Key of F

As I write this, I’m sixty-nine years old. Why have I never heard this before? I just read that American car horns are tuned to honk in the key of F. This seems to me to be a fact that every educated American should know. Did you know it?

It gets worse, however. I checked this obscure fact out on my Google machine and discovered an even deeper truth. Until the mid-1960s, American car horns were tuned to the musical notes of E flat or C. For whatever reason, most automobile manufacturers have bumped it up a tad. They now honk in F sharp and A sharp.

Musically Inclined

If you’re musically inclined, you probably realize that a single note is not necessarily in the key of anything. However, if you’re as old as I, you may remember that cars actually had two horns that blew simultaneously. Consequently, they actually could honk in the key of F.

Now, however, many cars only have one horn (a cost cutting measure, no doubt). The result is a singular beep that is, technically, in no particular key at all. If you actually have a double horned car, the good ones are tuned to a perfect fifth from each other. This causes a more pleasing sound—in tune, as it were. You may want to check it out with a guitar tuner.

I find this to be anathema to the very idea of car horns. From my perspective, they were all meant to be annoying. I can’t ever remember thinking to myself, “My, that’s a sweet-sounding horn.” That’s probably due to the fact that the guy honking at me is usually ticked off because I wandered into his lane (or something innocent like that).

Making Noise

Regardless of what key your horn might be in, it’s interesting to note (no pun intended) that horns have been around for centuries—millennia, actually. We read about them being sounded back in Biblical times. I did a little research and found that the first time the word horn is used to describe a noisemaking instrument is way back in Exodus. This is, of course, the second book in the Bible—one of the Books of Moses.

In that passage, people could only approach the mountain of God when a ram’s horn was used to sound a long blast. As a side note, anyone touching the mountain without hearing the blast was to be stoned or shot full of arrows. This was obviously the precursor of the long blasts we hear when people want us to get out of their way while driving.

Of course, we’ve changed the meaning. The Lord’s horn was sounded to alert us that we were permitted to approach. Today, we sound those long blasts for exactly the opposite reason. We want more distance between us and the other driver. With all the road rage that can exist these days, offenders are still likely to be stoned or shot with arrows (or with icy stares in the very least).

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and currently resides in Aldie, VA.]

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