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“Is a saxophone considered a woodwind?” If you’ve had this question on your mind, you might wonder what makes the saxophone part of the woodwind family.
I wondered this myself when I wanted to learn the saxophone. And while it may be obvious to me now, I know a lot of people have questions about it.
Multiple things come into play, from the embouchure to the fingerings. The material isn’t actually as important as you might expect, and some woodwinds use brass, silver, gold, and plastic.
Bottom Line Up Front: A saxophone is a woodwind because it uses a reed to produce the sound. It also features a fingering system very similar to the Boehm fingerings for the flute.
Why Is a Saxophone Considered a Woodwind?
When I decided I wanted to learn the saxophone, I started researching it. It surprised me to find that it’s not a brass instrument and instead is part of the woodwind family.
However, after learning why that’s the case, it makes a lot more sense. Sure, many saxophones may use brass in their manufacturing, but that’s not the most important factor.
Consider a few more significant things that make a saxophone part of the woodwind family.
Splitting the Air
The main thing that makes a woodwind a woodwind is how it produces a sound. All woodwinds have something that splits the air you blow into the instrument.
On a flute, for example, it’s easy to see that the air splits by going into or over the embouchure hole. Reed instruments, like the saxophone, are less clear, but the air still splits across a sharp edge.
You blow into a saxophone, and the air splits across a reed. The reed then vibrates and causes the air in the saxophone to vibrate.
Depending on how many holes are open, you can produce higher and lower pitches. Brass instruments use valves rather than tone holes and keys, so that’s another difference to keep in mind.
A Mouthpiece and Reed
More specifically, the saxophone falls into the category of single-reed woodwinds, along with the clarinet. Both instruments use a mouthpiece and a reed.
Mouthpieces can be metal, rubber, or plastic, among other materials. Reeds are usually of cane, but synthetic reeds are slowly gaining popularity.
You’ll also need a ligature, usually a metal one, to hold the reed to the mouthpiece. That way, you can move the mouthpiece in and out of your mouth as you play or take practice breaks.
The ligature keeps the reed in place so that it doesn’t move around, which could negatively affect your sound.
Boehm Fingering System
Another factor that makes a woodwind a woodwind has to do with the fingering system. The Boehm system by Theobald Boehm is the most common, and it serves as the basis for flute, clarinet, and saxophone fingers.
Some oboe fingerings also use the Boehm system, but recorders and bassoons use different fingerings. Either way, the fingering system uses all five fingers on your left hand.
You also have to use all of your right-hand fingers except your thumb. The fingerings cause specific keys to open or close to help produce the correct pitch.
Compare that to brass instruments, which use a valve system to shorten or lengthen the tubing. The sound of a brass instrument always comes out of the bell, whereas woodwinds can release air through multiple tone holes.
Woodwind vs. Brass Mouthpieces
You may be saying to yourself, “but brass instruments have mouthpieces like saxophones.” However, the difference is in the design.
The design of a saxophone mouthpiece helps it go between your lips. It features a table and a window on the side where you pair the reed with it. You curve your lower lip over your teeth to protect the reed, and you blow air.
Meanwhile, a brass mouthpiece goes against the outside of your lips, which you press together. You buzz your lips to help move the air into the mouthpiece and the instrument.
Origin of the Saxophone
Understanding the origin of the saxophone can also help explain why the saxophone is part of the woodwind family. Its developer, Adolphe Sax, played the flute and clarinet, two other woodwinds.
Sax spent some time working on the design of the bass clarinet. He worked on the acoustics and the keys to help make the instrument sound good in the lower register.
His goal was to design an instrument that would have the same fingerings in the first and second octaves. Most clarinets share fingerings at the 12th (an octave plus a perfect fifth).
The inventor also wanted to create an instrument that was flexible like a woodwind but that could project like a brass instrument. After designing instruments in various sizes, Sax patented his invention in the 1840s.
Prior to making the saxophone, Sax designed a similar instrument called the ophicleide. It was similar to the saxophone but used a brass mouthpiece, so it falls under the brass family.
A Fun Fact About Sax
Did you know that Adolphe Sax almost died multiple times before inventing the saxophone? If any of the poisonings or falls killed him, we probably wouldn’t have the instrument we know and love today.
Materials Don’t Matter
When it comes to the saxophone, you can find the instrument in a variety of materials. Back in 2014, I saw an acrylic saxophone at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
However, there are a few more common materials that saxophone makers use. Before you buy your next saxophone, consider the following options.
Of course, brass is probably the most common material people use to make saxophones. As Sax wanted, brass can help players project their sound.
This has allowed the saxophone section to play over a large band or wind ensemble. But the saxophone can also play quieter, especially with practice.
Many student model saxophones use brass as the main material. They might also feature a gold lacquer on top of the brass to help the instrument look shiny.
Even if a saxophone has a brass body, it may also have a layer of silver plating. This can help the saxophone have a bright tone which can be good for soloists.
