Many newcomers might be confused when they hear that saxophones are woodwind instruments. Understandably, since the bulk of the instrument is seemingly made of brass, the confusion is warranted.
Why are saxophones made of brass? Brass has been traditionally used for saxophone manufacturing due to its accessibility, malleability and rust resistance. However, saxophones are typified as woodwinds since they rely on reeds to vibrate rather than strictly on the player's embouchure (as do brass instruments).
In this article, we'll discuss why saxophones are often made of brass and give a detailed explanation as to why saxophones are deemed woodwind instruments despite their brass build.
A Primer On The Utilization Of Brass In Saxophone Instruments
As stated above, the archetypical saxophone has been made predominantly of brass, with differing criteria for what makes it a woodwind instrument (more on this below).
Belgian instrument designer Adolphe Sax (who gave the instrument its name) initially came up with the saxophone, supposedly in an effort to enhance the sound of the bass clarinet in addition to joining the families of woodwind with brass instruments. Other historians claimed that Sax tried to combine the easy fingering of other woodwinds with the mouthpiece structure of clarinets.
The saxophone, introduced in 1942 in Paris, was made in a conical form and designed so that it would overblow at an octave (instead of the twelfth normally rendered with clarinets). This allowed players to use the same fingering regardless of register, an advantage over the complex fingering of a regular clarinet.
Since the early days, the majority of saxophones were made of brass. According to this article, however, the first saxophones filed for patent registration were built from wood, but soon after, Sax switched to brass.
Sax is also credited with various other instruments, such as the saxhorn (inspired by the bugle-horn), the saxotromba, and the saxtuba. Of all these inventions, the saxophone would be the one that endured.
Many attempts were made to include the saxophone in a symphonic orchestra format, but it never made the cut entirely, only appearing prominently in some of Richard Strauss' pieces. It was generally looked upon with disdain by classical musicians, and its use case was basically relegated to jazz and popular music.
Why Are Saxophones Made Of Brass?
Brass ordinarily comprises a great portion of the saxophone's build. It's an alloy consisting of copper and zinc, which is very easy to mould and has strong corrosion resistance features. These specifications might have prompted Sax to employ this material over others, apart from the already-disclosed theory regarding his intention of linking brass to woodwind.
The most common brass used for saxophones is yellow brass. The amount of zinc in the composite makes the brass very moldable at relatively low temperatures, consequently facilitating mass production. The addition of phosphorous or arsenic also aided in the material's adaptability.
The usage of brass also apparently made the instrument suitable for military bands due to the perceived added resonance, which would explain its early adoption by military marching bands in France, Great Britain, and America.
Notwithstanding, It's worth mentioning that brass, while the most common material, is not a sine qua non for saxes. Occasionally, gold, silver, and bronze have been used, albeit more expensive variants. There have been, likewise, saxes made in copper or even plastic. Alternatively, the brass would be plated in gold, silver, and lacquer to give the instrument a shinier appearance.
To learn more about plating, check out my article Are Saxophones Gold Plated?
There has been ample debate as to whether the material used for the sax's body makes any noticeable difference in defining its tonal profile. Physicist Arthur Benade, for example, placed special emphasis on the inner wall of the instrument rather than on the material's dimensions and resonance properties.
After careful study, Benade concluded that the material is not as relevant to the timbre, in c0ntrast to what one would expect with other instruments such as the guitar that relied on the vibration of the soundboard. In the case of woodwinds, the sound depends sorely on the vibrating air column projected in the tube. The soundwave may be impacted only by the material's capacity to dissipate its energy, owing to its roughness and heat conduction properties.
Some jazz enthusiasts will be surprised to learn that Charlie “Bird” Parker – the jazz legend – once played a Grafton alto sax, which was made of plastic. Experts who compared the sound of Parker's plastic Grafton to the metal saxes used in other recordings claim to notice little difference between their output. This has lead to the belief that it's not the material itself but rather the material's finish that can make or break a saxophone's sound.
Even with those considerations, some experiments have registered some discernible differences on paper (like this one), but the listeners' and players' perceptions of those distinctions can vary immensely.
Why, Then, Is The Saxophone Considered A Woodwind Instrument?
Some analysts are reluctant to classify the saxophone entirely as a woodwind instrument, describing it often as a hybrid between woodwind and brass. They would claim that the brass body alters the timbre in ways that would make it difficult to pigeonhole, But, as evidenced just one paragraph earlier, there are disagreements on this subject.
Rather, its similarity with the regular clarinet has been a key factor that has prompted many musical experts to locate it in the woodwind family tree. The single-reed mouthpiece is, in many instances, the main focal point for some specialists. Moreover, many woodwind instruments also share this same feature, so it would make perfect sense to insert the saxophone into the mix.
Nonetheless, there are two relatively minor caveats. The first one has to do with the nature of the reed itself, for this material is extracted from bamboo or cane, which are not technically “wood” but “grass”.
The second one is related to the build of other instruments also considered woodwind, such as the flute.
Flutes, clarinets, and oboes were primitively made of wood, earning the title of woodwind. Later on, flute makers started to use metal instead of wood while still retaining their original categorization. Hence, another criterion had to be implemented to distinguish woodwinds from other wind instruments.
The theory of design and tone started to make more sense as time moved on. A wind instrument is impacted by a myriad of variables, including the ligature and mouthpiece design and its overall form or shape.
Many experts would attribute the saxophone's mellower voice to the conical shape of its body. Yet, flutes, clarinets, and oboes are regularly cylindrical, so the conical shape can't be considered the sole differentiating element between brass and woodwind.
However, there was a characteristic common to all woodwind instruments: The holes present across their bodies, through which wind leaks. This leakage ultimately causes the instrument to project less wind to the bell, which naturally changes the tone, causing a warmer and “windier” sound.
Related article: Why Saxophones Leak & How To Prevent Leaking
In brass instruments, on the other hand, the air is projected directly to the bell (the instrument's main output hole), resulting in a more compacted, high-pitched sound. Brass instruments are generally built with valves to open and close different parts of the pipe to achieve different notes (the trombone utilizes a slide to alter the length of its pipe).
Additionally, brass instruments carry a distinguishing bright and tinny sound that resonates differently from woodwind instruments.
Despite the above, it would be disingenuous to claim that the reed has no influence whatsoever on the saxophone's sound. While, as stated earlier, the reed is not wood proper, it shares similar properties to wood. Therefore, it may be said that it's one of the many distinctive factors by which an instrument can be considered woodwind, but it's not the only one.
In that order of ideas, woodwinds are activated by forcing an air stream through a sharp edge (in this case, the aforementioned reed). Conversely, brass instruments render notes by triggering the vibration of air molecules in a tubular resonator, in tandem with the lips' vibration and embouchure.
So, in summary, we can identify three main defining qualities that, put together, would place the saxophone comfortably in the woodwind category:
- The conical shape of its body.
- The holes placed for fingering, through which air also flows.
- The reed (a wood-like material) used for the mouthpiece.