HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Privacy policy

A musical instrument of the woodwind family, usually made of brass and with a distinctive loop bringing the bell upwards.

The saxophone is most commonly associated with popular music, big-band and jazz, but it was originally intended as both an orchestral and military band instrument.


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 little bearing on the sound quality produced, examples being the 1950's 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 of a more pointed shape. The saxophone's body is effectively conical, giving it properties more similar to the oboe than clarinet. However, unlike the oboe whose tube is a single cone the saxophone is a combination of four conic sections. 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, sopranino) rarely have one at all.

With a simple fingering system owing much to the recorder, flute and clarinet, the saxophone is commonly held as an easy instrument to learn, especially when transferring from other woodwind instruments.

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 alto, tenor and baritone are in common use (these form the typical saxophone sections of both military and big bands). 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.


The saxophone was created in the mid 1840s by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian-born instrument maker working in Paris, and was first officially revealed to the public in the patent of 1846. Adolphe Sax's amazing ability to offend rival instrument manufacturers 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 Parisien 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 route (doing so results in a definitely saxophone-like sound). Sax worked in his father's workshop for many years, and both clarinets and ophiceides 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 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 Goerges, 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 1900's to instruments very similar to those of today.