Welcome to

The International Alphorn Festival of Nendaz

History of the alphorn

The origins of an iconic instrument.


The origin of the alphorn is lost in times gone by.Some very ancient tales mention that shepherds in Europe and even as far as Asia used similar instruments, namely a kind of primitive trumpet-like device only playing a few notes.


In Switzerland, you can trace it back to the writings of the Zurich naturalist Conrad Gessner, who described a sort of “litum alpinum” horn, eleven foot long, formed out of two long, rounded, hollowed-out pieces of wood tied one to the other with a piece of wicker. This instrument was used in central Switzerland, in Pilate, in order to herd the livestock.

In actual fact, originally it served as a reminder call to the herd in the evenings up in the mountains. It was also a means of communication to announce news from one valley to another. In a way, it was the precursor to the megaphone. In the mountains and with the wind behind it, the sound can be carried up to 10 kilometres away.


The first alphorn competition took place at the Unspunnen shepherds’ festival and only two contestants faced each other. The first medal won on this occasion is a testimony to the shape of the horn at the time.


Little by the little the use of this instrument spread further and in 1826, Niklaus von Mülinen, a patrician and “landamann” from Bern, instructed the composer Ferdinand Fürchtegott how to make alphorns and to develop the teaching of this instrument in Grindelwald. According to lithographic images of the time, the horns were straighter and very narrow.


It isn’t until 1880 that the alphorn acquired its actual shape. The museum of Zeihen (Argovie) exhibits an example of one from this era. Over the years, the alphorn has passed through changing trends. At the turn of the century, it had even almost completely disappeared and during the founding of the Federal Yodeller Society (8th May 1910) there was only one alphorn present.


In Switzerland, there are around 4,000 instrumentalists, of which 150 are from the Valais and ten of those from Nendaz.

The making of an alphorn

Great know-how.

The sound of the alphorn

The alphorn is a wind instrument in which a air is blown down and vibrates making the sound. Most musicians play in F sharp or F#. The shorter the horn the harder it is to play. In the absence of pistons, the instrument can play only simple sounds (harmonic) produced by the vibration of the lips on the mouthpiece. The sound is transmitted down the pipe of the horn and is amplified by the horn bell.

The complete vibration of the air passing throug the pipe produces the fundamental notes.

The making

Though this method is still used on rare occasions today, a preformed bole of red pine was normally chosen to make the famous alphorn. Its curved shape was caused by the wood being bent under the weight of the snow on trees located on fairly steep land. These alphorns cannot be taken apart, or they can be in two parts, as opposed to the three part alphorn which is normally used today.

The making today

The wood chosen to make an alphorn is the Spruce tree ("Picea Abies") more commonly called the fir tree.

The Spruce is an excellent conductor and transmitter of sound waves

The logs are then taken to the saw mill and placed on the machine to be carefully cut.

The cutting is done in a precise manner so as not to waste any of this valuable material.Here are the planks which are used to make the horn bells.

The Spruce only reveals its quality sound after drying between 5 and 8 years.

Once the wood is considered to be dry enough, patterns are placed o the wood to allow the first cuttings.

The pieces are first cut with a rotary saw. Then the horn bells are cut out roughly

Then refined.

Finally we measure the thickness of the horn bell to make surethat it has the same thickness all round to ensure the quality of its sound.

1) The horn bell

2) Central extension

3) Mouthpiece extension

4) Mouthpiece