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Jay C. Easton and the sax family:from largest to smallest: contrabass, bass, baritone, tenor, C melody, alto, F mezzo-soprano, soprano, C soprano, sopranino

The saxophone is a musical instrument from the woodwind family, using a single reed and a conical bore. Invented in 1841 by Adolphe Sax, the saxophone serves as a bridge between the brass and woodwind worlds, combining the volume of a brass instrument with the distinct sound of a woodwind instrument.

Most saxophones in use today are pitched in either B♭ or E♭, but some of the less-popular models originally patented by Sax which are pitched in C or F, still remain.

Description of the instrument

A saxophone like the clarinet has a mouthpiece with single reed applied to a conical brass tube. In general appearance the saxophone resembles the bass clarinet, but the tube of the latter is cylindrical and of wood; both instruments are doubled up near the bell, which is shaped somewhat like the flower of the gloxinia. The mouthpiece in both is fixed to a serpentine tube at right angles to the main bore. On the saxophone, owing to its conical bore, the production of sound materially differs from that of the clarinet, and resembles that of the oboe. The reed mouthpiece in combination with a conical tube allows the performer to give the ordinary harmonic series unbroken, which means in practice that the octave or second member of the harmonic series is first overblown when the pressure of the breath and the tension of the lips on the reed are proportionally increased. The saxophone is therefore one of the class known as octave instruments.

The bore of the saxophone is large, and there are from 18 to 20 keys covering holes of large diameter to produce the fundamental scale. The first 15 semitones are obtained by opening successive keys, the rest of the compass by means of octave keys enabling the performer to sound the harmonic octave of the fundamental scale. The compass of the various saxophones extends over 2 octaves and a fifth with chromatic intervals, being one octave less than the clarinet. The complete family consists of the accompanying members. The treble clef is used in notation, and all saxophones are transposing instruments, the music being written in a higher key, according to the difference in pitch between the fundamental note of the instrument and the standard C of the notation. (See Transposition.) So if for example a tenor saxophonist reads a C-note on the music score, and puts his fingers on the keys to blow a "C", the note that comes out is not a C but a B . That's where the name “B instrument” comes from. Therefore the music notation for tenor saxophone has to be transposed (one note higher):

♦Soprano, tenor and bass saxophone are “B instruments”

♦Sopranino, alto and baritone saxophone are “E instruments”

The saxophone family

For more information, see: Saxophone family.


For more information, see: History of the saxophone.


For more information, see: Saxophone repertoire.

Sources and references

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition, Public domain: "Saxophone"