The saxophone is a relatively modern instrument that has enjoyed success across many genres.
Whether you first heard a Saxophone on THAT George Micheal song or in Debussy's 'Rhapsody for Saxophone' it's hard not to fall in love with this instrument at first listen.
The Saxophone has an interesting history and is one of the few instruments that come in multiple variants, including tenor and alto saxophone.
In this article, we're going to be talking about one of those variants… the tenor saxophone. Firstly, we'll be looking (briefly) at the history of the saxophone, the different variants of the saxophone, what key the tenor saxophone is in, and end with some great songs to play on the tenor saxophone.
We've got a lot to talk about so let's dive straight into it...
The History of the Saxophone
The Saxophone has such a rich history that we could easily be here all day talking about it. To save us both time, here are the highlights.
The Saxophone was invented in 1840. It was invented by a Belgian man called Adolphe Sax. His original patent included designs for over 14 types of Saxophone. Sax was a successful woodwind instrument maker, particularly famous for his flutes and clarinets. Sax was also a maker of the ophicleide, a large conical brass instrument.
The Instrument quickly gained popularity across Europe and was being used by many training musicians in the mid 19th century as pieces began to be written for it. Sax had designed his instrument to sit amongst the brass and woodwind in the orchestra pit. And the instrument was initially embraced by the classical music world.
At the Paris Conservatory from 1870-1900 teaching the Saxophone was banned, which led to the Saxophone falling out of favor for a couple of decades. Composers were encouraged to stop writing pieces for the instrument.
The Saxophone was from that point treated as an entertaining novelty by classical musicians. The instrument soon found another home in the world of Jazz and Swing music in the early 20th century. It has also been adopted by military bands across the world.
Nowadays, the Saxophone has a slightly more scandalous and sultry reputation. This is thanks to what has become one of the most iconic saxophone solos of all time… Careless Whisper by George Michael. The saxophone now features on many ballads and smooth jazz tracks whilst also having regained some favor in the classical genre.
The Difference Between Saxophone Variants
The original Saxophone family included 14 types of saxophone, there are now only 9. These 9 are Sopranissimo, Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, Contrabass, and Subcontrabass.
The 4 most common types of Saxophone are Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone:
- The soprano saxophone is the highest pitch of the popular Saxophones. It is also the smallest of the big four. It comes straight and curved. It is pitched at Bb. It is more difficult to play and is not recommended for beginners. It is most commonly used in Jazz music.
- The alto saxophone is what we would see as a traditional saxophone. It is a medium-sized saxophone and has a smaller mouthpiece. This makes it easier for beginners to use, most saxophone players begin on the alto sax. It is pitched to Eb.
- The tenor saxophone is the most popular type of saxophone. It is pitched to Bb. It is quite large and has a lower pitch than the alto saxophone. This saxophone is most popular in Jazz, Pop, and rock music.
- Finally, the baritone saxophone is the deepest of the big four. Not only is it the deepest at Eb, but it is also the largest and the heaviest. It requires an amazing breathe control to play well. It is not recommended for beginners to try the baritone saxophone.
What key is the tenor saxophone in?
Now let's look at what key the tenor saxophone is played in. C major is the traditional key, also known as Concert Key by most institutions.
The tenor saxophone is played in the key Bb (B flat).
Bb is technically the same as A sharp. A sharp is rarely used, however, and is seen more as a theoretical key.
How to Transpose into Bb
Bb is one of the easiest keys to transpose into. Therefore as a tenor saxophone player, you will spend a lot of time transposing your sheet music. Sometimes you may have to do it on the fly as you're playing live.
Bb instruments are annotated at a different pitch to how they sound. This is why they need to be transposed.
Here is a quick guide for transposing into Bb:
This is a guide for transposing a C key piece into a Bb piece. This is the most common transposition you will have to do.
To hear the note C in 'concert pitch' you will need to play a Bb, whilst a piano player will play a C, or a baritone sax player will play an Eb. When you are transposing your sheet music, you are adjusting what tones your playing so you appear to be playing the same note as everyone else (in concert pitch).
As Bb is a whole tone lower than C, when transposing into Bb, you will raise each note you play by one whole tone.
Between C instrument and a Bb Instrument
C# or Db
D# or Eb
D# or Eb
F# or Gb
F# or Gb
G# or Ab
G# or Ab
A# or Bb
A# or Bb
C# or Db
Great Songs to Play on the Tenor Sax
Before we finish, let's look at some great songs to play on the tenor saxophone: