What is a Saxophone?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The saxophone or sax is both a family of instruments and a single instrument that belongs to the single reed group of woodwinds, which also includes clarinets. Saxophones are used primarily in bands, big bands, and jazz bands, but also featured in some 19th and 20th century orchestral works, as well as in wind ensembles and woodwind choirs. Unlike clarinets, which are generally constructed primarily of wood, saxophones are made of metal, often brass. Despite this, they are considered a woodwind rather than a brass instrument.

Saxophones are commonly featured in jazz bands.
Saxophones are commonly featured in jazz bands.

The single reeds that are members of the saxophone family are as follows, arranged from lowest to highest.

Saxophones are made of brass and commonly heard in jazz, R&B and sometimes rock.
Saxophones are made of brass and commonly heard in jazz, R&B and sometimes rock.

  • Contrabass and subcontrabass saxophones in Eb and Bb respectively are also substituted by the specially designed versions known as tubaxes.
  • Bass saxophones in Bb range an octave below the tenor saxophone, and the ambit is similar to that of the bassoon.
  • Baritone saxophones in Eb sound approximately an octave below alto saxophones.
  • Tenor Saxophones in Bb sound an octave below soprano saxophones.
  • Alto Saxophones in Eb sound a fifth below soprano saxophones and an octave below the sopranino.
  • Soprano saxophones in Bb are an octave above tenor saxophones. They are the lowest saxophone to have a straight body. Soprano saxes were popularly made in the key of C in the early part of the 20th century. These saxophones were non-transposing instruments.
  • Sopranino saxophones in Eb extend the range of the soprano saxophone upwards.
  • Soprillo saxophones in Bb are manufactured by the same company that makes the tubaxes. Their range is an octave above the soprano saxophone.

All the saxophones, regardless of their size or transposition, have the same fingering system. They also all have a “break” – where the transition in fingering can present a problem for the player who is not expert. The saxophone was invented by Adolph Sax in about 1840.

The fingering and techniques for the saxophone are similar to those for the clarinet, and many clarinetists double as saxophonists. The instruments have three parts. The bell, bow, and keys are all part of the body of the saxophone. The neck joint connects the body to the mouthpiece assembly, which consists of the mouthpiece, the ligature, the reed, and the cap. The back of the body has a place to clip the neck strap, used to support the heavier instruments for ease of playing.

There are many well-known saxophone passages. French composer Maurice Ravel’s Bolero include a striking saxophone part, as does George Gershwin’s Am American in Paris. There are many noted saxophonists, whose numbers include Sidney Bechet, Bill Clinton, John Coltrane, Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Getz, John Harle, Woody Herman, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Lisa Simpson.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is known to sometimes play the saxophone.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is known to sometimes play the saxophone.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@spotiche5- When I played the saxophone in the band, I loved the instrument. While I think that the sound and prestige of playing it are the benefits of the saxophone, there are some negative points that musicians who are new to the instrument should consider.

For me, learning the saxophone fingering was challenging and confusing. Since I had a lot of time to practice, I was able to master it. However, the saxophone does take dedication and time to learn to play and might not be the best instrument for students who have very full schedules.

The saxophone also has some weight to it, and has the tendency to feel very heavy when playing it while marching. Performing in parades use to be very challenging for me, and I was always very tired when they were over. This is why musicians who aren't very strong might not like playing this instrument.


I'm trying to help a relative choose the best reed instrument to play in high school band, and I love the sound of the saxophone. I'm wondering if anyone has some thoughts about the downside of playing this instrument in a marching band.

Post your comments
Forgot password?