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A saxophone is a type of woodwind instrument. It was invented by Adolphe Sax in the early nineteenth century as a hybrid instrument made out of brass but played using a woodwind single reed mouthpiece like that of the clarinet. Because it is played with a reed mouthpiece and not a cup mouthpiece, the Saxophone is not classified as a brass instrument. The instrument is constructed with a large conical bore (unlike that of the cylindrical clarinet) and therefore overblows at the octave. Its tone is characteristically warm and powerful, but it can also be light and sweet.
- 1 Score placement
- 2 Timbre and range
- 3 Types of saxophone
- 4 Rare Saxophones
- 5 Techniques
- 6 Other Resources
In orchestral and band writing, the saxophone section is placed at the bottom of the woodwind section, listing the saxophones in order from highest to lowest in pitch. Although scores can sometimes be written with two parts on one staff (such as Eb alto 1 and Eb alto 2), the musician should never play from a double part. The composer should put parts on separate staves whenever possible. When only one saxophone is called for in an orchestra, it is usually the job of the 3rd clarinetist to double on the saxophone.
Timbre and range
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.
The typical range of a saxophone is from low written Bb to an altissimo F#, with some exceptions among the different instruments in the family. The sounding range of each saxophone, however differs. While the Bb soprano saxophone only sounds a major 2nd below the written range, the Eb baritone saxophone sounds an octave and a major sixth lower.
Types of saxophone
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.
The following graphic illustrates the full range and recommended ranges of the Bb Soprano Saxophone. (picture) The recommended ranges are for: a.) Community or Collegiate band, and b.) 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 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.
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 Baritone 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.
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).
On the picture (From bottom to top) Soprano, Sopranino, Sopranino (curved next) and a curved sopranino
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.
|Instruments and Voices|
|Woodwinds||Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass) • Recorder • Oboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone) • Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass) •|
|Brass||Horn • Cornet • Trumpet • Trombone • Euphonium • Tuba • Saxhorns|
|Keyboards||Piano • Organ • Harmonium • Harpsichord • Clavichord • Celesta • Accordion|
|Percussion||Tuned: Timpani • Glockenspiel • Chimes • Vibraphone • Xylophone • Marimba • Crotales • Musical saw • Hammered Dulcimer|
|Electronic||Theremin • Ondes Martenot • Synthesizer • Electronic Wind Instrument|
|Stringed||Bowed: Violin • Viola • Violoncello • Contrabass|
|Voices||Female: Soprano • Mezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto) • Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)|