Saxophone: Types & History

Instructor: Logan Wright

Logan is an active Jazz Guitarist, and classically trained composer with an affinity for contemporary musical styles.

The saxophone is an instrument that has grown in popularity since its development around the mid 19th century. In this lesson, we'll get an overview about its creation, its use, and the different types of saxophones.


The saxophone, often referred to as simply, sax, was invented in 1840 when the Belgian born instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, took it upon himself to create an instrument that could serve as a middle ground between the brass and woodwind families. He envisioned an instrument that was more powerful than the woodwinds at the time, but also more adaptive and agile than the brass. He did this by creating an instrument that had parts of both, and in 1846 he was granted a 15-year patent on his invention, aptly named, the saxophone.


Not only did Adolphe Sax invent the instrument, he was also the first one to promote his new creation. He played it publicly on several occasions, allowing people to see and hear the saxophone for the first time, eventually creating and performing with an ensemble of 5 saxophones. He encouraged composers to write for the instrument, and from 1858, he used his status as a publisher to distribute works for saxophones. A lot of the initial success of the instrument came from Paris, where it gained popularity in military bands, and eager composers welcomed the opportunity to write for a new and exciting instrument.

It took the instrument a little bit longer to gain traction in conservatories, where it was often taught by clarinetists using old records as aids, or self-teaching through various print instructions. Though this was a meager beginning, in the terms of a new musical instrument, it's still quite fast. It still had a lot of room for growth, and although we only know of 150 compositions written for the saxophone prior to 1930, its popularity after that date led to a surge in music that continues to this day. The instrument was being featured prominently in orchestra, jazz, and military band music, but around the 1960's, it began to gain popularity with amateurs as well. It started to make its way into pop and rock genres, with its unique tone and expressive capabilities helping it to catch on. The instrumental boundaries are continually being pushed, and performers are continually coming up with new and innovative ways to play this versatile instrument.

Family and Composition

If we were to classify the saxophone, it is technically a member of the woodwind family, because of its single-reed mouthpiece, which is similar to that of a clarinet. A single-reed mouthpiece means that the mouthpiece contains one reed that vibrates when the performer blows air across it. This is the sound-producing element of a saxophone, and it is then attached to a conical bore. A bore is the interior chamber of a wind instrument that defines a flow path that the air travels through, and conical refers to the cone-like shape of a saxophone's bore. Traditionally, this part of a saxophone is made of brass. Although different metals have been experimented with, the use of brass still predominates today. Some creators do, however, make sections of the body or all of it with copper, or precious metals like silver. As with most woodwinds, a system of keys that cover up holes in the instrument is how the player is able to create different pitches. The saxophone uses a combination of the key systems of the flute, the clarinet, and the oboe. When everything is finally put together, the saxophone has over 300 parts, many that can only be assembled by hand.

saxophone design

Types of Saxophones

As with most instruments, the saxophone comes in a variety of sizes that cover different musical ranges, from the extreme lows to the extreme highs, but most are used quite rarely. The most common of these variations are the soprano saxophone, the alto saxophone, the tenor saxophone, and the baritone saxophone. Although, the tone of these different saxophones varies slightly, the biggest thing that separates them musically is their range, which will be discussed a bit more later. Often, saxophonists will specialize on one type of saxophone, but for the most part, they can and will play other types as well. This is an immensely useful skill, and part of the reason it is so common is because the fingerings for the instrument are the same. In addition to playing multiple types of saxophones, professional players tend to play flute or clarinet, because again the fingerings are quite similar. In fact, it's not strange to find a professional performer who can competently play several saxophones, a flute, and a clarinet. For the most part, these instruments follow a similar shape; however, some are more varied than others, as visible in the graphic.

saxophone types visual

Transposing Instrument

All saxophones are transposing instruments, and they all read music in the treble clef with the same written range. Discussing transposition can get confusing quite easily, so make sure that you understand the distinction between written and sounding. Written refers to any note that is written on the staff. Sounding refers to the actual pitch an instrument creates when it reads that note. Most people are familiar with a piano, which is quite simple because if a piano plays a written C, it also sounds like the pitch, C. However, if a transposing instrument were to play a written C, it would sound like a different pitch. If, for example, someone playing an alto saxophone were to play a written C, it would sound like the Eb below that C. This is because the alto saxophone sounds a major 6th lower than the notes that are written on the page. On a tenor saxophone, everything sounds a major 9th lower than the notes that are written. In the graphic, you'll see a written note. Next to it is the actual pitch that would sound if it were read by an alto, or a tenor saxophone.

alto and tenor sax sounding vs written

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account