When it comes to music, it’s hard to deny the versatility of the saxophone. Some of your favorite popular songs feature the sax from the classic rock feel of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” or the cool quiet storm of Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Then there’s jazz music in all of its styles. From the big band sounds of Count Basie to the smooth jazz sounds of Kenny G, the saxophone does a lot of heavy lifting in the soundtrack of our lives. Let’s explore this classic instrument and its sound.
Exploring the Sound
The saxophone is easily recognizable as a curved, brass instrument that is usually gold in color. Despite its composition, the saxophone is not part of the brass family with trumpets, horns, trombones, and tubas. The saxophone is a woodwind because of how it produces sound. A sax player makes a sound by blowing air through a mouthpiece that has a single reed attached to it. As you blow through the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates. Saxophones and clarinets are single-reed instruments, using a single reed, as opposed to oboes and bassoons, which use double-reeds.
As with most other wind instruments, the saxophone’s pitches depend on the length of air blown through the horn. The length of this air is controlled by various holes on the instrument that are opened and closed by the keys pressed by the saxophonist. The lowest alto sax notes, for example, are produced with most of the holes covered, resulting in a long column of air through the instrument.
Given that both clarinets and saxophones have single reeds and similar mouthpieces, you’d expect them to have a similar sound. However, another major factor in the sax’s sound is the shape of its bore, the interior void of the horn. Whereas clarinets have a cylindrical bore, saxophones have a conical bore. The diameter of this void gradually increases over the length of the instrument. You’ll notice that every saxophone is narrow where the mouthpiece connects to the horn and gradually flares out to its bell end.
Meeting the Family
Like other instruments, there are different types of saxophones with different ranges. Let’s discuss the most common ones:
- Alto Sax: This is the most common sax, commonly featured in jazz, marching bands, and other ensembles. It is a curved instrument, but it usually has a straight neck. The alto sax is an E-flat instrument. When it plays a written C, it sounds like the E-flat below the note on a piano or guitar.
- Tenor Sax: Also a very popular instrument, the tenor sax is a little larger than the alto. It has a curved neck. It is pitched lower than the alto sax and is a B-flat instrument. When a tenor saxophonist plays a written C, the note sounds like the B-flat an octave below on a piano or guitar.
- Soprano Sax: While not usually a part of marching or symphonic bands, the soprano sax is a common horn heard in popular music. It is pitched higher than the alto and is a B-flat instrument. A C on this horn sounds like a B-flat on a piano. Soprano saxes are usually straight, like a clarinet or oboe. Its notes are often brighter and more chirpy than alto sax notes. Many of Kenny G’s hit songs feature the soprano sax.
- Baritone Sax: The lowest of the common saxophones, baritone saxes are pitched in E-flat. They sound an octave lower than alto saxes. These large instruments are usually standard in jazz bands. You can hear a baritone sax as a featured instrument in “Baby Love” by The Supremes.
There are other types of saxophones, including the bass sax and the sopranino sax, but they are not commonly used.
Reading the Music
Saxophone sheet music usually features the treble clef, regardless of the pitch of the horn. This is why you can start on one type of horn, usually alto or sax, and switch to other types as you get more advanced. The fingerings for the notes are the same and sax players don’t have to learn to read other clefs to play larger and lower-pitched saxophones.
When playing alone, a saxophonist can usually play any sheet music that shows notes in the treble clef and within the instrument’s range. This is usually the written B-flat below the treble clef to the written F three spaces above the treble clef. If multiple saxes are playing together, it’s important that the musicians are using sheet music pitched for their instruments.
Soprano and tenor saxes are B-flat instruments. When playing the same notes, their sounds are an octave apart. Alto and baritone saxes are E-flat instruments, which are also an octave apart. All of these saxophones are transposing instruments and would be pitched in a different key than an accompanying instrument like a piano when played together. For example, if the piano is in the key of F, baritone, and alto sax notes would be in the key of D, while soprano and tenor sax notes would be in the key of G.
Choosing a Reed
Saxophone reeds come in different sizes based on the size of the mouthpiece. An alto sax reed, for example, will not fit on other types of saxophones. Reeds also come in different thicknesses that affect the instrument’s sound. Thinner reeds are easier to vibrate and are usually recommended for beginners. However, it is often more difficult to play high pitches with thinner reeds, so they are less useful for experienced players. Thicker reeds tend to produce richer tones but are usually more difficult to vibrate. A special thickness scale is used for saxophone reeds. Most saxophonists use reeds rated between 2 (thin) and 5 (thick).
The saxophone is an important part of the fabric of popular music. It not only has a distinctive look, but a distinctive sound that is often compared to that of the human voice. Experienced saxophonists are called on to play all kinds of music, including jazz, pop, rock, and soul.