As you've probably heard before, saxophones use reeds. Reeds are pieces of material extracted from a type of cane or grass plant with a wooden-like texture that are attached to some woodwind instruments like saxophones or oboes. Some of these instruments use single or double reeds, depending on the instrument's specifications.
Do saxophones use double or single reeds? Saxophones use single reeds, just like clarinets. By saxophones, we mean all members of the saxophone family, from the soprillo to the contrabass saxophone. This trait distinguishes the saxophone from other instruments that use double reeds, such as the oboe, English horn and bassoon.
In this article, we'll discuss how saxophones, as single-reed instruments, distinguish themselves from double-reed woodwinds and why they are single reeds, to begin with.
How Do We Distinguish Between Single And Double Reeds?
Now that we know that saxophones are single-reed instruments, in contrast to other woodwinds like the bassoon and oboe. As the names should give out, single and double reeds are differentiated primarily by the number of reeds used for the player's embouchure.
Single-reed instruments will have only one reed embedded in the bottom side of a mouthpiece through a ligature. The reed will interact solely with the mouthpiece's upper lip as it vibrates, creating the soundwave that we hear coming out of the instrument's resonance device or component (the bell and/or the tone holes).
Examples of single-reed instruments are the saxophone and clarinet. At one point, clarinets were the sole single-reed instruments in the woodwind family until the saxophone was invented. The saxophone is largely based on the design of the clarinet, which would explain why it also features a single reed.
Conversely, double-reed instruments do not conform to using one reed, but, rather, they use two reeds that vibrate against one another and are placed together by their flat sides. This configuration creates a sound profile distinguished from that of single-reed instruments.
The double reeds can be found and bought ready-made (already assembled), part-scraped, or in blanks. The excitation of the two reeds in unison is what helps project the air column that would be resonated, with the top reed acting in a similar fashion to the mouthpiece's upper lip in single reeds.
The main double-reed instruments are the oboe, cor anglais (English horn), and bassoon, as we just mentioned above.
Is There A Difference In Sound Between Single And Double Reed Instruments?
The tonal difference between single and double-reed instruments is, at times, easy to omit.
Comparing similar-looking winds side-by-side, such as the clarinet (single reed) and the oboe (double reed), you ought to be able to detect a distinction between them in relation to the frequency of the wave. Clarinets will have a warmer, rounder sound, whereas oboes sound a bit tangier and sharper.
However, this study was performed to ascertain how oboes would sound with a single-reed mouthpiece. Quite surprisingly, the single-reed oboe sounded brighter, albeit by a small degree. This could lend credence to the position that the contrast in sound with the clarinet largely hinges upon the geometry of the bore rather than the excitation mechanism. Furthermore, it would explain why clarinets produce a rounder tone despite being single-reed woodwinds.
Another experiment showed how a saxophone played with a double-reed configuration. You may be able to judge the tone quality of the sound by checking out this video. You may likewise notice that the saxophone (a soprano) struggles with pitch stability during a great portion of the video, but this might be due to the fact that, by nature, double reeds are more problematic for attaining proper intonation. Regardless, the tone was found to be a tad sweeter with this mechanism installed.
The bassoon and oboe would first appear on the musical scene in the 17th century. The bassoon would be a development of the earlier fagotto or curtal, while the oboe emerged as a very simple two-key shawm-an.
Up until that time, single-reed instruments were not to be seen. The only exception to this was the memet, an ancient Egyptian double clarinet that went out of material existence very early on and is only known from iconographic evidence.
Single-reed instruments re-entered the musical scene with the invention of the clarinet by Johann Christoph Denner at the beginning of the 18th century. It featured the mouthpiece design that we know today, housing a single piece of reed.
This setup came with many advantages over double reeds, such as better playability and cost optimization. Double reeds are typically more expensive than single-reed mouthpieces and are strenuously more difficult to play, which is why single-reed instruments became very prominent in more popular music genres such as pop, ragtime, and jazz.
By the mid-to-late 18th century, Adolphe Sax wanted to improve upon the concept of the bass clarinet, using the single-reed mouthpiece format as a staple. The end result was the saxophone, a variant of the clarinet that overblew at an octave and conveyed a more relatable sound that would get scorned by the most academic-minded musicians.
The saxophone will use a similar mouthpiece design as the clarinet, with the only major difference being the shank at the bottom. Saxophone mouthpieces are adjusted to the neck cork of the instrument, while the clarinet mouthpiece has a cork-covered shank that is inserted into the barrel.
As for the reeds, saxophones would use a similar reed design as clarinets, to the point in which they could be used interchangeably, provided they were made for the same range (alto clarinet reeds on alto sax and vice-versa). Nevertheless, clarinet reeds are devised to produce a specific type of sound that may not be palatable to many sax players.