The saxophone is known to contain a staggering number of pieces and accessories that are assembled in a precise manner so that the instrument may be able to function adequately. Some of these pieces are directly handled by the player, while others perform in the background to aid in proper sound production. You might notice that there are buttons that sit across the body of the instrument, but you are probably not able to figure out how they're named.
What are the buttons called on a saxophone? They are normally called “keys” and include the palm, pinky, and thumb keys. Owing to their defined round shape, the word “button” is often specifically associated with the “pearl keys” located at the front of the saxophone that correspond to the D, E, F, G, A, and B notes.
In this article, we'll discuss pearl keys in greater detail, along with the other keys present in every saxophone and how saxophone keys operate generally.
What Are Pearl Keys (Buttons)?
The buttons may refer specifically to the pearl keys or all the keys attached to the saxophone, regardless of their shape and material. In this instance, I'll summarize what “pearls” are and the function they serve.
Pearl keys are the most prominent “buttons” on any saxophone and are responsible for playing most of the natural notes. As uncovered before, these are D, E, F, G, A, and B. For this reason, they're deemed as “main keys”.
C is the only note that is not rendered solely by pressing the pearls, requiring the use of the right hand to press the lower pinky key in addition to the rest of the pearls. This is because the pinky finger on the right hand has two keys assigned. This location serves two purposes:
- It allows for greater linearity when playing the natural major scale on C
- Enables strainless playing when needing to switch to the other pinky key.
Sharps and flats are attained by pressing side and pinky keys, at times in combination with pearls and with one another. These keys can also assist in delivering microtones.
Despite their current name, pearl keys were initially devoid of pearls. The pearl inlays were introduced around the 1920s for ergonomic reasons, as the keys could be more easily maneuvered.
Traditionally, they've been made from mother-of-pearl (also known as nacre), consisting of a composite organic-inorganic material found in the inner shell layer of some mollusks. However, due to the production costs associated with nacre, some saxophones' pearl keys are made from synthetic material or plastic.
The most important aspect of pearls is their ergonomic value. These shells allow the fingertips to easily rest on the keys and reduce finger fatigue. Accessorily, the buttons can also endow the saxophone with a visual enhancement, which is why you'll see saxophone buttons on the market with a myriad of presentations and designs.
What Other Keys (Buttons) Are Present In Every Saxophone?
Apart from the pearl keys just described, every saxophone has its set of palm keys and pinky keys arranged differently for each hand (apart from the thumb key). These are used to play most accidentals, but, additionally, they allow you to render certain natural notes at precise octaves.
These keys are typically harder to manipulate than the main keys, especially when transitioning between varying intervals.
The palm keys are some of the most difficult keys to handle due to their relatively uncomfortable positions. These are also often used to play notes in upper registers, which will further complicate matters as the performer will need to develop enough embouchure strength.
These keys are used for high D, Eb, E, and F.
These keys, also called “spatula keys” due to their flat-headed shape, are employed to render lower notes on the saxophone's pitch range, such as low Eb and C (right hand), or low G#, C#, B, and Bb (left hand).
In the past, saxophones sported two octave keys that controlled the octave holes. Modern saxophones carry only one octave or register key, which is operated by the left-hand thumb. The right-hand thumb is placed under the thumb rest to prevent slippage and strain while holding the saxophone.
These are keys that are scarcely present in some members of the saxophone family and are only available in some models. Be mindful that most saxophones carry the same number of keys across the board – namely, 22 to 23 keys – and that, ordinarily, the different layouts don't correspond to specific saxophone types but, rather, specific models and batches.
Nevertheless, two exceptional keys are present in specific saxophone types but are not included in every model. These are the High G (soprano) and Low A (baritone).
To learn more about the number of keys in saxophones, check out my article How Many Keys Do Saxophones Have? (4 Different Sax Types).
How Do These Keys Or Buttons Operate?
The buttons or keys are directed by the player's hands to shape the air column and, consequently, manage the output's frequency.
The action in any woodwind starts from the mouth. The embouchure and mouthpiece disposition controls the airflow that will enter the saxophone's tube. This forms an air column that will travel through the bore and resonate at the bell (the instrument's tail end).
Keys are placed strategically across the length of the saxophone's body so that different notes can be produced when they're acted upon. They may also be called “buttons” since they're pressed in order to determine what notes the instrument will express at a given moment.
When these keys are pushed, tone holes are closed through pads that are, for the most part, located underneath the keys.
These pads are disks covered in leather responsible for sealing the air inside the tube and preventing it from leaking out of the tone hole. As the tone holes close, the air column in the horn gets longer, producing a lower-frequency sound. As we release the keys, the air column shrinks since air escapes through the orifices.
Different tone holes will render different pitches, depending on their position relative to the instrument's body and the embouchure technique utilized.
The keys on a saxophone are the equivalent of keys on a keyboard, for they are both intended to trigger different sounds during the interaction. However, the mechanism for this sound production is different between them, as our breath does not feed the latter.
Furthermore, the fingering of keyboard instruments is far more linear, with the semitonal arrangement being discerned visually. Saxophones and other woodwinds, on the flip side, require the player to memorize the fingerings for different semitones or even microtones in more specific cases.