The Western tonal system officially registers twelve notes on an octave when we include the sharp and flat notes (commonly called a “chromatic scale”). However, especially with wind instruments, it's quite easy to get different gradations of pitch, particularly through various fingering and embouchure techniques.
How many notes do saxophones play? The sax, as a standard, has a range of two-and-a-half octaves (which can be pushed higher depending on the player's skill). Regardless of the type of saxophone – namely soprano, alto, tenor, or baritone – this standard range won't change. However, their registers and transpositions will be different.
In this article, we'll discuss how many notes can be squeezed out of a saxophone, how the notes are played on any saxophone, as well as a brief look at transposition and pitch range for each major class.
How Many Notes Can Be Played On Saxophone?
As detailed earlier, the saxophone has the same range of notes, whether we speak of soprano, alto, tenor, or baritone. Still, the starting and ending pitches and the transposition will be different (we'll explain a bit more about transposition later).
These are the standard ranges that can be rendered by the regular player. Skillful saxophonists can “tweak” their playing methods to produce higher-pitched notes (also called altissimo notes), stretching the range a couple more octaves in some rare cases.
Since they rely on more unconventional fingering, airflow, and embouchure techniques, these notes are more difficult to control, which is why they're only attainable to those saxophonists who succeeded in mastering their craft.
When we speak of notes, we usually refer to a sound with a determined pitch. However, in music theory, a note is a visual representation of the pitch we usually discern from a sound and mentally ascribe to a specific symbol. Each note represents what is called a “pitch class.”
We should be reminded that, in the chromatic scale, each octave in the Western system is divided into twelve distinct notes, called “semitones.”
The aforementioned range of two-and-a-half octaves in the Western notation system will translate as thirty notes, counting all the flats and sharps, starting from the lowest note and ending on the highest.
On the other hand, the Arabic system divides 24 non-equal intervals for each octave. The naming convention is also different, as the name of each note doesn't repeat on lower or higher octaves.
The above explanation is made to show there are no set rules when it comes to designating a specific note, but, rather, they are conventions based on how musicians normally read music in a given part of the world.
With that said, there have been experiments trying to show the number of distinguishing pitch classes that can be played on a saxophone. There have been incursions into what is termed “microtonal music,” which tries to find different distinct pitches beyond the traditional Western idea of semitones.
Various types of popular music use microtones extensively, and some sax performers are known to exploit this ability to push different tones from a specific pitch class.
For example, German jazz saxophonist Phillip Gerschlauer showed how he was able to squeeze 128 notes per octave on his alto sax, a feat achieved by trying out a myriad of different fingerings.
To give other examples from the saxophone world, American saxophonist Michael Brecker (one of the most influential sax players in modern times) heavily employs microtonal variations in his solos.
Finally, in the famous Benny Hill theme “Yakety Sax”, Boots Randolph (the saxophonist) conveyed a wide array of microtonal distinctions during his phrasing.
Nonetheless, this ability is not exclusive to wind instruments. Pitch-bending is widely employed by a great number of blues, jazz, and rock guitarists, owing to the ability to bend strings or use tremolo bars. By bending the pitch, a great number of microtones are registered.
Every instrument able to deliver vibrato has microtonal abilities. On the flip side, the acoustic piano is natively a rigid instrument that is stuck with a semitonal format. For this reason, pianos are commonly chosen as composition and arrangement tools.
How Notes Are Played On A Saxophone (A Brief Look At Transposition And Pitch Range)
Now, we'll take a quick look at how a saxophone is played and how it creates notes.
Saxophones, regardless of class, normally have between 20-23 keys that are pushed to cover the holes. The notes will be played according to the holes covered and those left open, producing a different pitch and timbre for each positioning.
There are, in total, 25 tone holes, but manufacturers usually provide players with levers and keys that may close multiple holes simultaneously.
The number of keys varies depending on the manufacturer and the model. Old saxophones had two-octave holes, but modern designs feature only one key covering two-octave holes.
These features are roughly the same for each of the major saxophone classes. However, these classes will present variations in tonality.
One of the challenges when writing music for different saxophone types is finding their C note. This is because the saxophone is, by nature, a transposing instrument.
In layman terms, the saxophone's notation will start from C, just like that of any other instrument. However, players will notice that what is deemed as C on the score does not have the same pitch as the C that is heard on a piano.
This is because saxophones have varying starting pitches depending on the type. This may seem like a hindrance, especially from the point of view of the composer/arranger.
For the instrumentalist, it means he/she won't have to learn new fingerings or positions for the C scale each time he/she shifts from one sax type to another, for it will invariably be the same regardless of the actual pitch reproduced with relation to other instruments.
These are the starting notes (or “C notes”) for each sax type, corresponding to the piano notes (commonly known as “concert pitch), as well as their pitch range:
- Soprano: B♭ (Sí Bemole). The soprano's range is from concert A♭3 to E6.
- Alto: E♭ (Mí Bemole). The alto's range is from concert D♭3 to A♭5.
- Tenor: B♭ (Sí Bemole). The tenor's range is from concert A♭2 to E5.
- Baritone: E♭ (Mí Bemole). The baritone's range is from concert D♭2 to A♭4.