Saxophone – A Recent History as a Band Instrument

Saxophone, a blowing instrument, made of brass but belonging to the woodwinds family.

The saxophone (or sax) belongs to the woodwinds since the sound emission is made through the vibration of a simple reed (usually bamboo) stuck in a mouthpiece similar to the clarinet. The articulation of the various tonal degrees is made through the use of a key mechanism equivalent to the transversal flute.

Icon Image of a Saxophone

A common saxophone these days has 26 holes operated by 23 keys.

There are different types of Saxophones, but their shape is almost identical. They can be similar to a pipe or be straight. Currently, being widely used are 6 out of the 14 that initially belonged to the saxophone family.

The most used saxophones currently are:

  • Alto Saxophone
  • Tenor Saxophone
  • Sopranino Saxophone
  • Soprano Saxophone
  • Baritone Saxophone
  • Bass Saxophone

In a typical beginning school band, it’s one of the most popular instruments. In such a band you will usually have an Alto Saxophone or a Tenor Saxophone.

Who Created the Saxophone? Knowing the Origins

The history of the saxophone takes us back to a time period of about 150 years.

Although it seems like a long time, the truth is that the saxophone is one of the most recent instruments in the musical spectrum, and therefore as a typical band instrument.

Adolphe Sax, the musician, and manufacturer who invented the Saxophone

It was invented by Antoine Joseph (Adolphe) Sax, hence the origin of its name. Sax was a talented musician and an excellent manufacturer of musical instruments.

Belgian and of Jewish origin, Sax grew up in an environment connected to the arts in general and music in particular; his father was a renowned manufacturer of musical instruments and at the age of 6 the Sax itself was already skilled in the field.

Reasons for Inventing a New Instrument

An excellent musician, Sax realized the timbre disparity between string and wind instruments and, among these, wood and brass instruments. The strings were “muffled” by the wind instruments and the woods were “muffled” by the brass.

Adolph Sax remembered to create an instrument that would “bond” these 3 families of instruments, thus emerging an instrument with the “body” of a brass instrument and the mouthpiece/button of a wooden instrument. The saxophone was born!

As already known, despite that it is made of brass, the saxophone belongs to the wood family. This is because it combines in its construction the simple reed, with the mouthpiece like the clarinet, and the conical body of the oboe, with the interesting key mechanism of the modern flute, introduced by Böehm in 1847.

A more interesting classification for these wind instruments today would be: key instruments.

The saxophone was patented on March 20, 1846, and since then it has become an indispensable instrument in any kind of musical grouping due to its versatility and timbre beauty.

The generalization of its use

The first saxophone, tuned in C (bass) was first presented in 1841 to the French composer Hector Berlioz, who was fascinated by the timbre, versatility, and mechanics of the instrument. The following year, Sax moved to Paris to make his invention known.

A whole family of saxophones appeared at this time – 14 in all – of different sizes and tunings.

A Curious Beginning as a Band Instrument

Only after 1845 was the saxophone introduced in a generalized way in the bands, and this phenomenon is based on a curious story.

Around 1845, the French military bands still used the traditional instrumental of orchestras, without the saxophone. Its creator then decided to present a challenge – to put face to face, in stripping, 2 bands, one with saxophones and another with the traditional instruments.

The story goes that the thunderous success of the Sax band, with 28 musicians (the French military band had 35) was such that on that same day the saxophone was officially introduced to the instrumental of French military bands.

From here to its generalization by bands all over the world was only a small step.

The saxophone first appeared in the orchestra in 1846. In the early 20th century, some composers wrote solos for sax and orchestra such as Claude Debussy’s “Rhapsody” (1903).

Saxophone lying on a music sheet
Saxophone lying on a music sheet

The Adaptation to a New Era

Many composers have since started composing for saxophone, but it would take another 75 years for the saxophone to begin to be used in more popular musical styles such as the domain of jazz or dance music.

To be used in these new domains of musical expression, the saxophone would have to be “adapted” or modified so that its melancholic, soft, and balanced timbre could “compete” with the strident and harshest sound of the trumpets, with the noise of percussions, and with the acoustic environments of the places where the music was played.

Thus, the mouthpiece of the saxophone was shortened and made more rectilinear, giving its timbre new properties. Since then, jazz has become the means par excellence of making the timbre potential of this instrument profitable.

A Well-Known Presence in Various Sonorities these Days

Nowadays, almost nobody is indifferent to the sound of the saxophone and everybody, even those who are not connected to the musical environment, can recognize its unique sound!

Although in classical and symphonic music the saxophone does not play a prominent role, it is used in almost all fields and forms of music, from jazz to dance music, to philharmonics, ethnic music, among other genres.

closeup of a sax player outside
Closeup of a sax player outside

In typical bands, it is common to find 4 types of saxophones that are the most popular nowadays, and since the 14 models presented by Sax only a few still make some appearances these days.

The saxophones found in concert bands today are:

  • The Alto Saxophone (tuned in E b) whose action is essentially melodic,
  • The Tenor Saxophone (tuned in Si b) whose bass sound lends itself to a more harmonic/contra-melodic use
  • The Soprano Saxophone (tuned in Si b) whose more “metallic” timbre leads him to frequent use in unison with the metals (namely trumpets)
  • The Baritone Saxophone (tuned in E b) which, being one of the instruments that act in the most serious register, joins the tubas and counter-basses in the harmonic support of the musical works.