Silver-plated models are more common among professional instruments. For one, it can be more expensive to use silver than only brass, and you run the risk of the silver tarnishing.
However, it can give your playing a more unique tone than a standard brass model. That way, you can stand out if you play as a soloist or if you tend to have a lot of solo sections in an ensemble.
Another option is to get a nickel saxophone. Some of these are brass models with nickel plating, similar to silver-plated saxophones.
However, you can find other models that use nickel silver, which technically isn’t a type of silver. Instead, it’s an alloy that usually contains nickel and zinc.
This is a very common material for beginner flutes, but it’s not as common for saxophones. If you can find a nickel silver saxophone, you can get a quite unique tone.
Other Non-Wood Woodwinds
The saxophone isn’t the only woodwind that doesn’t feature wood as its most popular material. However, that doesn’t keep people from recognizing these other instruments as woodwinds.
If you want to better understand how the saxophone fits into the woodwind family, consider the following instruments.
Older flutes from the Baroque and Classical eras did use wood. Some non-concert flutes that exist today also use wood, and even a few concert flutes use grenadilla.
However, the vast majority of Western concert flutes use metal as the main material. Beginner models tend to use nickel with silver plating, while advanced instruments use solid silver or even gold or platinum.
Student model piccolos also might use nickel with silver plating. Others will use plastic or a wood-plastic composite material.
Aside from many professional piccolos, the flute family doesn’t usually use wood. But the fact that you have to split your airstream and the use of Boehm fingerings make the flute family all woodwinds.
Student Clarinets and Oboes
You might also find that student model clarinets and oboes use plastic or an ABS resin. The material costs less than wood, and it’s easier for beginners to maintain.
Wood can crack, especially in extreme temperatures or when going between temperatures quickly. It makes more sense for beginners to learn on more durable instruments.
Why Saxophone Makers Use Brass
Saxophones might not be part of the brass instrument family, but brass is still a fantastic material to use. If you’re looking at getting a new saxophone, consider why you should get a brass model.
Sure, brass models are the easiest to find. However, there are a few reasons why makers tend to use the material.
Easy to Work With
First, brass is very malleable, so instrument makers can form it into the shape they desire. That makes it easy to produce anything from a sopranino saxophone to a contrabass saxophone.
On the other hand, wood requires precise cutting to produce a good sound. It would be riskier for a saxophone maker to cut through a piece of wood for a saxophone.
Also, saxophones have conical bores, which means the tubing is smaller at one end than the other. It would be hard to cut wood to be conical, especially on the large scale of most saxophones.
Molding metal to a conical shape is much more practical. That, plus the low melting point of brass, allows saxophone makers to produce more instruments.
Another advantage of brass is that it doesn’t rust as easily as something like iron. That allows you to keep the same saxophone for much longer.
Rust happens when metal contacts an acidic substance or even something as simple as water. Saliva is slightly acidic, though not by much.
Since you blow into the saxophone a lot, it’s even more important to resist rust and corrosion. The copper and zinc in brass can facilitate that so that you don’t have to buy a new instrument every year.
Sax wanted the instrument he developed to project as well as brass instruments. That made brass the natural choice for making the first batch of saxophones.
Over time, the demand for greater projection has only increased. One of the reasons modern flutes use metal is that metal projects better than wood.
The first metal flutes came out in the 1840s, which was when Sax experimented with making saxophones. So it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to waste time making wood saxophones.
FAQs About Is a Saxophone Considered a Woodwind?
Answer: The saxophone is a brass instrument in that brass is the main material. However, saxophones aren’t part of the brass family due to how they produce sound.
Brass instruments have a much different embouchure and fingering system than the saxophone. While the ophicleide has a woodwind-like fingering system, its embouchure is more like the trumpet.
Answer: The standard orchestra doesn’t have a saxophone because the saxophone is much younger than other woodwinds. It also took a bit of time for the instrument to gain popularity.
By the time that happened, composers had decided on a standard instrumentation for the modern orchestra. However, some pieces, such as Ravel’s Bolero, have a saxophone part.
Answer: Learning the saxophone can be hard because you have a lot to learn. You have to figure out how to blow air and get a good sound, and you have to memorize a lot of fingerings.
However, I think the saxophone is one of the easier woodwinds. You don’t have to get the perfect embouchure like on a flute, but you don’t need as much air pressure to make a sound as you do on the clarinet.
Final Note on Is a Saxophone Considered a Woodwind?
Even if you play the instrument, you’ve probably thought to yourself, “is a saxophone considered a woodwind?” You might have even wondered why that is.
The fingerings and the way you produce a sound are the two main factors that categorize saxophones as woodwinds. Sure, many saxophones use brass as their main material, but other woodwinds use metals, such as flutes.
How you make a sound matters much more than the materials an instrument maker uses. Be sure to share that with anyone who questions why the saxophone is a woodwind and not a brass instrument.
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