The saxophone (also referred to as the sax) is a conical-bore transposing musical instrument that is a member of the woodwind family. Saxophones are usually made of brass and played with a single-reed mouthpiece similar to that of the clarinet. The saxophone was invented by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in 1846. He wanted to create an instrument that would both be the most powerful and vocal of the woodwinds and the most adaptive of the brass, which would fill the vacant middle ground between the two sections. He patented the sax on June 28, 1846 in two groups of seven instruments each. Each series consisted of instruments of various sizes in alternating transposition. The series pitched in B♭ and E♭, designed for military bands, has proved extremely popular and most saxophones encountered today are from this series. Instruments from the so-called "orchestral" series pitched in C and F never gained a foothold. While proving very popular in military band music, the saxophone is most commonly associated with jazz and classical music. There is substantial repertoire of concert music in the classical idiom for the members of the saxophone family. Saxophone players are called saxophonists.
- 1 Pitch Range
- 2 Tuning
- 3 Timbre and Tone
- 4 Variants
- 5 Techniques
- 6 Styles
A transposing instrument pitched in the key of B♭, modern soprano saxophones with a high F# key have a range from A♭3 to E6 and are therefore pitched one octave above the tenor saxophone. Some saxophones have additional keys, allowing them to play an additional F♯ and G at the top of the range. These extra keys are commonly found on more modern saxophones. Additionally, skilled players can make use of the Altissimo register, which allows them to play even higher. There is also a soprano pitched in C, which is less common and has not been made since around 1940.
The range of the alto saxophone is from concert D♭3 (the D♭ below middle C—see Scientific pitch notation) to concert A♭5 (or A5 on altos with a high F♯ key). As with most types of saxophones, the standard written range is B♭3 to F6 (or F♯6). Above that, the altissimo register begins at F♯ and extends upwards. The saxophone's altissimo register is more difficult to control than that of other woodwinds and is usually only expected from advanced players.
Modern tenor saxophones which have a high F# key have a range from A♭2 to E5 (concert) and are therefore pitched one octave below the soprano saxophone.
From concert D♭2 (Sometimes C2) to A♭4. Many models have a key for a (written) low A (instead of the usual low B♭) and/or a key for high F♯.
Less common variants:
A sopranino saxophone is tuned in the key of E♭, and sounds an octave above the alto saxophone.
Although bass saxophones in C were made for orchestral use, modern instruments are in B♭. This puts them a perfect fourth lower than the baritone sax and an octave lower than the tenor sax. The range is similar to that of the B♭ contrabass clarinet. Music is written in treble clef, just as for the other saxophones, with the pitches sounding two octaves and a major second lower than written. As with most other members of the saxophone family, the lowest written note is the B♭ below the staff — sounding as a concert A♭ in the first octave (~ 51.9 Hz).
The range of the contrabass saxophone is approximately one octive below that of the baritone saxophone, although some notes may be harder to reach due to the increased volume of air required.
The range of the subcontrabass saxophone is approximately one octive below that of the bass saxophone, although some notes may be harder to reach due to the increased volume of air required.
The saxophone is either a B flat or an E flat instrument. Variations in cane and other construction materials, the age of the reed, and differences in scrape and length will all affect the pitch of the instrument. Weather conditions such as temperature and humidity will also affect the pitch. Skilled saxophonists adjust their embouchure to compensate for these factors. Subtle manipulation of embouchure and air pressure allows the player to express timbre and dynamics.
Adolphe Sax wanted to create a woodwind that sounded like a string instrument. The timbre of his solution is therefore highly versatile. When the player uses a metal mouthpiece, the tone is very bright and suitable for jazz. Alternatively, a saxophonist can use a classical mouthpiece made from hard rubber for a darker, smoother tone. Many high school level saxophone players use cheaper plastic-made mouthpieces, which may yield a tone quality roughly between those of metal and hard rubber, but lacking the best qualities of both. The composer needn't indicate a type of mouthpiece to be used, as this is usually implied by the style of writing.
In the orchestra, the most commonly used saxophone is the alto. In the wind band, the alto, tenor, and baritone are almost always present, with the alto saxophone section typically divided into two parts. In the jazz/big band, there are usually parts for two altos, two tenors, and a baritone.
