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The Saxophone


Saxs4.jpg (11063 bytes)The single reeds

There are two families of woodwind instruments which produce their sound by means of a single reed on a hollow mouthpiece, and which vary the pitch of their notes by opening and closing tone holes along the length of the instrument.

The first is the clarinet which was invented by   Johann Christian Denner in Nuremberg around the year 1700.

The second is the saxophone invented by Adolph Sax (after whom it is named), a Belgian working in Paris, around the year 1840.

There are some remarkable parallels.   Both took approximately 90 or years or so to gain spectacular fame.  In the case of the clarinet it was undoubtedly Mozart's clarinet concerto and the remarkable playing of Anton Stadler which brought the instrument to the world's attention.   The saxophone was not invented for jazz (the jazz scene in the 1840s being just a little on the cool side!) but it was jazz which brought it to the world's attention in the 1920s and 30s.

Both instruments are now used in a wide variety of music from jazz to the classics, and both come in a variety of sizes which can be played in "choirs", as groups consisting solely of these instruments are known.

There is one, and only one, feature which defines the difference between a clarinet and a saxophone.   It is true that saxophones are usually made of metal, wheras clarinets are generally of wood.   However metal clarinets have been made and the largest Bb contrabass clarinets are commonly of metal (if the word "commonly" can be applied at all to these instruments).  It is true that saxophones usually have a curved tube but clarinets are straight.  However soprano saxophones are often absolutely straight, and bass clarinets are curved. The difference in fact lies in the bore of the tube: the clarinet is a cylinder having the same bore from just below the mouthpiece to just above the bell, whereas the saxophone is a cone, starting thin by the mouthpiece and getting broader gradually along its entire length.    This difference accounts completely for the difference in sound of the instrument and the completely different "feel" they have when you play them.

Groups of saxophones

Saxophones are unusual in that they were invented the opposite way round from most other families.  Adolph Sax was looking for a bass voice in the woodwind section of the military band to balance the power of the large brasses.  So the saxophone was invented big, and smaller ones followed.   This was only possible with the newest technology of the 1840s - rods, springs, and air-tight pads which could bring the large, and widely separated holes under control of the fingers.   The result is a family of instruments which together can sound over a very wide range and can blend together better than any other woodwind family.

Saxophone choirs can consist of any number of saxophones but possibly the best known example is the nowadays fairly standard line-up within a big band of two altos, two tenors, and a baritone.   A standard grouping of saxophones in a chamber ensemble is the saxophone quartet, consisting of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.  These are the commonest four sizes in use today although bigger ones (bass) and smaller (sopranino) also exist.

The saxophone family 

sopranosax.gif (5926 bytes)It is still true today that the innocent looking soprano saxophone is usually not first which is encountered.  It often arouses the curiosity of on-lookers who do not always realise that it is still a saxophone without the characteristic bent shape of the larger ones.  (Curved sopranos do exist, but they are small enough that the fingers can reach the holes without this being a necessity, and so the straight form is more usual.) [Aside: of the Sax Section: Dave prefers his dead staight from tip to toe; Sue prefers a straight one but with a slight bend in the crook just below the mouth piece;  Ian, when we let him climb out of the cockpit of his baritione, likes to serenade the local bats on a fully curved example, which looks like a tiny alto.]    But in general the soprano looks enough like a clarinet that the familial relationship is clear, but sounds so different that one must marvel at the vast accoustical difference which is made by a slight difference in the geometry of the tube.   The soprano sax can produce a particularly poignant sound.

altosax.gif (6405 bytes)The alto saxophone is more "saxophone shaped" with an almost 90 degree bend in the crook (the section below the mouthpiece) and with the lowest section truning back on itself so that the business end points upwards.  It sounds a perfect fifth lower than the soprano (roughly half an octave) and can sound sweet in its upper range but darker towards the bottom.  [NB the illustration here is not shown to scale with the soprano.]

...to be continued




Copyright the Sax Section 2000