Instrument Profile

The Saxophone

By David DeJesus

The saxophone is one of the most unique and versatile wind instruments of all time. Although it was originally envisioned as a classical and military instrument, it has since made its way into almost every genre of music around the world from pop and rock to jazz, classical, and the avant garde.

About the Saxophone

The saxophone is a conical bore woodwind instrument, meaning that it starts out at one diameter and gets wider and wider as you reach the bottom end of the instrument. A cylindrical instrument like the clarinet, by contrast, stays the same diameter throughout the entire length of the instrument. Conical bore instruments are generally known to have warmer and mellower tone qualities than their cylindrical counterparts. Generally made of brass, they have occasionally been constructed of silver and gold, even plastic. The key-work consists of metal buttons (or keys) attached to leather pads which when pressed cover strategically placed tone holes. Pressing different combinations of these keys results in different pitches and sometimes even sound effects like growling and screeching. The saxophone also utilizes a mouthpiece and single reed which is similar to a clarinet but has different angles resulting in a very different embouchure than the clarinet, the embouchure be the collection of muscles around and including the lips that we use to wrap around the mouthpiece and create a sound.

As time passed, musicians desired an instrument with a wider range and more control over pitches. During the mid 17th century, the first baroque oboe (called hautbois, meaning high-wood) was created in France, where it was used to entertain the French court. Made of boxwood with several holes but only two or three keys, it gained immediate popularity in many countries. During this time, the oboe da caccia (hunting oboe) was also created. This instrument had a curved body and was used in many of Bach’s cantatas and masses. This instrument was primarily used in the Baroque period, as later instruments would take the place of this unusual instrument, which was difficult to build.

If the saxophone is usually made of brass, why is it considered a woodwind instrument?

It’s all about how the sound is produced! With brass instruments like the trumpet or trombone, sound is made by the player’s lips vibrating against a mouthpiece, and notes are changed by pressing on valves. A saxophone, like many woodwind instruments, uses a reed to direct air into the instrument. It is this air that creates the sound, and notes are changed by pressing keys to open and close holes. Want to see for yourself? Try blowing air into a trumpet, and you’ll see that nothing happens. By the way, another example of a woodwind instrument that isn’t made of wood is the flute.

Saxophones at a Glance

Saxophone Family Members:
Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Bass Sax, Contrabass Sax

Earliest to start:
9/10 years old

Instrument Cost New:

Instrument Cost Used:

Rental Cost:
$185–$230 per school year

Pad and reed replacements, Adjustments

Things to Consider:
A popular instrument that is fairly easy to learn and a good choice if you want to play jazz. If you are interested in a band or jazz group, consider the tenor or baritone sax.

Saxophone History & Context

It can sound smooth and sultry or raucous and soulful. You can find it seamlessly blending into any ensemble whether it be a jazz big band or an orchestra, or you can find it out front playing solos in a rock band or a jazz quartet. Even today musicians around the world are pushing the boundaries of what the saxophone can do and what types of music it can be incorporated into.

The story of the saxophone is best understood by taking a look at its inventor Adolphe Sax. The son of Belgium’s appointed chief instrument maker, Adolphe would learn his father’s craft and quickly surpass him in both skill and vision. At age fifteen, he fabricated a clarinet and two flutes out of ivory, a feat previously deemed near impossible. By the age of twenty he had created a new fingering system for the clarinet and reinvented the bass clarinet, transforming it from an awkward derivative of the clarinet into the regal and elegant woodwind instrument it is today. He wasn’t limited to woodwinds, and is actually credited by many as the inventor of the modern trumpet, having been the first to successfully fuse piston valves into what we now call bugles. Adolphe wasn’t just an engineer; he was also a master instrumentalist. Trained at some of Europe’s finest conservatories, he could play, and play well, virtually every wind instrument of the time.

Being the visionary he was, Adolphe had an idea to create a completely new instrument. This instrument would combine the power of a brass instrument with the subtleties of a woodwind instrument and the facility of a stringed instrument. After much experimentation, he had his first working model in 1841, which he called the bass horn. It wasn’t until a review of his new instrument in the French paper Journal des Debats, however, that the name le saxophon or saxophone came about. In 1846, Adolphe Sax won two patents for his designs: One for a set of saxophones intended for the orchestra and the other for a set of saxophones intended for military bands. Each set consisted of a range of sizes from the small sopranino saxophone to the huge subcontrabass saxophone. These two patents represented Adolphe’s two dreams for the saxophone.

The first dream was for the saxophone to become a key part of the orchestra. There were a few problems in the way of this dream. First was the fact that Adolphe over the years had made many enemies in the orchestral establishment. His constant desire to improve the mechanics of the wind instruments in the orchestra made many of the players grow angry with him, and his proud nature offended many conductors. Secondly, the saxophone, despite having a beautiful voice and great facility, lacked precise intonation at the time, and this made it problematic for the orchestra. Although the saxophone has been written for by a few orchestral composers, many of whom were personal friends of Adolphe, the saxophone to this day has not lived up to his dream of being a staple of the orchestra.

