Is Saxophone A Woodwind Or Brass Instrument? If you tell a lot of new people that saxophones are woodwind instruments, they can be perplexed.
The confusion is justified, given that the instrument appears to be primarily built of brass. Due to its availability, malleability, and rust resistance, brass has traditionally been used to make saxophones. Saxophones, on the other hand, are classified as woodwinds since they need reeds to vibrate rather than just the player’s embouchure.
This article will explain why saxophones are frequently built of brass and why, despite their brass construction, saxophones are classified as woodwind instruments.
The Use of Brass in Saxophone Instruments: An Introduction
As previously mentioned, the archetypal saxophone has typically been made primarily of brass and has been classified as a woodwind instrument under various definitions.
The saxophone was first invented by Belgian musician Adolphe Sax, allegedly to improve the bass clarinet’s sound and combine brass and woodwind instrument families. Other historians asserted that Sax attempted to integrate the clarinet’s mouthpiece design with the other woodwinds’ simple fingering.
The saxophone was first played in public in 1942 in Paris. It had a conical shape and was built to overblow at an octave rather than the twelfth note that clarinets typically produce. In contrast to the intricate fingering of a normal clarinet, this permitted musicians to utilize the same fingering in any register.
The bulk of saxophones has been manufactured of brass since the beginning. But according to one article, Sax switched to brass immediately after the initial saxophones submitted for patent registration were made of wood.
Other instruments, such as the saxhorn (influenced by the bugle-horn), the saxotromba, and the saxtuba, are also attributed to the sax. The saxophone would be one of these innovations that would last the longest.
Although numerous attempts were made to incorporate the saxophone into a symphony orchestra framework, it never fully succeeded and only made a notable appearance in a few of Richard Strauss’ compositions. Its use was largely restricted to jazz and popular music, and it was often derided by classical musicians.
Why Are Saxophones Made Of Brass?
Usually, a large amount of the saxophone’s construction is made of brass. It is an alloy made of copper and zinc that is highly malleable and has excellent corrosion-resistant properties. In addition to the previously mentioned theory on Sax’s goal to connect brass and woodwind, these specifications may have persuaded Sax to choose this material above others.
Yellow brass is the most typical type of brass used for saxophones. Brass is particularly moldable at relatively low temperatures thanks to the proportion of zinc in the composition, which facilitates mass production. The material’s flexibility was also improved by the addition of phosphorus or arsenic.
It appears that the instrument’s use of brass also made it suited for military bands because of the perceived additional resonance, which would explain why military marching bands in France, Great Britain, and America adopted it early.
Despite this, it’s important to note that saxes can be made of other materials besides brass, despite the latter being the most popular. Occasionally, but in more expensive forms, gold, silver, and bronze have been employed. Saxes made of copper or even plastic have also been produced in the past. Alternatively, to make the instrument look shinier, the brass would be plated in gold, silver, and lacquer.
The question of whether the body material of the sax affects its tonal character in any discernible way has generated a lot of discussions. For instance, physicist Arthur Benade gave more attention to the inner wall of the instrument than to the size and resonance characteristics of the material.
Contrary to what one may anticipate with other instruments like the guitar that depended on the vibration of the soundboard, Benade concluded after extensive examination that the material is not as relevant to the timbre.
For woodwind instruments, the vibrating air column projected in the tube is the only factor affecting the sound. Due to its roughness and heat conduction characteristics, the material’s ability to disperse energy may be the only factor that affects the soundwave.
The fact that Charlie “Bird” Parker, a jazz great, previously played a Grafton alto sax made of plastic may surprise some jazz fans. According to experts, there isn’t much of a difference between the production of Parker’s plastic Grafton and the metal saxes used in other recordings. This has given rise to the idea that the finish of the material—rather than the material itself—determines how a saxophone sounds.
Even after taking these factors into account, some investigations have shown some observable distinctions on paper (such as this one), although listeners’ and players’ interpretations of such differences can vary greatly.
Why, Then, Is The Saxophone Considered A Woodwind Instrument?
Some experts are hesitant to categorize the saxophone solely as a woodwind instrument, frequently referring to it as a woodwind-brass hybrid. They would assert that the brass body modifies the timbre in ways that make it challenging to categorize. There are differences of opinion on this matter, as was shown in the paragraph before this one.
Rather, its closeness with the ordinary clarinet has been a crucial feature that has encouraged many musical professionals to situate it in the woodwind family tree. For some experts, the single-reed mouthpiece is frequently the main focus. It also makes sense to include the saxophone in the mix because many woodwind instruments also have this characteristic.
There are, however, two comparatively small cautions. The first one has to do with the reed’s composition because this material is made from bamboo or cane, which are official “grass” rather than “wood.”
The second one has to do with how other instruments that are also classified as woodwinds are constructed, such as the flute.
The term “woodwind” refers to instruments made of wood, such as flutes, clarinets, and oboes. Later, despite maintaining its original classification, flute producers began to use metal rather than wood. Therefore, a different standard had to be used to separate woodwinds from other wind instruments.
With time, the theory of design and tone began to make more sense. Numerous factors, including the design of the mouthpiece and ligature as well as the instrument’s general form or shape, affect a wind instrument.
The conical shape of the saxophone’s body, according to several experts, is responsible for its mellower voice. However, since instruments like the flute, clarinet, and oboe are often cylindrical, the conical shape cannot be regarded as the only characteristic that distinguishes brass from woodwinds.
All woodwind instruments did, however, share one feature in common: the perforations that run the length of their bodies and allow wind to pass through. The instrument ultimately projects less wind to the bell as a result of this leakage, changing the tone to one that is warmer and “windier.”
In contrast, the air is directed straight to the bell (the instrument’s main output hole) in brass instruments, producing a more compressed, high-pitched sound. Typically, valves are constructed onto brass instruments so that different segments of the pipe can be opened and closed to produce different tones (the trombone utilizes a slide to alter the length of its pipe).
Additionally, compared to woodwind instruments, brass instruments have a distinctively loud and tiny sound.
It would be false to assert, notwithstanding the foregoing, that the reed has no impact at all on the saxophone’s sound. The reed has characteristics of wood even though, as was already said, it is not wood in the traditional sense. So, although it’s not the only one, it may be stated to be one of the numerous characteristics that make an instrument qualify as a woodwind.