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Encyclopedia > Saxophones
Saxophones of different sizes play in different registers. This baritone sax, for example, plays mostly lower notes than a Tenor Sax, and an lower than an
Saxophones of different sizes play in different registers. This baritone sax, for example, plays mostly lower notes than a Tenor Sax, and an octave lower than an Alto Sax.

The saxophone or sax is a musical instrument of the woodwind family, usually made of brass and with a distinctive loop bringing the bell upwards. It was invented by Adolphe Sax in the mid-1840s. The saxophone is most commonly associated with popular music, big band music, and jazz, but it was originally intended as both an orchestral and military band instrument.



The saxophone was created in the mid-1840s by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian-born instrument-maker and clarinetist working in Paris, and was first officially revealed to the public in the patent of 1846 (which was granted to him on May 17). Sax's amazing ability to offend rival instrument manufacturers, and unfortunate prejudice towards the man and his instruments led to it not being used in orchestral groups, and for a long time it was relegated to military bands--this despite his great friendship with the influential Parisian composer Berlioz.

The inspiration for the instrument is unknown, but there is good evidence that fitting a clarinet mouthpiece to an ophicleide is the most likely origin (doing so results in a definitely saxophone-like sound). Sax worked in his father's workshop for many years, and both clarinets and ophicleides were manufactured there. Another speculative possibility is that he was trying to force a clarinet to overblow an octave, but this is perhaps unlikely as a man of his experience would have realised that many of the best harmonic properties of the clarinet stem from its cylindrical construction and inherent overblowing at the twelfth. It is likely, however, that Sax's intent was in fact to invent an entirely new instrument which suited his desires both tonally and technically and possessed a new level of flexibility. This would explain why he chose to name the instrument the "voice of Sax."

It is likely that the larger saxes were the first to be used, as Sax intended the saxophone to replace ophicleides in military bands. The smaller saxes, whilst now more common than their larger siblings, came later, although all are listed in the patent.

The subsequent development is defined almost entirely in terms of Sax's patent. For the duration of the patent (1846-1866) no one except the Sax factory in Rue St Georges, Paris could legally manufacture or modify the instruments. After 1866 a succession of modifications were introduced by a number of manufacturers, most notably Evette and Schaeffer, Lecomte, Fontaine-Besson and of course the Sax company, leading by the early 1900s to instruments very similar to those of today.


The saxophone is sometimes considered to be of both the woodwind and brass families. In fact it is undeniably a woodwind instrument, as the material from which it is made has less bearing on the resulting sound quality than the method by which the sound is produced; some examples are the 1950s plastic saxophones made by the Grafton company (see Materials section), and the rare wooden saxophones which have also been made.

The saxophone uses a single reed mouthpiece similar to that of a clarinet, but with a round evacuated inner chamber. The saxophone's body is effectively conical, giving it properties more similar to the oboe than to the clarinet. However, unlike the oboe, whose tube is a single cone, the saxophone is a combination of four conical sections, and is not in fact a cone. The body expands from neck to bell with a parabolic curve and has an elliptical cross section rather than round. Modern saxophone makers have abandoned the elliptical cross section of the body as designed by Sax in favor of a round and cone shaped body. There is some controversy over the validity of this modern design. The mouthpiece has also been altered. It now has a shape more similar to that of a clarinet mouthpiece. The use of a cone enables overblowing at the octave rather than the twelfth (as for the clarinet), but the exceptionally wide bore gives the instrument a much fuller sound than the oboe. The loop at the bell, whilst now synonymous with the saxophone, has little effect on the sound, and the higher saxophones (soprano and sopranino, where the over-all length of the body is not so long as to make a straight instrument cumbersome) rarely have one at all.

With a simple fingering system owing much to the recorder, the modern Boehm flute and clarinet, the saxophone is commonly considered an easy instrument to learn, especially when transferring from other woodwind instruments, though a great amount of development is required to produce a beautiful tone color.