Adolphe’s second dream, however, was realized on an even grander scale than he expected. Adolphe, although Belgian, had a special place in his heart for the French military bands. By definition, military bands are supposed to imbue a sense of power and confidence, but France’s military bands in the mid 1800s sounded so weak that they instead invoked laughter. Adolphe believed that his instruments, especially his saxophones, could turn the image of the French military bands completely around. Reluctant at first, the French adopted his instruments. The result was so effective that military bands from around the world were knocking on Adolphe’s door asking for his help, and his instruments.

This was a very important step for the saxophone because, through military bands, the saxophone would become a remarkable new image and sound that could be seen and heard around the globe. It was through these bands that the saxophone made its way to New Orleans and became a key component in the formation of early jazz.

The saxophone may have gained international exposure through the military bands of the world, but it was through jazz that it became the iconic instrument it is today. The saxophone made its way into jazz simply by being a part of the military bands stationed in New Orleans. Early jazz bands drew from the military band instruments to form their various ensembles. This is why we have trumpets and trombones and saxophones in Jazz today rather than orchestral instruments like the oboe and French horn. This alone wouldn’t insure its place in history, however. At first the saxophone was merely a part of the ensemble, blending in, not standing out in any way other than its unique shape. It would take individual players such as Sidney Bechet, Frankie Trumbauer, and Coleman Hawkins to show how captivating the saxophone voice could be. Today many people say that the saxophone is the closet instrument to the human voice, and it is because of these pioneers and others like them that this has become the case. These players and many others would later elevate the saxophone from a member of the ensemble to featured soloist to the lead instrument in a jazz combo. At the time other horns in the jazz band could not compete with the speed saxophone players could play and with the unique sounds and tones they were able to produce. This would lay the foundation for the saxophone to seep into all other genres of music. The soulfulness of the saxophone attracted it to early blues bands, which would in turn lead into Rhythm and Blues, Doo Wop, Motown, and eventually Rock and Pop music. The punchy and powerful side of the saxophone would attract it to early mambo and salsa and pave the way for all forms of Latin music today from Cumbia to Merengue to Latin Jazz, even Reggaeton.

Despite never becoming a permanent member of the orchestra, the saxophone has been successful in the world of chamber music and other small classical ensembles, especially in contemporary classical music. In India, musicians have been drawn to its ability to mimic the traditional singing there. In Japan, they have been in love with the saxophone ever since Cannonball Adderley first recorded there in the 1960s. In Europe today there is an ever-growing scene of free improvised music that relies strongly on the saxophone to add new colors and sounds. In America today, the saxophone is becoming a very popular voice in the soundtracks of films, probably due to its ability to tell a variety of stories.

The saxophone is actually quite easy to learn to play, probably because it was designed fairly recently in the scheme of musical instruments. What actually prevents students from picking up the saxophone at a young age is its awkward physical nature. The saxophone is rather heavy and requires the use of a neck strap in addition to the player’s hands to hold the instrument. It is also quite wide to wrap one’s hands around, and this prevents children with small hands from being able to play it. For these reasons, it is best to start learning the saxophone around ages 10-11.

Once you can physically handle the saxophone, however, it is relatively simple to get started. The fingering system is very easy to understand and tone production is much easier than with most wind instruments. The main challenge of the saxophone lies in controlling its intonation. Because it is a conical bore instrument, it does not have the stability of pitch that a cylindrical instrument may have. Also, each different pitch of the saxophone has its own unique timbre or tone, and this makes it hard to grasp its intonation. With a good teacher and some hard work, though, great intonation is definitely possible.

Of the original 14 variations of the saxophone, four are most commonly used. These are the Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor, and Eb baritone saxophones. All of these saxophones use the same fingerings, and only slight modifications of the embouchure are necessary to switch from one saxophone to the next. The Bb Soprano is the smallest and highest pitched and has arguably the most unique sound, but also is the hardest to control intonation-wise. Famous players of this instrument include Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy, Kenny G and Dave Leibman. The Eb Alto is the saxophone almost everyone starts on due to its comfortable size, and is the most popular saxophone across the globe. This is the instrument the great Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Johnny Hodges played. From here students can stay on Alto or move up to the Bb Tenor. The tenor is where things start to get large to hold, but this is the saxophone that is the most recorded and performed with. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bob Berg, Michael Brecker, even President Bill Clinton all played this variation of the saxophone. Lastly is the Eb Baritone. This horn is huge (about 4 feet tall) and weighs about 15 pounds. The size of this horn gives it a very powerful sound and the extra curves in its neck give it a distinctive growl not found in other saxophones. This instrument is for those who like to play low and deep and provide a band with a strong bottom end. Famous players of the Bari-sax include Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Ronnie Cuber, and Gary Smulyan.

My favorite thing about learning the saxophone is all of the great repertoire out there to learn; there are books written for saxophone featuring almost every genre. From great classical sonatas and etudes to numerous collections of famous songs from jazz, rock and pop, there is surely plenty of music to keep you excited and busy!

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