In hopes of consecrating his career as an instrument maker, Belgian inventor Adolph Sax moved to Paris in 1841. Three years later, his new instrument, the saxophone, would make its debut under the baton of Hector Berlioz in an adaptation of his Chant Sacre made solely to feature the instruments of Sax.

When conjuring images of the saxophone, many people immediately think of jazz. In its conception however, the sax was intended as an orchestral instrument. The saxophone – a nineteenth century European invention – during the time of its invention had no connections with jazz – an American musical style of the twentieth century. When the saxophone emerged, the orchestra had undergone many enhancements to the lower end of its range. It was, however, lacking a strong bass voice in the woodwind family; the bassoon was in the midst of transforming into the modern day instrument, and the bass clarinet was struggling until Adolph Sax designed the straight-bodied form. He hoped that his new invention, the bass saxophone, would be just the boost the lower end of the woodwinds needed.

In its beginnings, the saxophone was very well received. Hector Berlioz applauded the instrument for its versatility:

“[The saxophones] principal merit in my view is the varied beauty of its accent, sometimes serious, sometimes calm, sometimes impassioned, dreamy or melancholic, or vague, like the weakened echo of an echo, like the indistinct plaintiff moans of the breeze in the woods and, even better, like the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it has been struck; there does not exist another musical instrument that I know of that possesses this strange resonance, which is situated at the edge of silence.” – Hector Berlioz

The saxophone found increasing popularity as an orchestral instrument, today we can reference thousands of composers who have used it in their works. In the resources section below, you will find a link to download a list of composers and their works which utilize the saxophone. It should be noted that this is a select list, and is meant to give an overview – it is by no means comprehensive.

The saxophone saw use as a chamber instrument as composers began to recognize its flexibility. In a chamber setting, the instrument can add a new breadth of colors and tonal resources to the ensemble. In the resources section below, you will find a very select list of chamber works employing the saxophone.

The saxophone quartet is a very popular medium for composers today. The standard instrumentation mirrors that of the string quartet with soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. Sometimes, we see works for two alto saxophones, tenor and baritone, with composers omitting the soprano saxophone in order to gear their works towards student groups. Today however, as more and more young musicians are starting to perform on soprano saxophones, this is becoming a non-issue. There are other examples of varying instrumentation, for instance the Canonic Suite for Four Alto Saxophones by Elliot Carter. The instrumentation of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone however, is accepted as standard.

The first consideration in writing for the saxophone is the range and transpositions of the instruments. Please see the resources section for a PDF file containing all of this information in an easy to read format.

The Bb Soprano Saxophone:
Keyed range from Bb below the staff to F above the staff
Transposes up a major second from concert pitch
Many newer instruments are equipped with a high F# and sometimes G key

The Eb Alto Saxophone:
Keyed range from Bb below the staff to F above the staff
Transposes up a major sixth from concert pitch
Many newer instruments are equipped with a high F# key

The Bb Tenor Saxophone:
Keyed range from Bb below the staff to F above the staff
Transposes up a major ninth from concert pitch, and is written in treble clef
Many newer instruments are equipped with a high F# key

The Eb Baritone Saxophone:
Keyed range from A below the staff to F above the staff
Transposes up a major thirteenth from concert pitch, and is written in treble clef

Adoph Sax was a clarinetist/woodwind specialist, and developed the saxophone with the extended range in mind. It took many years for the upper range, commonly referred to as the altissimo range, to develop after the invention of the instrument, but it is now fairly commonplace. The altissimo can add up to an octave to the keyed range of the instrument. Some range considerations are similar to that of other woodwind instruments, like the oboe the lower register is rich and resonant – but can sometimes be muddy. Upper register considerations would parallel those of any other woodwind, most similarly the clarinet.

A couple of recorded examples of the use of the altissimo register:

Ibert, Jaques – Concertino da Camera: Cadenza
Martin, Frank – Ballade: Opening

The saxophone is an instrument capable of many extended techniques, below are a few examples:

Timbre Variations:

The timber of a certain pitch can be varied through the use of alternate fingerings, or by opening and closing additional tone holes. For example, there are three ways to finger a middle Bb each resulting in a difference of timbre and intonation. Middle A on the other hand has no alternate fingerings. Timber variation may be obtained through the opening and closing of additional tone holes.

Quarter Tones:

The saxophone is an instrument that is capable of playing quarter tones. Quarter tones are obtained through the use of so-called “unconventional” fingerings.

Glissando and Portamento:

A glissando is characterized by rapid chromatic (sometimes diatonic) movement, while portamento is a sliding between two notes. These techniques became common of the saxophone during the 1920s Vaudeville Era, and have since made their way into contemporary literature. It is important to note that this technique is most effective in the upper register of the instrument.

Slap Tonguing:

As a single reed instrument, the saxophone is capable of an effect commonly referred to as slap tonguing. It is an effect that creates a percussive articulation, along with resonation of the desired pitch. It is as a result of suction in the mouth, and the sound that the reed produces which is amplified as it travels through the horn. This is generally notated with a plus sign (+) over the pitch.

Percussive Effects:

Key clicks occur when a saxophonist fingers a specific note and the quickly closes the keys, resulting in a clicking sound and a resonating pitch. When notating key clicks, it is important to keep in mind that the fingered pitch is not always the pitch that will sound when the key is depressed. Also, a clicking sound can be produced when opening the keys, as well as closing them. (This sound is not inevitable and can be eliminated. It is, however, another option for creating percussive effects on the saxophone.)


Multiphonics (sometimes referred to as “multiple sonorities” or “multiple sounds”) can be defined as “the simultaneous production of more than one audible tone.” Without modifying the instrument itself, this can be achieved in two ways:

  • By combining vocal sounds with conventional saxophone sounds, or
  • By changing the resonance of the air column within the instrument in order to produce two or more simultaneous tones, either by:
    • Distorting the tone (air speed, embouchure pressure, etc.) or
    • The use of fingering patterns which create several tube lengths within the instrument on which multiple sounds can be produced

With this in mind, we can say that there are three different kinds of multiphonics on the saxophone:

  1. Multiphonics employing the technique of singing while playing
  2. Multiphonics which use conventional fingerings with distorted tone production
  3. Multiphonics using special fingerings

The third kind of multiphonic is by far the most commonly used. There is a great diversity in the notation of multiphonics in works for the saxophone. Your decision regarding notation should be based on the compositional effect you are looking for. It is perfectly acceptable to indicate unspecified multiphonics, leaving the decision up to performer, if you looking for the “sound” rather than specific pitches. If you wish to specify a particular multiphonic, it is generally done through the use of a small fingering diagram above the staff. This is where it is useful to know a saxophonist who is willing to work with you on choosing multiphonics which will work for your composition.


Select Orchestral Works Utilizing the Saxophone
Select Chamber Works Utilizing the Saxophone
Select List of Saxophone Concerti
Saxophone Ranges and Transpositions
Some Extended Techniques for Saxophone

If you have any questions or comments regarding this material, or if you found this at all helpful please feel free to email me and let me know!

Edit(08/31/12): The above links have been repaired