Adams Musical Instruments - Together in Music

How does a saxophone work?

A saxophone, clarinet, and flute all work on the same principle. A long tube that is shortened by opening keys.


The saxophone was designed by Adolphe Sax. His vision was a brass instrument with the flexibility of a woodwind instrument. He came up with a family of reed instruments made of brass or copper and played with a single reed attached with a ligature to the mouthpiece. Saxophones fall under the woodwind category, even though they are made of metal. There are two reasons for this: the sound is produced by a reed, and a saxophone does not use valves but tone holes and keys, similar to a clarinet. Saxophones are found in classical music, military bands, marching bands, jazz, and even in pop and rock. The most well-known types are the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. However, there are other types as well: the bass and contrabass saxophones, which are tuned lower than the bass, and the sopranino and sopranissimo saxophones, which are tuned higher than the soprano. Additionally, there are the C-melody and mezzo-soprano saxophones.

The origin of the saxophone

Adolphe Sax was a clarinetist and flutist who felt the need for a bridge between brass and woodwind instruments. He wanted to create an instrument that had the projection of a brass instrument and the flexibility of a woodwind instrument. In an initial description, the saxophone was referred to as a brass instrument with a reed. Today, the saxophone is considered a woodwind instrument because you blow through wood (reed). In the patent he applied for, 14 different saxophones are described, from sopranino to contrabass saxophone.

Parts of the saxophone

The saxophone consists of three main parts: the mouthpiece, the neck, and the body.

The saxophone neck

The neck is a removable metal tube that attaches to the top of the body. The exception is the soprano and sopranino saxophones, which sometimes consist of a single tube. At the end of the neck, there is a layer of cork on which the mouthpiece can be fitted. To prolong the life of the cork, the use of cork grease is highly recommended.

The saxophone body

The body consists of a conical brass tube with soldered pillars that are often supported by metal strips called ribs. These pillars support the keys, which contain leather pads called “polsters” to completely cover the tone holes in the body.

The saxophone bend

The bend of the saxophone is the lower end where many types of saxophones make a U-turn and go back up before ending in the bell. This curvature is necessary because saxophones in lower registers would be too long to handle if they were completely straight. Therefore, the soprano and sopranissimo usually do not have a bend, as these instruments are short enough.

The saxophone bell

The bell is the end of the saxophone. Depending on the size of the saxophone, the bell can point upwards or downwards. The bell is a common place for engravings on the instrument, as this part of the saxophone is the most noticeable to the listener.

The keys

The keys are usually made of brass or nickel and are often covered with mother-of-pearl where your middle three fingers touch the instrument. There is little difference in the position of the keys and the fingerings between different saxophones. The keys move around axles or between point screws. The biggest differences between the saxophones are the tuning, the embouchure needed to play them, and the size of the instrument.

The pads

Another important element in every saxophone is the pads. Pads cover the tone holes in the saxophone so that each key seals properly. Pads should feel soft and completely cover the corresponding tone holes. Pads are generally light brown in color and made from cow leather. There are also pads made from kangaroo leather, which are black, brown, or white.

Pads usually have metal or plastic disks, called resonators. Resonators come in various shapes and help reflect the sound back into the instrument. This aids in projection and increases volume.

The finish

The saxophone is generally finished with a protective coating. Nowadays, this coating is usually a layer of lacquer. There are also saxophones that are silver-plated, gold-plated, or nickel-plated. Additionally, anodized finishes with black nickel and colored lacquer finishes are also used today. The finish is primarily intended to change the appearance, although it does have a small effect on the sound of the instrument.