The majority of saxophones produced today are made from brass. However, several manufacturers offer additional coatings that can be applied over the brass, such as silver, gold, nickel and lacquer. These are typically designed to enhance sound quality and/or give the saxophone an interesting visual appearance. There are also a small number of saxophones being commercially produced from materials other than brass. Silver, copper and bronze are notable examples. Other materials have been tried with varying degrees of success. Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker famously played a Grafton sax made of plastic.

 Some saxophones are ornately engraved (http://www.dumarsengraving.com) like this 1920 Conn tenor.
Some saxophones are ornately engraved (http://www.dumarsengraving.com) like this 1920 Conn tenor.

Mouthpieces, on the other hand, come in a wide variety of materials, both metal and non-metal. Non-metal mouthpieces are typically either plastic or hard rubber, sometimes wood, and rarely glass. Metal mouthpieces are believed by some to have a distinctive sound, often described as 'brighter' than non-metal. Some players believe that plastic mouthpieces do not produce a good tone. Other saxophonists maintain that the material has little, if any, effect, and that the size and shape of the interior gives a mouthpiece its tone color.


Like clarinets, saxophones use a single reed. Saxophone reeds, though, are generally broader and shorter than clarinet reeds. They are also softer. Hardness is usually (but not always) measured using a numeric scale that ranges from 1 to 6 (though one rarely sees a reed at either end of this spectrum). Unfortunately, this scale is far from standardized, and a Rico 3 is decidedly softer than a Vandoren 3, for example. Of course, you can also make your own reeds, or shave down manufactured reeds to suit your tastes. Reeds, depending on the brand, are somewhat inconsistent, and most saxophonists deem only about half of the reeds in a given box of ten suitable for performance. A reed can last anywhere from one note to months, though they tend to last a two or three weeks(if properly maintained). The more they have been played, the easier they are to play, but, as time goes on they will become too soft and will begin to create a less than desireable tone. New out-of-the-box reeds are often stuffy sounding and have more potential to squeak. This is because a break in time of up to a week or more is needed for a reed to reach it's full potential. Advanced students and professional saxophonists spend years perfecting their methods of reed selection, storage, and adjustment.

Synthetic reeds exist, but few players use them. Many saxophonists consider them to give poor control, consider their sound uncharacteristic of the instrument, or say they would consider them for use only in a context such as a marching band.

Members of the family

The saxophone was originally patented as two families, each of seven instruments. The "orchestral" family consisted of instruments in the keys of C and F, and the "band" family in Eb and Bb. Each family consisted of Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass and Contrabass although some of these were never made (Sax also planned - but never made - a subcontra).

Of these the orchestral family are now rarely found, and of the band family only the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone are in common use (these form the typical saxophone sections of both military and big bands). The C-melody saxophone, a non-transposing instrument, was popular in the 1920s and could be played from sheet music for guitar and piano. The soprano has regained a degree of popularity over recent decades, beginning first with the work of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and the bass, sopranino and even contrabass are still manufactured. Sopranino, bass and contrabass are rarely used except in large saxophone ensembles and saxophone orchestras.

The wide bore of the saxophone means that the larger saxoophones are extremely large and heavy, and recently (1999) an alternative contrabass, the tubax , has been developed with a narrower bore. Although not a true saxophone, its bore leads to a more reasonable size and weight.

At the other end of the spectrum, construction difficulties mean that only recently has a true sopranissimo saxophone been produced. Nicknamed the soprillo, this piccolo-sized saxophone is an octave above the soprano, and its diminutive size necessitates an octave key on the mouthpiece.

Writing for the Saxophone

Cat Newton plays and on the sax
Cat Newton plays New Orleans jazz and blues on the sax

Music for the saxophone is written on the treble clef, where the playable range extends over two octaves, from Bb below the staff to F above. Intermediate and professional grade saxes typically have an extra side key that extends the range to include high F#. Some also have a key that allows for high G. Higher notes -- those in the altissimo range (ranging from F# or G to C) -- can also be played, though there is no standardized fingering for these notes. Sax's original design held a slightly smaller range from B below the staff to Eb above it. Even with this more limited design, however, Sax himself demonstrated the instrument with over three octaves. There have been efforts by several individuals to standardize a method for fingering the extended range of the instrument.

