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. As 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, 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, 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 is a notable example. Other materials have been tried with varying degrees of success. Ornette Coleman famously played a plastic sax.
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 have a distinctive sound, often described as 'harder' than non-metal. Beginning saxophone players typically use a plastic mouthpiece, both because it is significantly cheaper and because metal mouthpieces tend to be more difficult to play. Today there are but a few makers of mouthpieces that hold true to Sax's design. They are unfortunately not easily available, though in some cases they do in fact cost less than some other designs.
Like clarinets, saxophones use a single reed. Sax 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 are exceedingly inconsistent, and most saxophonists deem only about half of the reeds in a given box of ten suitable for play, and will go through many boxes to find the perfect reed for a performance. A reed can last anywhere from one note to months, though they tend to last a week or perhaps two. The more they have been played, the easier they are to play, but, the softer and worse-sounding they get. New out-of-the-box reeds are notoriously squeaky, and are usually played for an hour or so before a performance. Advanced students and professional saxophonists spend years perfecting their methods of reed selection, storage, and adjustment. Though recently introduced plastic reeds posess great promise in their extrordinary longevity and consistency, they have failed so far to break into the mainstream reed market. These more expensive reeds last much longer and are virtually unbreakable. They have a unique tone, not as warm or mellow as cane reeds, which are suited to rock or jazz, but have a brighter, though not as high-quality tone, more suited to a marching band. One synthetic reed bought at ten dollars can last a saxophone player for years. Some players are beginning to switch to synthetic reeds, as they are a good money-saver, and are more consistent. Most any synthetic reed will work, but for the average cane reed player, a box of ten reeds would be considered great to have four or five good performance-quality reeds.
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, 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 saxes are extremely large and heavy.
Writing for the Saxophone
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 -- 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 studying the extended range of the instrument as well as provide a working system of fingerings.
The saxophone is a transposing instrument. This method 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 is used in chromatic passages, and also makes a good default fingering because it keeps the hands in their normal positions. The left-hand fingering is often used in passages that have no B-naturals, while the bis fingering is useful for the A-Bb trill.
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.
- Introduction to Saxophone acoustics
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