Bb Soprano Saxophone
The Bb soprano saxophone is the highest pitched saxophone in common use. It has a sharp, reedy timbre that is often compared to the oboe's. Like the oboe, the soprano saxophone is difficult to control in its lowest register, and the lowest notes (written D4 and below) can be rather obtrusive. When the performer is an accomplished player, this should not be an issue. Above written C6, the timbre thins out noticeably and intonation becomes a greater concern. Due to the small mouthpiece (compared to those for other saxes) it can be fatiguing to play in the uppermost register, and passages using this tessitura should be kept to relatively short intervals, especially when doubled by an alto saxophone player.
The soprano saxophone, like its entire family, is not often encountered in an orchestral setting. A specialist is often brought in to cover important parts written for the soprano if the third clarinetist does not already specialize. In bands and wind ensembles, the first or second alto saxophonist typically plays any (rarely found) soprano parts. The Bb Soprano Saxophone is not a standardized member of the band, being rarely available in community and youth bands. The instrument is not uncommon, however, and is often available in the collegiate band and most surely the professional band. When the instrument is not available, it is wise to cue the soprano saxophone line in the alto saxophone part (provided it is not out of the alto's range). Flute, clarinet, and oboe may serve as effective replacements.
As the timbre of the soprano saxophone is reminiscent of the oboe's, it tends to blend well with the oboe, English horn, and of course, the other saxophones. It can also be used without difficulty in conjunction with the brass section, as its strong, bright tone tends to cut through well in a brass texture. Above written D5, the Soprano Saxophone also blends well with flutes and clarinets. The instrument by itself is capable of considerable expression and is a rather versatile yet chronically underappreciated solo instrument. Bb Soprano Saxophone is always written exclusively in the treble (G) clef.
Soprano in Jazz
Soprano sax is typically a double, however many players have contributed to the instrument's increased use in jazz. Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy made the soprano their primary voice; others - like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Branford Marsalis and John Surman have used it extensively, in addition to their main instruments. Most sopranos are made like the image shown below, but it's not uncommon for them to be curved, like small alto saxes.
Eb Alto Saxophone
The Eb alto saxophone is the most widely used member of the saxophone family. Capable of wide expression, the alto saxophone is frequently the family member with the most prominent voice in the saxophone choir of the band. The alto also appears in orchestral scores far more often than other saxes. Like the violin with respect to its family, the alto saxophone enjoys a much larger solo repertoire than the 3 higher and 3 lower saxes. As with the soprano saxophone, the reedy timbre of the alto can be slightly difficult to control in the lowest register (written D4 and below), though this is not a problem for players at the collegiate level and above. Also like the soprano, the timbre may thin out above written D6 and intonation may become unstable. Again, this should not be of great concern when dealing with a skilled performers. The Eb Alto Saxophone is always written in the treble (G) clef.
In a professional band, the ideal configuration assigns one player to each of the two alto saxophone parts. Avoid writing only one alto part in scores for large wind groups. Larger bands may assign more than one saxophonist to each alto part, with numbers sometimes reaching twelve alto saxophones in all. This can and probably will cause balance and intonation issues. The composer should therefore clearly indicate solos in either part when appropriate, even when assuming that there will only be one player per part. As discussed above, the 1st chair alto saxophone is responsible for doubling on the Bb soprano saxophone when needed.
The alto saxophone's warm yet reedy timbre blends well with the Bb clarinet, horn, and, naturally, other saxophones. Due to its powerful tone, it can also maintain a balance with the brass.
Because of the popularity and availability of the Eb alto saxophone, it is not necessary to cue it in other parts. If necessary the Bb clarinet, Eb alto clarinet, or horn can be used to cover most of the alto saxophone's range. Lower parts can be covered or doubled by the Bb tenor saxophone, horn, trombone, or euphonium.
Bb Tenor Saxophone
The Bb tenor saxophone is the likely the second most popular saxophone, visible in the band and orchestra as well as the recital hall. While having a particularly robust, reedy, and hearty timbre, it is capable of being quite warm and expressive. As with most of the other saxophones, notes below written D4 can be harsh, and those above D6 can be noticeably thin or out of tune. This shouldn't be much of a consideration if one is writing for a professional.
Though the professional band would ideally have only one tenor saxophone, collegiate, community, and high school ensembles may often have more than one (and as many as six). Unlike the alto saxophone, the tenor saxophonist rarely encounters divided or multiple parts. While the ideal configuration is for one tenor saxophonist in an ensemble, any solos should always be marked.