The saxophone is a transposing instrument. This makes it easy for a player to switch between instruments of different sizes without having to relearn the fingering for each note on the staff. When a saxophonist plays a C on the staff on an Eb alto saxophone, the note sounds as Eb a sixth below the written note; on a Bb tenor saxophone, the note sounds as Bb a ninth below. The baritone is an octave below the alto, and the soprano an octave above the tenor. The following discussion refers entirely to the notes as written, and therefore applies equally to all members of the saxophone family.

Composers writing for the saxophone should consider the two-octave range from low D to high D as the normal, comfortable range of the instrument.

Notes below low D require the use of the right-hand pinkie, which is weak, so the lowest part of the range is not appropriate for fast passages, and one should avoid writing parts that stay in that range for a long time. Notes below low D are out of tune on many instruments unless corrected with the embouchure. Late-model baritone saxophones have a low A-natural, but other members of the family do not, and composers who write this note for baritone should be aware that it may not actually be played if the saxophonist uses an older instrument. On an instrument that has not been perfectly maintained, it may be difficult to get the lowest notes to speak, especially when the player is inexperienced, or is asked to leap down to them. It is safest to approach these notes by a step, or to write them in a context in which they can be tongued. (Baritone players are used to playing "oompah" parts, however.)

In the middle of the range, there is a break between C# and D, with a marked change in tone color. (Skilled players may be able to use alternate fingerings to mask the break when it might otherwise be objectionable, as in slow passages.)

The top of the range, from high Eb to high F, forces the left hand out of position, and may also be difficult for amateur players to play in tune. The intonation of these notes can be especially flat when the player uses a soft reed, or a small-volume mouthpiece rather than a classically-oriented one.


The first figure below shows a set of basic fingerings for the saxophone. The most important alternate fingerings are those involving Bb, as summarized in the second figure. The split Bb fingering (one-and-one fingering) is used in some chromatic passages, and has the advantage of keeping the hands in their normal positions; the other right-hand fingers may also be used rather than the first finger. In bis fingering, the first finger of the left hand depresses two keys at once; this fingering useful for arpeggios, and for scales in which there is no B-natural. The right-hand fingering (side fingering) is considered by some players to have a better tone quality than the split fingering, can be used in chromatic passages, and is also used for the A-Bb and Bb-C trills.

In the typical embouchure, the top teeth rest on the mouthpiece, while the lower lip is curled slightly so that it comes between the reed and the bottom teeth. Diaphragm and jaw vibrato are both used, with the latter being more typical.

The greatest intonation problems occur with C#, which is flat, and F#, which is sharp. The differences in intonation among the various Bb fingerings are insignificant, and should not be used as a criterion for choosing among them. The very highest notes in the normal range may also require correction, but this depends a great deal on the reed and the mouthpiece.

The fingerings for a saxophone do not change from one instrument to another. Here, notes on a treble staff correspond to fingerings below.
Fingerings typically appear with the left and right hand side-by-side.
Fingerings typically appear with the left and right hand side-by-side.

Growling is a technique used commonly in rock and blues music whereby the saxophonist sings as they are playing. This causes a modulation of the sound, and results in a gruffness or coarseness of the sound.

Alternate fingerings are also used to give a different sound. Here the same note is played a number of times using different fingerings which give a slightly different tonality to the notes.

A glissando or sliding technique can also be used. Here the saxophonist bends the note using the embochure and at the same time slides up or down to another fingered note. This technique is also used on the clarinet and is sometimes heard in big band music and orchestral scores.

Another technique used for producing a different sound is known as "harmonics" and involves fingering one note but sounding another note which is a harmonic of the fingered note. For example if low Bb is fingered, a Bb one octave above may be sounded by "overblowing". The Bb one octave higher is the first harmonic of the low Bb. The next three harmonics of the low Bb are F, Bb, and D. Harmonics are also used to gain access to the altissimo register.

See also

External links



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