microbial contamination of musical instruments. Most research concerning inanimate surfaces has centered on clinically significant pathogenic viruses” (Woolnough-King 1). It never occurred to anyone that playing an unclean mouthpiece could transmit a serious disease.

            French horn dealers do not openly inform buyers of these risks. An advertisement for an extremely popular model, a C. G. Conn Model 8DR, provides plenty of detail: “CONNstellation, in F/Bflat, .468” (11.89mm) bore, 12-1/4” (311mm) large throat rose brass bell, rose brass first branch and leadpipe, nickel silver valve section and tuning slides, tapered rotors and bearings, fully mechanical change valves, adjustable levers, lacquer finish, 7BW mouthpiece, deluxe hardshell case. Full warranty” (C. G. Conn 1). But nowhere does it tell you how to clean your horn, or that you have to clean it at all in the first place.

            Brochures for these expensive horns display them on a stage, with thick red velvet curtains behind them. When looking at this image, people may think about classy French horn players performing on elegant stages. For many, classical music represents the height of so-called “high culture.” Studies show that those who play music are more successful in school and in life. For instance, when students involved in music take the SAT, they score much higher than those not involved in music programs. But if we’re so intelligent, why are we playing instruments full of harmful and disgusting bacteria? If instrumentalists were informed of the dangers of playing an unclean horn, they would clean their instruments much more often.

            The bacteria hiding in the tubing of the French horn is similar to the excrement hiding in our sewer pipes. As a society, we want to avoid dealing with our bodily excretions as much as possible. Hawkins states that “[s]hit accumulating in your backyard, being your responsibility[,]” is “not at all unusual for rural residents but startling for those accustomed to living with the easy convenience of sanitation” (Hawkins 51). Those who live in cities flush their waste down a drain and simply expect it to go away. When they stand on streets, they’re ultimately standing on their shit, and the shit of others, but it’s out of sight and out of mind. Instrumentalists treat their bacteria-filled spit the same way. While they play their instruments, the bacteria goes through the horn, building up and slowly turning into mold over time. With such a shiny exterior, horn players can ignore the germs building up in their instruments. These germs are also out of sight and out of mind. When I first began playing French horn I didn’t know I had to clean it. How long did I let my bacteria fester inside of the horn? Two years. After my teacher found out that my horn hadn’t been cleaned, he decided to clean it with me. I’ve never seen anything more disgusting in my life.

            The inside of a French horn shouldn’t come to resemble the inside of a cesspool. It is a beautiful instrument that can create a wonderful pure tone. But if French horn players don’t clean their instruments consistently, they are exposing themselves to disease and shortening the lifespan of an expensive instrument. French horn players need to take better care of their instruments. If they don’t, they might as well voluntarily inhale toxins for at least an hour every day because it will have the same effect as practicing on their horn.


Works Cited

Conn, C.G. “8D Double French horn.” Products. 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.


Hawkins, Gay. “Down the Drain: Shit and the Politics of Disturbance.” Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Ed. Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. 39-52. Print.


Orson, Diane. “Think Music Heals? Trombone Player Begs to Differ: NPR.” NPR: National Public Radio: News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts: NPR. 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.


Woolnough-King, Christopher. “The Presence of Clinically Significant Bacteria within Brass and Woodwind Instruments.” Crizz North-Easat Body Massage Service, Sax Tuition, the Saxman, Jazz, Saxman, E-books and Emporium. University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s