Alto and tenor saxophones are possibly the most popular saxophones in the world, being used extensively by musicians from a wide array of backgrounds and in many, many genres, including jazz, pop, rock, and Latin. Similarities abound between these two saxophone types, and the differences, albeit present, may be hard to spot at first.
With that said, these are some of the differences between alto and tenor saxophones:
- Alto saxophones are smaller than tenor saxophones.
- Alto saxophones are higher-pitched than tenor saxophones.
- Tenor saxophones are more curved than alto saxophones.
- Tenor is mostly used for soloing and alto for melody.
In this article, I'll be expanding upon the differences we just enumerated. Before we move on, let's give a brief description of each instrument.
What Is An Alto Saxophone?
The alto saxophone is a very prevalent instrument in the saxophone family. It's built in the key of Eb and has a range from Db3 to Ab5.
As it's the case with almost all the other woodwinds in the sax family (except for the virtually extinct melody sax), the alto is a transposing instrument. This means that “written C” does not match “concert pitch C” (the C note delivered on the piano, for example).
To learn more about saxophones as transposing instruments, check out my article Why Do Saxophones Transpose?
The alto saxophone is a favourite for students because of its lightweight construction and comfortable embouchure. It doesn't demand as much lung capacity either, so kids and teenagers can practice it without struggle.
It's the smallest saxophone featuring an elbow or curve by default, so the bell is at a position that allows instrumentalists to hear more clearly what they play as they blow. Some soprano saxophones have been built with this kind of design, yet the default soprano saxophone has a straight framework.
The alto saxophone has been the horn of choice for some of the most famous saxophonists worldwide, including Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Cannonball Adderley.
What Is A Tenor Saxophone?
The tenor saxophone is another highly popular saxophone. Tenor saxes are made in the key of Bb with a pitch range from Ab2 to E5. In terms of the primary saxophones, the tenor is smaller than the baritone but larger than the alto and soprano.
The tenor saxophone tone is sandwiched between the sharpness of the alto and the darkness of the baritone, a trait that makes it very favourable for soloing.
The tenor has been featured prominently in some of the most well-known jazz albums of all time. Notable tenor saxophonists include Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and John Coltrane.
What Are The Differences Between Alto And Tenor Saxophones?
Now, we'll be touching upon the differences listed at the start of this article:
First Difference: Size And Weight
The alto saxophone is slightly smaller than the tenor saxophone, but not by a large margin. As a matter of fact, they differ by approximately half a foot in height.
In terms of weight, there is not that much of a distinction, either. The alto saxophone weighs 4 lb. 5 oz., while the tenor reaches 6 lb. 4 oz. Indeed, that represents a 50% difference, but this pales in comparison to the contrast found between a tenor and a baritone saxophone (almost 100%), let alone between an alto and a baritone (roughly 250%).
Second Difference: Pitch
A law in physics states that the frequency of a soundwave is inversely proportional to the length of a tube. This law can be verified when comparing the pitch and tone generated by the saxophones under review.
The alto (made in Eb) plays a fifth higher than the tenor (designed in Bb), with a generally tangier or brighter tone. The tenor has a rounder timbre without being overly dark. As disclosed earlier, the tenor's tone joins the alto's brightness with the baritone's gloominess.
These would be the values obtained from each saxophone, expressed in hertz:
- Alto: Ranging from approximately 125 to 900 Hz (corresponding to Db3 – Ab5).
- Tenor: Ranging from approximately 103 to 622 Hz (corresponding to Ab2 – E5).
For more information on saxophone keys, check out my article Why Are Different Saxophones Designed In Different Keys?
Third Difference: Shape
If one were to choose two saxophones from those we consider as primary, the most comparable in terms of shape would be the alto and the tenor. They're so similar that, in many instances, beginners mistake one for the other.
An easy way to differentiate the two is by looking at their crook. The one with the “hunchback” appearance would correspond to the tenor, while the alto would appear with a straight neck pointing slightly upwards.
The more pronounced curves present on the tenor allow it to maintain a manageable body and to remain playable overall, for if it were to retain the same size. If the tenor followed the alto's general design, it would lose considerable ergonomic value.
As a side note, the tenor is even more similar to the now virtually-extinct C saxophone (also called “melody saxophone”), almost to the point of being equal in terms of form. Alas, the C saxophone has largely disappeared from the scene, at least as of this writing, with only a few available on second-hand markets.
Fourth Difference: Use Case
Admittedly, this distinction is not as clearly demonstrable as the others. In fact, this is not a difference pertaining to the very nature of the horns but, rather, to historical data.
It is said that the alto saxophone, due to its particularly bright yet mellow tone, has been used for melodic lines within more popular musical expressions and classical music. On the other hand, the tenor has been traditionally reserved for more adventurous jazz pieces and improvised solos.
Still, this is not a “set-in-stone” rule. The alto has had its fair share of spotlighting for solos in jazz fusion and bebop-styled outputs. Curiously, it was Charlie Parker, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who is credited with the invention of the bebop style, and his horn of choice was the alto saxophone.
Likewise, the tenor saxophone has been included as a member of the orchestra in various classical works like Maurice Ravel's “Bolero” and Sergei Prokofiev's “Romeo and Juliet”. It has also earned its place in R&B and rock music.
Differences Between Other Saxophone Types
Here are more My New Microphone articles discussing the differences between other saxophone types:
- The Differences Between Soprano & Alto Saxophones
- The Differences Between Soprano & Tenor Saxophones
- The Differences Between Soprano & Baritone Saxophones
- The Differences Between Bass & Soprano Saxophones
- The Differences Between Alto & Baritone Saxophones
- The Differences Between Baritone & Tenor Saxophones
- The Differences Between Bass & Tenor Saxophones
- The Differences Between Bass & Baritone Saxophones