Not unlike the alto saxophone, the tenor can be useful for blending with the Bb clarinet, Eb alto clarinet, horn, and trombone, as well as the other saxophones. It can also blend well with the full brass section.
The following graphic illustrates the full range and recommended ranges of the Bb Tenor Saxophone.
The recommended ranges are for: a.) Community band, b.) Collegiate band, and c.) Professional band. Please keep in mind that this range is merely a suggestion, as one never knows the quality of the musician one is dealing with in non-professional situations. The Bb Tenor Saxophone is always written exclusively in the treble (G) clef.
Because the tenor saxophone is a common instrument, it is usually not necessary to cue it in other parts, except for simple landmark cues. In the upper half of their (similar) ranges, the Eb alto clarinet and Eb alto saxophone can be suitable for doubling and replacement if necessary. The lower range may be doubled or replaced by the Bb bass clarinet, trombone, or euphonium.
Tenor in Jazz
The tenor sax is a highly versatile saxophone because of its range, tone, and abilities. The tenor sax enjoys a considerable classical repertoire, but is most at home in Jazz. A few notable tenor saxophonists are Dextor Gordon, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman.
Eb Bari Saxophone
The lowest pitched saxophone in common use, the Eb Baritone Saxophone has a warm, full timbre that has been likened to that of a reedy Euphonium. Compared to the other saxophones, the instrument is more easily controlled in its lowest register, though the upper register (above written C6) may have a pinched quality.
In the professional band there will be one Baritone Saxophonist, though rarely the collegiate or community band may have two. The instrument is less common than the other saxophones, and occasionally a smaller ensemble may lack a Baritone Saxophone altogether.
The Baritone Saxophone blends well with Bassoon, Bb Bass Clarinet, Eb Contra-alto Clarinet, Trombone, and Euphonium (and of course, the other saxophones), and can easily blend and balance with the brasses. Though infrequently heard as a solo instrument, it is quite effective in that capacity.
The following graphic illustrates the full range and recommended ranges of the Eb Baritone Saxophone.
The recommended ranges are for: a.) Community band, b.) Collegiate band, and c.) Professional band. Please keep in mind that this range is merely a suggestion, as one never knows the quality of the musician one is dealing with in non-professional situations. The Eb Baritone Saxophone is always written exclusively in the treble (G) clef.
As the Baritone Saxophone is commonly encountered in the band, it is not often cross-cued in another part in the ensemble (except for simple landmark cues). The Bassoon, Bb Bass Clarinet, Euphonium, or Tuba all could be considered effective or appropriate replacements/reinforcements for the instrument.
Bari in Jazz
The Baritone saxophone has a low beautiful tone that sometimes sounds like a cello. The baritone sax (also called the 'bari sax' to avoid being confused with the baritone horn) has had many pieces written for it including Richard Strauss' Symphonia Domestica, composed in 1902-03; Béla Bartók's Wooden Prince ballet music, Charles Ives' Symphony no. 4, composed in 1910-16, and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. It has a comparatively small solo repertoire although an increasing number of concerti have appeared. When the baritone is used in an orchestral setting, it often doubles the tuba, although an greater number of composers or arrangers are including solo parts for the baritone saxophone. In Jazz the bari sax has appeared in a number of jazz ensembles, like Duke Ellington's longtime baritone player, Harry Carney. While many saxophonists double on bari, there are some who used the baritone sax as their primary instrument such as Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Gary Smulyan or John Surman. The bari sax has also appeared in ska music, and popular music on occasion.
Less Common Variants
Sopranino and Sopranissimo Saxes
The Eb Sopranino Saxophone was a part of the original "band family" of Eb and Bb saxophones, but never gained much popularity. Ravel scored for an orchestral F Sopranino (along with a C Tenor) in his color-experiment Bolero, but this instrument went extinct long ago and the part is always played on an Eb instrument. The Sopranino Saxophone's tone ranges from a smooth, soprano-like color in the lower register to a clear, bright timbre in the high range. Notable jazz and improvising musicians using this instrument include Carla Marciano, James Carter, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Paul McCandless, Lol Coxhill, Roger Frampton, Hans Koller, Wolfgang Fuchs, Douglas Ewart, Larry Ochs, Vinny Golia, Thomas Chapin, Martin Archer, and Ian Anderson. The sopranino saxophone is also used in the six-member Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra, currently played by Kelley Hart Jenkins. (2) The Bb Sopranissimo saxophone (also known as the Soprillo or, rarely, the "piccolo sax") is a new addition to the family. It has been on the market from its inventor, Benedikt Eppelsheim, for about ten years. Herr Eppelsheim's website for the Soprillo bears a disclaimer, as one must have an extremely firm embouchure to play the instrument and inexperienced players may injure themselves attempting to produce any sound. There is a website deticated to the soprillo (with a CD available).
