Instruments | Saxophone | Woodwind

The saxophone occupies an unusual position in that it is a bespoke instrument that has barely changed since its creation. Although it does not occupy the position in the orchestra its creator had envisaged, Adolphe Sax’s invention has played a central part in music ever since it burst on to the scene in the 1840s.

Sax’s father, Charles, was a successful instrument maker and Adolphe himself had been involved in a number of instrument refinements and inventions – most notably the bass clarinet – prior to the creation of the saxophone. Sax seems to have been particularly interested in bass instruments, since the first saxophone stemmed from an attempt to improve on the ophicleide.


The ophicleide was a keyed brass instrument, developed in the early 1800s, which used a trombone-style mouthpiece. Through the advocacy of composers including Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803–69), Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) and Richard Wagner (1813–83), it had quickly established itself as the standard bass wind instrument of the orchestra. Its obvious advantages of power and tone quality, however, were offset by erratic intonation and inconsistency of execution.

Sax attempted to solve these problems by combining various elements in one instrument. To a body resembling the ophicleide’s he added new keywork and substituted the trombone-like mouthpiece for one much closer to that of the bass clarinet. The new instrument was paraded at the second Brussels Industrial Exhibition in August 1841 as a saxophone basse en cuivre (‘bass saxophone made from brass’).

The Saxophone Family

Berlioz heard Sax’s creation and responded enthusiastically, reporting that ‘there is not a bass instrument to compare it with’ and cementing the term ‘saxophone’ in the public consciousness. Buoyed by this success, Sax went on to create a family of saxophones and in 1846 applied for a patent for the design of 14 different instruments. By 1850, the standard family of six sizes – sopranino, soprano, tenor, alto, baritone and bass – was established, with the contrabass as a rarely used extra.


The saxophone is a conically bored instrument with a flared bell. It widens considerably from mouthpiece to bell and consequently is capable of great power. It has between 22 and 24 note-holes, all of which are closed with keypads via a system of keys derived from the flute and clarinet systems. Like most wind instruments, the saxophone overblows at the octave; it uses two ‘speaker keys’ to facilitate the playing of higher notes. All saxophones have the same basic compass – from a written bb to a written f''' – but are transposing instruments.

With the exception of the sopranino saxophone, all the instruments require bending to make them a manageable length. This is done to a greater extent at the bell: the baritone saxophone almost doubles back on itself. The mouthpiece is detachable, as is the upper section of the body. The upper section is bent at right angles on the alto and tenor instruments to create an easy...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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