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When you picture a saxophone, what comes to mind? Do you see an average-sized instrument, or do you see something a bit bigger? Picturing both is a great way to visualize the high vs. tenor sax compared. The two instruments are very similar, and many people play both. However, there are some critical differences that can affect which one you learn first. So how do they differ and which should you study?
The Main Differences Between the Alto and Tenor Sax
The main differences between the alto and tenor sax are:
- Alto sax is in the key of E flat, whereas tenor sax is in the key of B flat
- Alto sax is smaller and can rest between your legs, whereas tenor sax is longer and plays off to the right
- Alto sax uses an alto sax mouthpiece and reed whereas tenor sax uses a larger mouthpiece and reed
Consider these differences in more detail.
One of the most significant differences between the alto and tenor sax is the size. The alto saxophone is about 25 inches from the neck to where it curves around. However, the tenor saxophone is about 28 inches long with a curve. Both instruments would be about 50% longer if you were to straighten them out.
Tenor saxophones are also thicker around and weigh a bit more than alto saxophones. This can make the tenor saxophone harder for beginners to play, but it’s not impossible. The alto saxophone isn’t that small, but a few inches can make a huge difference. Whether you struggle to hold the tenor sax while playing or to carry it around, the alto may be a better choice.
Because of the different sizes, the alto and tenor saxophones are at different pitch levels. The standard range for the alto saxophone ranges from the flat D below the middle C (Db3) to the flat above the treble clef staff (Ab5). Alto saxophones are in the key of E flat, which means they sound a major sixth lower than written. So the written range is B flat below middle C to the F an octave above the top line of the staff.
The tenor saxophone has the same written range as the alto sax, but it sounds a fourth lower than the alto and a major ninth lower than written. When you play the tenor sax, the lowest note will sound like an A flat, an octave, and a third below middle C.
The highest note on the tenor saxophone is the E flat at the top of the treble clef staff. Now, you can get both saxophones with a key that lets you play a half-note higher, but the ranges are still pretty different.
Because of that difference, you also tend to tune to different notes. In both cases, you may tune to a concert A or B flat. On an alto saxophone, those notes are F sharp and G. A tenor saxophone would need to play B or C to get those notes.
On the surface, it may seem like the alto and tenor saxophone use the same accessories. You need to have a mouthpiece with a ligature, and you need to reed to make the sound.
However, you can’t use the same accessories on different saxophone sizes. An alto saxophone mouthpiece is a perfect size to fit on the neck of an alto. The mouthpiece would be too small to be on a tenor saxophone, so you need a separate mouthpiece and new reeds.
Fortunately, you can use the same neck strap with both saxophones. You can connect the strap to a hole on the back of the instrument, and both saxophones are compatible with the same strap. Another accessory that you can use with both saxophones is a saxophone stand. Because both have a bell that curves around, the bell can rest on the stand and hold the instrument up when you aren’t playing it.
What to Consider When Choosing a Saxophone
If you’re new to playing the saxophone, you should consider the right one for you. You may see one type of saxophone a lot online, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Whether you’re a beginner or are looking to learn the second type of saxophone, think about the alto vs. tenor sax compared. Then, you can make an informed decision on which is better for you to learn.
One of the most important factors to consider when selecting a saxophone is how big you are. If you have short arms or small hands, you may struggle to hold and play a tenor sax. The instrument also requires more air capacity than an alto saxophone. Kids should start on the alto saxophone, and they can switch to add the tenor when they get bigger.
As an adult, you may be big enough to play the tenor saxophone. But consider if you want to deal with the extra weight. A tenor saxophone can weigh a lot, and you can feel it after playing for a while or simply walking around with the case.
The alto and tenor saxophone can play a lot of the same music, but they aren’t always equally suitable for pieces. While the saxophone family doesn’t have a ton of classical repertoire, most pieces that exist are for the alto saxophone.
If you want to play more classical pieces, you should go with the smaller instrument. Then, you can learn more music more easily, and you won’t have to switch instruments later.