Often called an F Alto, this rare instrument was for use in orchestras. It was only produced by one company, C.G.Conn. It's lower register is much like an alto's, but it's higher register was much sweeter, better sounding, more like a soprano saxophone. They are very rare, since they were only produced between the years 1928 and 1929. They were discontinued because of low factory standards, but also because of the great depression that happened shortly afterwards. Rather than use their alto saxophones (which could instead be sold to customers) Conn decided to use their surplus of Mezzo Sopranos as training instruments for repairmen to learn how to repair saxophones. This obviously lead to a lot of broken saxophones which, in turn, makes them that much more rare. Pictured below is a Mezzo Soprano (left) next to an Alto (right)
Adolphe Sax's original patent for the saxophone included a "saxophone bourdon," pitched in Bb and theoretically capable of producing concert Ab0. However, Sax ultimately failed to create a working model of the subcontrabass, having struggled to produce the seven-foot-tall Eb Contrabass. By the late twentieth century, the saxophone family's range had more or less been cut off at the Bari sax's low A; the Bass sax had been deemed impractical, the Contrabass sax really was impractical, and the Subcontra was impossible to produce. At the turn of the century, German woodwind maker Benedikt Eppelsheim introduced a plausible answer to the problem of the saxophone family's limited low range. The first "Tubax" (a portmanteau between "sax," the instrument it most closely resembles, and "tuba," the instrument with the most similar range) was an Eb contrabass with sounding range from Db1 to middle C. Next came the Subcontrabass in Bb, which remains the lowest woodwind instrument in production with its range to Ab below the piano's lowest A. A C Tubax with a range similar to the Contrabassoon's completed the family of exclusively sub-bass woodwinds. The Tubaxes are often described as completions of the saxophone family; some freely call them "contrabass saxophones." However, many believe that the Tubax's unusually thin form, a compromise between the saxophone's very conical bore and the more cylindrical shape of other woodwinds, should make it a separate family of instruments. This is likely true, as the Eb Tubax and Bb Tubax take Bari sax and Bass sax mouthpieces respectively, even though they're pitched an octave below those saxes. Still, composers should write for Tubaxes as though writing for low saxophones. The tubax's tone is similar to the saxophone's, but noticeably rougher around the edges. Unlike the true contrabass sax, the tubaxes are capable of great agility and require comparatively little air to play. Write for tubax as though writing for bari or bass saxes that have an extra octave of low range, but roughly the same amount of usable high range. This lower octave can provide a solid foundation to any ensemble, or serve as a snarling and subterranean solo voice.
There are many techniques used in saxophone playing, as there is with any woodwind instrument. The Saxophonist can produce vibrato, blow overtones, bend notes, glissando, flutter-tongue, slap tongue, growl, and key click.
Saxophonists most often create vibrato through slights pulses in embouchure, tightenings and loosenings of the throat and lip muscles to create slight variations in pitch. It is also possible, although not all too commonly practiced, for the saxophonist to create vibrato through a pulsing of the diaphragm, as flautists and oboists do. The practice of vibrato by saxophonists in large ensembles is generally frowned upon, at least below the collegiate level, except in solo playing, as many lower chair saxophonists cannot properly produce satisfactory vibrato, and band and orchestra directors generally prefer a uniform, solid sound out of the saxophone section.
Overtones on the saxophone are relatively easy to play. An overtone is when one pushes a set fingering (for example a C fingering) and plays the horn in such a way that it produces a note other than the one the fingering was designed to play. Overtone charts are available on the web for easy reference.
By changing the embouchure a saxophonist can bend a note flat or sharp, depending on what the performer wants. By dropping the bottom lip and relaxing the throat the performer can bend a note very flat, some can even bend it down a few steps. By using this same logic a performer can tighten their throat and clamp down more on the reed to bend a note sharp. This may be used in tuning, but may also help with glissandos.
