Getting to know the Saxophone

Getting to know the Saxophone

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First developed in the mid-1800s by Adolphe Sax, the saxophone is a single reed, woodwind instrument. It is composed of a mouthpiece, conical metal tube, and finger keys. Sound is produced when air is blown through the instrument causing the reed to vibrate. This sound is amplified as it travels through the instrument’s main body. Saxophones consist of numerous parts and pieces which are made separately and then assembled.

Most instruments have steadily evolved over many years. In fact, no one person can be said to have invented common instruments like the flute or the oboe. The saxophone however, can be directly credited to Adolphe Sax who invented it during the 1800s. Sax was born in Belgium in 1814 and learned to make instruments from his father who was a musical instrument maker. By the age of 16, Sax was already an accomplished instrument maker himself. Some of his achievements included improving the clarinet’s design and adding piston valves to the cornet. During his time, he produced some of the highest quality clarinets, flutes, and other instruments.

When he set out to develop the saxophone, he wanted to create an instrument that could blend the orchestral sounds of the woodwinds with the brass instruments. His new instrument would have the tone quality of a woodwind and the power of a brass. The first saxophone he built was a large, bass saxophone. Since a conical shape was needed, it was easier to make the instrument out of brass than wood. On March 20,1846, Sax patented this instrument. Smaller saxophones such as the alto and tenor were created a short time later.

In addition to his instrument-making prowess, Sax was also an entrepreneur. To promote his new instrument he staged a “battle of the bands” between the traditional French infantry band and one that used his saxophone. Sax’s group won the contest, and the military officially adopted the saxophone into their bands. This caused a significant level of resentment toward Sax and many instrument manufacturers and musicians rejected the saxophone as an acceptable instrument, refusing to produce or play it. This prevented the saxophone from being used for its original purpose in the orchestra.

However, many composers were impressed with the sound of the saxophone and steadily incorporated it into their pieces. This versatile instrument was used in many musical styles. For example, it has been used in opera such as Bizet’s VArlesienne and also worked into Ravel’s orchestral piece, Bolero. In the United States, the instrument was made famous by J. P. Sousa who used it extensively in his marching band compositions.

The true potential of the sax was realized by jazz musicians during the early 1900s. Artists like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane helped make it the most popular woodwind solo instrument for jazz. Both of these musicians had distinctly different sounds. The individualized sound is a result of various mouthpiece materials and structures, reed hardness, and the musicians mouth position. For jazz musicians, the mouthpiece was modified so the instrument would be louder.

Saxophones are primarily made from brass. Brass is a composite alloy made up of metals including copper, tin, nickel, and zinc. The most common type used for instruments is yellow brass which contains 70% copper and 30% zinc. Other types include gold brass and silver brass which have different ratios. The zinc in brass makes the alloy workable at lower temperatures. Some custom manufacturers use special blends of brass for different saxophone parts. A small amount of arsenic or phosphorous also may be added to make the brass more useful in tubing applications.

Other materials are used to make the saxophone. Most of the screws are composed of stainless steel. Cork is used to line the joints and water keys. In some cases, a wax is applied to these joints. Mouthpieces can be made from various materials, however, the material has little effect on the sound. The most common material is black, hard rubber or ebonite. Metal or glass mouthpieces are also available. Plastic resonators are made and the instrument is often coated with a lacquer. Nickel plating on the keys helps strengthen them and keeps them attractive.

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