The saxophone is a kind of cross between a brass instrument and a woodwind instrument – it was in fact invented to fill the gap between the two. Used in marching bands, jazz, pop music, chamber groups and orchestras, it is multi-purpose and ‘cool’.
The saxophone appears only occasionally in the orchestra: of the different sizes of saxophone, the one seen most often is the alto.
Inside the orchestra
Plan of the orchestra showing the saxophones
When it’s in the orchestra, the saxophone adds an unusual, soft-edged sound to the mixture. It is positioned with the clarinets.
Outside the orchestra
It plays in pop music, and it really loves…
It adores the freedom and the spotlight. It can do all kinds of clever runs up and down. People ‘improvise’ on it. This means they play as the mood takes them, making up music as they go along.
It can also play slow, oozing melodies. The room might be quite dark, and the audience might sit at round tables, each with a little candle on. Jazz has to be played in the right atmosphere!
Saxophone players – ‘saxophonists’ – are often quite animated when they play. They tip the instrument up and down with a confident swing, so that the bell on the end keeps popping up to greet whoever is watching.
Construction of the saxophone
It’s made of brass. So why isn’t it classed as a brass instrument? There are two reasons:
- It has a mouthpiece like the clarinet’s, with a cane reed.
- It sounds more like a woodwind instrument than a brass one.
The saxophone is a real baby compared to other instruments: it was invented by Adolphe Sax in the early 1840s.
To play it
You play it just like the clarinet – though it’s a bit easier to master!
It couldn’t replace the clarinet, because the sound is completely different. But many clarinettists also play the saxophone.
The saxophone is great at mucking around and making funny noises. It can do glissando, like the clarinet, and flutter-tonguing, like the flute. It can even screech, growl, bend, wobble and laugh!
The tenor saxophone playing around in jazz
Tom Christensen: The Cats of Ulthar
Tom Christensen, saxophone; Charles Pillow, saxophone; Satoshi Takeishi, percussion; Ben Allison, bass. Naxos 86050-2
There are many saxophone ensembles, which contain only saxophones.
Saxophones need a lot of room when the whole family gets together because there are many of them. At one time, there were actually 14 different sizes! Now there are eight.
The smallest makes the highest sound and the largest makes the lowest sound.
In size order, from small to large, they go: Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor in C (‘C-melody’ sax), Tenor (in B flat), Baritone, Bass, Contrabass.
‘Saxophone’ is often shortened to ‘sax’.
Find out more about the development of the Saxophone in .
A Little History of the Saxophone
The saxophone is a baby compared to the other orchestral instruments.
A Belgian man called Adolphe Sax wanted to make an instrument that would be as agile as a woodwind instrument but as powerful – or nearly as powerful – in sound as a brass instrument. He invented the saxophone in the early 1840s.
French military bands used it first.
A few French composers, like Camille Saint-Saëns and Georges Bizet, put it in their orchestral pieces.
Then it found its way into American jazz in the 20th century.
Even though Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, won awards for it, and taught at the Paris Conservatoire, he became bankrupt three times and died in poverty in 1894.
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● When was the saxophone invented?
● How did the saxophone get its name?
● The saxophone has a mouthpiece and reed very similar to those of another wind instrument. Which one?
● Which of the following was a famous jazz saxophonist?
● What material are saxophones made from?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Selected Saxophone Extracts
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865–1936)
Concerto in E flat major for alto saxophone and strings, Op. 109 (extract)
A tuneful, gentle solo for the alto saxophone.
Performers: Theodore Kerkezos, saxophone; Philharmonia Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins
Taken from Naxos 8.557063
Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1: I. Prelude (extract)
The alto sax is delicate and expressive within the orchestra.
Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Bramall
Taken from Naxos 8.550061
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
The tenor sax then the little sopranino sax feature in Ravel’s rhythmic favourite.
Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean
Taken from Naxos 8.550173
The Cats of Ulthar
The tenor saxophone playing around in jazz music.