Glissando-ing is relatively hard to master on the saxophone, mainly because the keys are set. Unlike a clarinet, where the performer can move their fingers ever so slightly to create a very smooth glissando, a saxophonist must learn to move the keys very smoothly and very slowly. Because of this difficulty, good glissando-ers are hard to come by, but one notable saxophonist with a good glissando is Johnny Hodges.
Although a little used skill, saxophones have the ability to flutter tongue. Because of the mouthpiece getting in the way, most saxophonist cheat by rattling their throat, although some saxophonists can do a true flutter tongue. A flutter tongue on the saxophone sounds a lot like a growl, which gives the effect that a brass instrument does when it cracks their bell.
Slap tonguing is a fun and easily learned trick. The performer sticks most of the mouthpiece in his mouth and makes a suction with his tongue on the bottom of the reed. He slaps down his tongue as if clicking it, which makes the reed then slap the mouthpiece very quickly and hard, producing a loud "clonk" noise. If the performer does this while putting air through the horn it makes a VERY loud and distinct noise. In the lower register this normally makes a gross and horrific noise, but in the upper register (if done correctly) it sounds much like pizzicato on a violin.
Growling is done by playing normally and then humming while playing. This gives a very loud and raw sound, much like that of a brass instrument cracking it's bell. This technique is used in passages of music that is very abrupt, loud, and "in your face."
Because the saxophone has only keys and no tone holes, a performer can push down the keys very hard and loudly which will produce a clicking noise. Because of the resonant properties of the saxophone, a performer can click the keys "in tune" although the click won't produce the same note as actually playing.
The saxophone first gained popularity in the niche it was designed for: the military band. Although the instrument was studiously ignored in Germany, French and Belgian military bands took full advantage of the instrument that Sax had designed specifically for them. Most French and Belgian military bands incorporate at least a quartet of saxophones comprising at least the E♭ baritone, B♭ tenor, E♭ alto and B♭ soprano. These four instruments have proved the most popular of all of Sax's creations, with the E♭ contrabass and B♭ bass usually considered impractically large and the E♭ sopranino insufficiently powerful. British military bands tend to include at minimum two saxophonists on the alto and tenor. The saxophone has more recently found a niche in both concert band and big band music, which often calls for the E♭ baritone, B♭ tenor and E♭ alto. The B♭ soprano is also occasionally utilised, in which case it will normally be played by the first alto saxophonist. The bass saxophone in B♭ is called for in band music (especially music by Percy Grainger) and big band orchestrations, especially music performed by the Stan Kenton "Mellophonium Orchestra". In the 1920s the bass saxophone was used often in classic jazz recordings, since at that time it was easier to record than a tuba or double bass. The saxophone has been more recently introduced into the symphony orchestra, where it has found increased popularity. In one or other size, the instrument has been found a useful accompaniment to genres as wide-ranging as opera, choral music and chamber pieces. Many musical scores include parts for the saxophone, usually either doubling another woodwind or brass instrument. In this way the sax serves as a middle point between woodwinds and brass, helping to blend the two sections.
A well-known implementation of the saxophone is modern jazz music. This is usually as a solo instrument with a rhythm section, but sometimes in the form of a saxophone quartet or big band.
The saxophone quartet is usually made up of one B♭ soprano, one E♭ alto, one B♭ tenor and one E♭ baritone (SATB). On occasion, the soprano is replaced with a second alto sax (AATB); a few professional saxophone quartets have featured non-standard instrumentation, such as James Fei's Alto Quartet (four altos) and Hamiet Bluiett's Bluiett Baritone Nation (four baritones).
There is a repertoire of classical compositions and arrangements for the SATB instrumentation dating back to the nineteenth century, particularly by French composers who knew Adolphe Sax. Other ensembles most likely existed at this time as part of the saxophone sections of the many touring "business" bands that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There are a few larger all-saxophone ensembles, the most prominent including the 9-member SaxAssault, and Urban Sax, which includes as many as 52 saxophonists. The 6-member Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra owns one of the few E♭ contrabass saxophones, and plays a variety of ensemble pieces including "Casbah Shuffle", a duet for sopranino and contrabass. Very large groups, featuring over 100 saxophones, are sometimes organized as a novelty at saxophone conventions.
Studio saxophone players and ensembles have also been a major influence on the history of music. Although they are not usually full members of a band, they can be a vital part in the overall sound of a music set. In recent years, there has also been an increasing number of saxophone players in studio bands, in the vein of '70s bands such as Pink Floyd and Yes.