soprano saxophone

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Title: Classical Bouquet—Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra, by Heitor Villa-Lobos; Steve Mauk, soprano saxophone, and Mart Ann Covert, piano. Label: Open Loop. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 009. Track: 11.

Title: John Coltrane—My Favorite Things; John Coltrane, soprano saxophone, MacCoy Tyner, piano, Steve Davis, Bass, and Elvin Jones, drums. Label: Atlantic. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 1361-2. Track: 1.

Bibliographic Citations

The soprano saxophone is an end-blown single-reed aerophone invented in Belgium around 1840 that is now distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is heard today primarily in the following contexts: military/marching/concert bands (rarely today, more frequently in the past), as a solo instrument in recital settings or with a concert band, in mixed saxophone ensembles (see Saxophone Ensembles), and as an auxiliary solo instrument in jazz combos and jazz big bands. The soprano saxophone is performed both by amateurs and professionals, males and females. School-age children can learn the tenor saxophone as part of school music programs and choose to continue their study in the university setting with lessons and/or ensemble participation, or even earn degrees in saxophone performance at the undergraduate or graduate levels. Amateurs can also find musical outlets in community concert and jazz bands. Professionals operate in one or both of two general spheres: the classical/educational domain, centered in academic institutions where performers teach, present formal recitals, solo with school ensembles, and direct student ensembles; and the jazz/commercial domain, where they perform at concert and club venues as members of established bands/combos or as back-up musicians for other performers, produce commercial recordings, do studio session work (recordings for movies, television, and commercials), and free-lance as teachers and clinicians. A substantial body of solo literature that is performed primarily in the classical sphere for soloist competitions and student and faculty recitals has accrued since the latter half of the 19th century. This repertoire grew exponentially in the course of the 20th century. Today, at least in the United States, the soprano saxophone is most strongly associated with jazz idioms.


The soprano saxophone is basically a conical tube that is constructed in two sections, the neck and the body, with a single-reed mouthpiece attached to its narrow end. Made from drawn brass, the tube is straight with a slightly flaring bell. Twenty of its twenty-one tone holes are located along the length of the body, the twenty-first on the neck. These holes vary greatly in their size, but in general start out wider at the bell end and become narrower near the mouthpiece end. All have raised rims (called collars) and are covered and uncovered with leather- or felt-padded keys controlled with a complex system of buttons, rod-axels, and springs. The single beating-reed (of cane) that is used to generate sound on this instrument is affixed over a flat rectangular opening (called the table) on a plastic mouthpiece (can also be made from wood or metal) with the aid of a screw-tightened metal ligature. The base of the mouthpiece is slid over the end of the neck, which is lapped with a thin layer of cork to make the joint airtight and to allow for the fine-tuning of the instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, either standing or seated, holds the instrument vertically in front of him- or herself. A neck strap attached to the back of the instrument supports most of the instrument’s weight, assisted by a thumb rest for the right hand thumb. The thumb and all the fingers of the left hand and all the fingers of the right hand are used to operate the keywork. The tip of the mouthpiece is inserted into the player’s mouth and pressed upon from the top with the upper teeth and from beneath (the reed side) with the lower lip; a tight seal around the mouthpiece is produced with the player’s lips using the embouchure muscles. The instrument functions acoustically as an open conical tube, meaning that it overblows at every harmonic partial (starting at the octave above the fundamental). With all the finger holes covered the lowest sounding pitch on the soprano saxophone in B-flat is A-flat3; the upper limit of its range depends on the performer, but E-flat6 is usually given as its nominal highest note. Its compass is therefore about two-and-one-half octaves, and over this range it is fully chromatic. It has a rich, full tone over much of its compass, and a wide dynamic range. Jazz saxophonists and avant-garde musicians in particular often challenge the conventional limits of sound production: by extending the instrument's upper register; through the bending of pitches; and by producing expressive timbral effects achieved through overblowing, multiphonics and other forms of intentional distortion. As with all B-flat and E-flat saxophones, notation for the soprano saxophone is written in the treble clef between B-flat3 and F6; it sounds a major second lower than notated.


The soprano saxophone is a member of a family of like instruments invented around 1840 by the Belgium instrument maker Adolphe Sax. A patent for the saxophone family was awarded to Sax by the French government on 22 June 1846, but the actual invention of the instrument may have been as early as 1838. He designed two lines of saxophones each in seven registers, one set for orchestral use (all but one model in this line are now obsolete) and the other for military band use (of which four registers, including the soprano saxophone in B-flat, remain in common use today). Sax’s original concept and design of the soprano saxophone has held up fairly well over time, although numerous changes to his key-work system and the addition of more tone holes have been made by subsequent makers over the years, some of which have been retained, others not.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1962. Woodwind Instruments and their History. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bate, Philip, and J. Bradford Robinson. 1984. “Saxophone.” NGDMI v.3: 313-319.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Press.

Ingham, Richard, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Nation: Belgium

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.212.2 aerophone--single conical-bore reedpipe with single reed: the pipe has a [single] reed consisting of a lamella which periodically opens and closes an aperture, controlling the flow of air; with fingerholes stopped with keys

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: exposed percussion (single) reed

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


27.6 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane
spring - flat and/or needle





Entry Author

Roger Vetter