Taylor Made: Pitch construction

7/21/2017 Taylor Tucker

Written by Taylor Tucker

When Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, he had the goal of blending the sounds created by woodwind and brass instruments. All wind instruments need vibrations in order to produce sound and are designed to amplify vibrations to create tones. Interesting fact: while brass instruments are actually made of brass (a copper/zinc alloy), woodwinds are made of wood or metal depending on the instrument. 

Brass instruments have an open mouthpiece, meaning that the player’s lips produce the vibrations. Woodwinds have a wooden reed that vibrates when the player blows through the mouthpiece. Saxes are a hybrid, made of brass but with a reed in the mouthpiece. 

The build process includes annealing the initial body draft, ensuring that it will be soft enough to be shaped.  Recalling from TAM 342, annealing is a process in which metal is heated and then cooled slowly in order to have larger, less numerous grains. This configuration makes the metal more ductile. 

After annealing, the body is shaped into its final form. While some companies use machinery for shaping, others hammer the saxophones by hand. The finished body is then burnished and annealed again in preparation for creating the keyholes. After adding the holes, lacquer is applied to create a finish on the body and hardware is added to make the keys.

Saxophones come in four main sizes: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, with soprano being the smallest. The length of the windpipe through which the sound has to travel is directly proportional to the octave range of the notes— baritone saxes have the lowest pitches. Less common versions of the sax include the sopranissimo, bass, contrabass, and subcontrabass, the last of which stands more than seven feet tall.

Like all wind instruments, saxophones are tuned to a specific key. This is because each note is constrained to a rigid body and not easily altered by the player’s vibrations. In contrast, with string instruments the musician can bend the string at any point, meaning that the range of possible notes is limited only by the string’s length. Saxophones alternate keys; sopranos and tenors are tuned in B flat, while altos and baritones are tuned in E flat.  

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This story was published July 21, 2017.