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; some examples are the 1950s 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 with a round evacuated inner chamber. The saxophone's body is effectively conical, giving it properties more similar to the oboe than to the clarinet. However, unlike the oboe, whose tube is a single cone, the saxophone is a combination of four conical sections, and is not in fact a cone. The body expands from neck to bell with a parabolic curve and has an elliptical cross section rather than round. Modern saxophone makers have abandoned this, the body design of Sax. It currently has a round and cone shaped body. There is some controversy over the validity of this modern design. The mouthpiece has also been altered. It now has a shape more similar to that of a clarinet mouthpiece. 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 considered an easy instrument to learn, especially when transferring from other woodwind instruments, though a great amount of development is required to produce a beautiful tone color.
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.
Music for the saxophone is generally written on the treble clef, where the playable range extends over two octaves, from Bb below the staff to F above. Intermediate and professional grade saxes typically have an extra side key that extends the range to include high F#. Some also have a key that allows for high G. Higher notes -- those in the altissimo range -- can also be played, though there is no standardized fingering for these notes. Sax's original design held a slightly smaller range from B below the staff to Eb above it. Even with this more limited design, however, Sax himself demonstrated the instrument with over three octaves. There have been efforts by several individuals to standardize a method for studying the extended range of the instrument as well as provide a working system of fingerings.
The notes starting with staff D and going up are played using the octave key, which opens a small valve on the neck of the saxophone, thus raising the pitch of the instrument by a full octave. Many of the lower and upper octave fingerings are identical, save for the addition of the octave key. However, alternate fingerings are used for several notes where simply adding or removing the octave key produces a note that is either severely out-of-tune or just has poor tone. There are also a number of alternate fingerings useful when making difficult transitions (e.g. C to Bb).
The majority of saxophones produced today are made from brass. However, several manufacturers offer additional coatings that can be applied over the brass, such as silver, gold, nickel and lacquer. These are typically designed to enhance sound quality and/or give the saxophone an interesting visual appearance. There are also a small number of saxophones being commercially produced from materials other than brass. Silver is a notable example. Other materials have been tried with varying degrees of success. Ornette Coleman famously played a plastic sax.
Mouthpieces, on the other hand, come in a wide variety of materials, both metal and non-metal. Non-metal mouthpieces are typically either plastic or hard rubber, and sometimes wood. Metal mouthpieces have a distinctive sound, often described as 'harder' than non-metal. Beginning saxophone players typically use a plastic mouthpiece, both because it is significantly cheaper and because metal mouthpieces tend to be more difficult to play. Today there are but a few makers of mouthpieces that hold true to Sax's design. They are unfortunately not easily available, though in some cases they do in fact cost less than some other designs.
Like clarinets, saxophones use a single reed. Sax reeds, though, are generally broader and shorter than clarinet reeds. They are also softer. Hardness is usually (but not always) measured using a numeric scale that ranges from 1 to 5 (though one rarely sees a reed at either end of this spectrum). Unfortunately, this scale is far from standardized, and a Rico 3 is decidedly softer than a Vandoren 3, for example. Of course, you can also make your own reeds, or shave down manufactured reeds to suit your tastes. The mystery and lore surrounding commercial reed production and owner maintenance has been sidelined in recent years by the successful marketing of expensive, but long-lasting and reliable plastic reeds outwardly indistinguishable from natural bamboo ones, though there is an evident difference in tone color.
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 (which was granted to him on May 17). Sax's amazing ability to offend rival instrument manufacturers, and unfortunate prejudice towards the man and his instruments 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 Parisian 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 ophicleides 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, however, that Sax's intent was in fact to invent an entirely new instrument which suited his desires both tonally and technically and possessed a new level of flexibility. This would explain why he chose to name the instrument the "voice of Sax."
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 Georges, 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 1900s to instruments very similar to those of today.
The first figure below shows a set of basic fingerings for the saxophone. The most important alternate fingerings are those involving Bb, as summarized in the second figure. The split Bb fingering is used in chromatic passages, and also makes a good default fingering because it keeps the hands in their normal positions. The left-hand fingering is often used in passages that have no B-naturals, while the bis fingering is useful for the A-Bb trill.
In the typical embouchure, the top teeth rest on the mouthpiece, while the lower lip is curled slightly so that it comes between the reed and the bottom teeth. Diaphragm and jaw vibrato are both used, with the latter being more typical.
The greatest intonation problems occur with C#, which is flat and can be compensated for with the use of the low C# fingering but with the addition of the octave key, and F#, which is sharp but not so egregiously out of tune as the open C#. This can be corrected by controlling the embouchure. The very highest notes in the normal range may also require correction, but this depends a great deal on the player and the setup. The instrument has faults in intonation, like any instrument, but each player should be held to the same standards as that of any other instrument as it is entirely possible to play the saxophone perfectly in tune.
See also: saxophonist