On the other hand, if you’re more interested in playing jazz music, the tenor saxophone will be a better fit. You may hear some alto saxophone in jazz, but the tenor has a darker and deeper tone that makes it perfect for the genre.
If you can’t decide if you want to learn classical or jazz, or if you know you want to learn both, go with the alto sax. It may not be popular in jazz, but it’s an essential part of any big band.
Before you choose between the alto and tenor sax, you should compare the sound of each. Some people love the lower sounds of the tenor saxophone, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit heavier. However, other people prefer the middle range that you can get on an alto saxophone. Even if someone wants to play jazz, they can make it work on the alto saxophone.
And if you want to eventually learn a different saxophone, that can help your current decision. It will be easier to learn the soprano saxophone if you already play the alto. And if you want to play the baritone sax, switching from tenor will be easier.
The next deciding factor could be if you have access to one saxophone over the other. If you’re in a school or college band, you may be able to borrow a tenor saxophone. That’s what I did when I played it in a jazz band for a semester.
However, you may not be able to borrow an alto saxophone from a group or school. Because it is more affordable, the group may expect you to own your own high.
When it comes to buying or renting a saxophone, that can also be different. You may find it easier to rent or buy a used alto saxophone. It will be cheaper no matter how you get hold of it.
Speaking of money, you should consider how much you can afford to spend on your saxophone. Not only is an alto saxophone more affordable than a tenor, but so are the mouthpieces and reeds. You’ll need to keep buying new reeds as yours wear out, and that can happen quickly. While reeds can add up no matter which sax you play, tenor reeds can cost almost a third more for the same number of alto reeds.
If you don’t want to spend more money than necessary, consider playing the alto saxophone. It can be a great saxophone to start with, and you can learn the tenor later if you have more money and know you want to play it.
The Better Saxophone
Overall, the alto saxophone is a better choice. It’s not as heavy or expensive as a tenor saxophone, it’s suitable for beginners and professionals of all ages. When it comes to playing classical music, there’s more rep available. But the alto sax is also part of many jazz pieces. Sure, it doesn’t have the same deep sound as the tenor sax, but it can still play low notes.
The alto saxophone is also easier for beginners to learn than the tenor saxophone. The tenor requires more physical support and better airflow, which can be hard to work on when you’re first learning.
Answer: Most people will probably find the alto sax is easier to play. While it requires a good airstream, you don’t need as much air as you do when playing the tenor sax.
The alto saxophone is also easier to hold, making it easier to learn the different notes. Playing tenor sax isn’t necessarily hard, but it can be more difficult than the alto.
Answer: The alto saxophone is hands down the best for a beginner. Whether you’ve played another instrument or not, you won’t have to struggle to learn the notes or get a good sound on the alto.
It’s also more budget-friendly, which can be important when you first start. You don’t want to invest too much into something before you know you’ll stick with it.
Answer: The tenor saxophone is a better option when playing jazz music. There are some excellent tenor saxophone solos, and you can improvise solos as well.
While you can play the alto sax in jazz, it isn’t quite as popular as a jazz solo instrument. But it can be good if you want to be part of a group.
Answer: On paper, alto and tenor sax notes look the same. However, the alto sax sounds a fourth higher than the tenor sax. While this means you can play the same music on both instruments, you can’t do that with other instruments.
Answer: Overall, the tenor saxophone is the most popular, but the alto is more common among beginners and students. Many professionals and advanced amateurs play both instruments.
Answer: Saxophones require a lot of materials to build, and those materials cost a lot. The price also has to cover the cost of labor to make the instrument and test it to ensure it’s in playing condition.
Answer: If you really can’t decide between the two, you can play both. You should learn one at a time to master the basics, but learning the second saxophone won’t take as much time as learning the first.
Final Note on the Alto vs Tenor Sax Compared
Seeing the high vs. tenor sax compare can help you decide which instrument to learn. While beginners can learn both, the alto saxophone is more suitable for more people. The tenor may require more strength and endurance to manage, even for short periods. So start with the alto sax to build up those skills, and you can learn the tenor later.