Performers: Tom Christensen, saxophone; Charles Pillow, saxophone; Satoshi Takeishi, percussion; Ben Allison, bass
Taken from Naxos 86050-2
Saxophone with Orchestra
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
Scaramouche: Suite for alto saxophone and orchestra
Scaramouche was originally written for two pianos: full of wit and energy, it was so popular with audiences that Milhaud arranged it for different combinations of instruments. So here is the alto saxophone delivering the solo lines. It is said that Milhaud based the first movement (track 1) very loosely on the English song ‘Ten green bottles, hanging on the wall’. See if you can spot the famous tune! (Clue – 1:01).
Performers: Sohre Rahbari, saxophone; BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels; Alexander Rahbari
Taken from Naxos 8.554784
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Fantasia for soprano saxophone, three horns and strings, Op. 630
There aren’t many pieces written for the soprano saxophone, which is one of the babies of the saxophone family. Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer and he wrote this for a very famous French saxophonist called Marcel Mule, who never performed it! The last movement is full of energy and changing time signatures. Try to work out how many beats there are in the bar… it’s a challenge!
Performers: Theodore Kerkezos, saxophone; Philharmonia Orchestra; Vicci Wardman, solo viola *; Martyn Brabbins
Taken from Naxos 8.557063
Henri Tomasi (1901–1971)
Ballade for alto saxophone and orchestra
This Ballade was inspired by a poem about 14th-century medieval troubadours; the saxophone plays the role of the clown, who is really rather sad but likes to make people laugh. The saxophone is the perfect instrument to depict a clown – it can switch between melancholic and cheeky in a split second. (A good example of this is at 8.54–9.25)
Performers: Theodore Kerkezos, saxophone; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Roberto Minczuk
Taken from Naxos 8.557454
Jean Françaix (1912–1997)
Petit quatuor pour saxophones (‘Little quartet for saxophones’)
The first and last movements of the Petit quatuor are playful and there is a lot of interaction between all four saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone). In the second, slow movement, the higher soprano saxophone gets a break as the mood turns more serious and somber. There are big dynamic contrasts throughout the work – the players must play everything from ppp to fff!
Performers: Kenari Quartet
Taken from Naxos 8.573549
Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton (1890–1941)
Black Bottom Stomp (arranged by Fred Sturm for saxophone quartet)
Black Bottom Stomp is a jazzy piece that has been arranged for saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone). There are bits of ragtime, aspects of New Orleans jazz style, and also the Charleston – a style of dance that involves walking but not getting anywhere! Even though the music is full of complexity, the mood is upbeat, lighthearted and full of humour.
Performers: Ancia Saxophone Quartet
Taken from Naxos 8.559616
Pierre Max Dubois (1930–1995)
Quatuor pour saxophones (‘Quartet for saxophones’)
Dubois was a French composer who wrote mostly for woodwind instruments. This Quartet has a light touch and the texture is kept transparent, combining cheeky humour with more serious moments. Listen to the fast scales in the last movement, and how they are passed like a baton from player to player (track 4, 1.20 onwards).
Performers: Kenari Quartet
Taken from Naxos 8.573549
Pekka Pylkkänen (b.1964)
Fungi (Gyromitra Esculenta)
This piece of modern jazz is based on a true story that happened to saxophonist Pekka Pylkkänen. His neighbours ate hand-picked mushrooms that turned out to be poisonous, so they had to be rushed to hospital for treatment! Luckily, everyone was fine and an inventive piece of jazz was written because of it. The soprano saxophone can be heard from c. 1.30. Listen to its ‘screams’ from c. 3.15.
Performers: Pekka Pylkkänen, saxophone; Pekka Luukka, guitar; Seppo Kantonen, piano; Hannu Rantanen, bass; Marko Timonen, drums; Tapio ‘Mongo’ Aaltonen, percussion
Taken from Naxos 86028-2
John Coltrane (1926–1967)
Equinox (arranged by Eero Koivistoinen)
John Coltrane was a jazz saxophonist: he collaborated with many great jazz musicians and became a huge influence in the jazz world. Equinox was written towards the end of his life, when his music had taken on a spiritual dimension – so it is more serious than his earlier, lighthearted works. Listen out for some fantastic improvisation on the tenor saxophone (1.50 onwards).
Performers: UMO Jazz Orchestra
Taken from Naxos 86010-2