IT: sassofono – FR: saxophone – GER: Saxophon


Saxophones are made of brass and employ a single reed. They have conical pipes, which are overblown at the octave like recorders, flutes, and oboes. The soprano saxophone may be a straight or curved pipe; alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones all curve to the mouthpiece and have upturned bells.

Range and Natural Dynamics

FIGURE 3.15 Saxophone range


From sounding to written pitch, saxophone transpositions are as follows:

  • B♭ soprano-UP a major second   
  • E♭ alto-UP a major sixth  
  • B♭ tenor-UP a major ninth  
  • E♭ baritone-UP an octave and major sixth

The compass of all the saxophones is from b upwards two and a half octaves. Professional players can use another octave above this, the "altissimo" register, where irregular fingerings are employed and good lip control is required.

Tone Quality

Tones in the lowest fifth of the saxophone’s range are difficult to produce softly, and the response is hard to control. This effect is not as pronounced on the tenor and baritone saxophones. The alto saxophone, the most frequently used, has a fluid, hornlike quality with the attack of a reed. The tenor has a deeper and more penetrating "reedy" tone. The baritone is somewhat mellower than the tenor and provides a good bass voice for the family. With a nasal edge, the soprano is somewhat similar in tone and design to the oboe. Saxophones blend well with one another and balance with brass instruments.

Many French composers, such as Bizet, Ravel, and Milhaud, have included the E alto saxophone in their orchestral works, as have Berg, Prokofiev, Copland, Britten, and Vaughan Williams. Although much of the music written for the instrument is from French chamber and wind literature, there are over two thousand works that include saxophone in the orchestral repertoire. Saxophones are not a standard component in the orchestra, but a saxophone section is used consistently in concert bands and wind ensembles.

Technical Abilities

The saxophones are extremely agile. All types of figures are practical, but rapid repeated notes are probably the most difficult. Trills in the altissimo register are very awkward, as are those between low c1 and b.

Performers who double on various saxophones benefit from the different transposition for each. The music is transposed for each instrument so that fingerings for written pitches on any type of saxophone are the same. Because the written ranges are also the same, the alto player can perform on the tenor or baritone with a minor change of embouchure.

Musical Example

FIGURE 3.16 E alto saxophone line: Bizet, L’Arlesienne Suite No. I, Prelude, measures 91-98

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