Cleaning the Spit Out of a French Horn: Quick vs. Thoroughly

concert french horn player on black

A French horn is a one-of-kind instrument, from its curvature design to its unique sound. But, like any brass instrument, spit will eventually build up and will need to be cleaned out if you want to maintain a high-quality sound.

To quickly clean out spit from a French horn, remove the mouthpiece and turn the instrument over so the opening is pointed downward. Any excess saliva and condensation should drain out. You will need to remove the horn’s valves/tuning slides and wipe down the inside for a more thorough clean.

While both techniques will remove any spit or condensation from your French horn, these are not the only ways you can keep your instrument clean and concert-ready. There are several cleaning methods required to keep your French horn in good condition.

Although spit build up can lead to a muffled sound, there are also other factors that could also cause your French horn to sound muffled including how you play. You can find out about this further down in this article but let’s cover how to clean out the spit first!

How to Quickly Clean Spit from a French Horn

The quickest—and easiest—way to remove the spit from a French horn is to remove the mouthpiece from the instrument and tilt it over so that the opening revealed faces the floor. This way, the saliva and condensation within the horn can drain out properly.

Most of the spit that ends up in the instrument will get caught right around the first bend of the horn, so when you are in a pinch—especially if you are in the middle of a concert or practice—this simple method can help eliminate it so you can continue to produce a quality sound.

Of course, this method is not guaranteed to remove all the spit built up in your French horn.

If you play your instrument more than at least two or three times a week, it is recommended that you do a thorough clean of the horn at least once a week to preserve the integrity of the instrument—inside and out—and ensure it keeps its quality sound.

How to Thoroughly Clean Spit from a French Horn

close up of brass french horn on black

Many brass instruments, such as trumpets, trombones, and tubas, have a special “spit valve” that can be removed to clear out all condensation or spit remaining in the horn. However, French horns do not have this feature; therefore, it is important to clean out the instrument thoroughly to remove any excess spit beyond simply draining it by turning it over.

Thoroughly cleaning the spit from a French horn requires a few steps:

  1. Remove the mouthpiece and shake out any excess spit.
  2. Turn the instrument over and gently shake it so any excess spit in the first curve drains out, similarly to the quick cleaning method.
  3. Next, remove the tuning slides one by one, starting with the main. With each small slide, press down their respective key and blow air through the instrument. Face the removed slide downward and lightly shake to clear them out. Repeat this step for each slide.
  4. Put the slides back where they go, and press down on all three of the horn’s keys. Turn the instrument like a car steering wheel several times so that any leftover spit can drain through the bell.

(Source: Fhorn Patrick)

Note: If needed, you can use a soft cloth to wipe down the slides and the bell interior to make sure the surfaces are dry.

Final French Horn Cleaning Tips

As we hinted at the beginning, clearing the spit out of your French horn isn’t the only way you can keep it clean. By following the tips below, you can ensure your instrument stays in the best possible shape for regular practice and performance for years to come:

  • Regularly wipe down the instrument’s outer layer to protect it against any corrosion or dust.
  • Polish the instrument once every two weeks or so to maintain its shine.
  • Oil the valves and grease the slides regularly. This means you will need to remove the slides, wipe them down, and apply specific oils so they can continue to move without sticking.
    Note: If a slide does not come out easily, this can be a sign of excess build-up. You may need to clear the instrument of excess spit. If this does not help, it is recommended that you bring the horn to a professional for cleaning and repair. Do not try to force the slide out.
  • A final tip for keeping your French horn in good condition: make sure your mouth is clean before playing. If you have just eaten a meal or snack, rinse out your mouth, or thoroughly brush your teeth. This will ensure that food particles do not get into your instrument and lead to a muffled sound.
    Note: Sugars found in certain foods can lead to corrosion inside the French horn if not cleaned out thoroughly. Also, food left in your instrument’s dark, warm, and wet tubing can eventually grow mold or bacteria, which is not only unsanitary for your horn but can also pose a health hazard to you! This is another reason why it’s important to clean your instrument regularly.

Why Does My French Horn Sound Muffled?

man playing french horn with water behindA French horn can sound beautifully clear when it’s cleaned, in good condition, and played with the right technique. So, if you notice it starting to emit a more muffled noise, it’s time to evaluate how you’re playing the instrument as well as its condition.

Incorrect Hand Placement

One potential reason why your French horn might sound muffled is your playing technique, specifically where you have your hands placed on the instrument.

French horns require both of your hands to be played correctly: the first hand uses the fingers to press down the appropriate valves to emit different notes, while the second hand is placed inside the instrument’s bell to create its unique sound.

For some players—usually novices—pushing your hand too far inside the bell or covering the opening too much can result in a muffled sound.

Not Enough Air Flowing through the Instrument

Because a French horn has a unique design with plenty of tubing, it requires a significant amount of air to flow through it to produce a full, clear sound compared to an instrument like a trumpet.

If your French horn sounds muffled, it could be a sign it’s not getting enough air, either because you’re not blowing enough air due to lower lung capacity or there’s too much condensation or saliva in the instrument for the air to push through.

The latter leads us to the final reason you hear muffled sounds:

The French Horn Needs to Be Cleaned

As the previous section suggests, you may be hearing muffled sounds from your French horn because there’s too much water in the instrument blocking air from traveling.

Your spit, combined with the air you blow through the instrument that creates condensation inside it, can quickly clog up the horn in certain areas, such as within valves or tuning slides.

To resolve this, you simply need to remove the spit from the instrument by quickly draining it out or performing a more thorough clean of the interior.

In Summary

close up of french horn on side with valves showingEnsuring your French horn is in top playing shape can take time and effort—and a little bit of due diligence. A muffled French horn is a bad-sounding French horn, so be sure that you clear the instrument of any potential blockage like spit, condensation, or excess food particles that may be stuck in the tubing.

In addition, regular care and maintenance are key to ensure your French horn stays in good condition for years. This includes additional tasks like polishing and wiping down the outside of your instrument. If you’re looking for cleaning cloths, cleaners, or polish, visit our supplies page for recommendations!


An ardant fan of acoustic music, I played the clarinet in high school band and even competed in Disneyland. As the son of a music teacher, I know firsthand the importance of keeping instruments clean and maintained. I now enjoy sharing information with others and providing answers where I can.

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