As one of the youngest musical instruments, the history of the saxophone doesn’t go too far back. But, in its relatively short life so far it’s done well to become one of the most popular instruments in the world. You’ll find it in school jazz bands, occasionally in a classical orchestra and on the stages of pop artists in front of tens of thousands of audience members. It really is a versatile instrument.
In this post we’re going to look at some interesting facts about the saxophone to help you learn a bit more about the sax and uncover some of what makes it so popular.
1. Its Creator Almost Didn’t Make it
Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, moved to Paris in 1842 and patented the saxophone in 1846.
Some would say it’s a miracle that he lived to do it, as his life is full of close encounters with death.
For example, when he was three years old, he fell down three flights of stairs and was nearly comatosed for the following week.
Later, he would be hit in the head by a slate tile and again fall into a coma.
When Sax was 10, he was found floating face down unconscious in a river, but this time he woke up several hours later.
As a child, he swallowed a large needle that managed to pass without perforating any organs.
He even fell on a burning stove, that was next to a container of gunpowder when it exploded, tumbled out a third story window, and drank poisonous substances three times.
It’s a miracle he lived!
2. Its Premier may have Been Audio Only
While it’s not known when Adolphe Sax first introduced the world to the saxophone, an early performance at the 1844 Paris Industrial Exhibition is clearly documented.
Sax played a solo for his audience from behind a curtain!
He hadn’t registered the instrument yet and was afraid others would copy his design.
3. There Once Were Fourteen Different Saxophones
Adolphe Sax was the son of an instrument maker and was quite good at it himself.
His version of a bass clarinet was so impressive that he was introduced to many other instrument makers in Paris, building his credibility.
He invented a number of different instruments, including the “saxhorn,” a type of valved bugle that actually was the bedrock for the modern euphonium.
Never short on ideas, Sax invented fourteen different types of saxophone himself.
4. The Saxophone Family has a Huge Range
The four standard saxophones are the Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor, and Eb baritone (more commonly called a “bari”).
The largest “standard” sax produced commercially is the contrabass.
At 6’4” and 45 pounds, the instrument sounds an octave lower than the baritone sax.
Sax made plans for the largest saxophone playable by one person—the subcontrabass sax—which wasn’t physically built until 2013.
The smallest saxophone, at 12” high and sounding an octave above the Bb soprano, is the “sopranissimo.”
5. There was a Conspiracy Against the Sax
Adolphe Sax tried to submit saxophones to the Belgian National Exhibition at a young age.
It was recommended for the gold medal for several years, but ultimately never chosen as the committee thought Sax was too young for the honor.
The last time he entered was 1841, when he was 27 years old.
His instrument—rumored to be our modern alto sax—was a favorite to finally win, but a competitor kicked the model to be entered and it was too damaged to be considered.
This may have been an omen.
As Sax gained popularity in France, competitors threatened to ruin him at every turn.
They would sue him, write mud-slinging articles about him, and tried to organize boycotts of his instruments.
Eventually these competitors created a formal organization known as “L’Association Générale des Ouvriers en Instruments Demusique,” or “The United Association of Instrument Makers.”
They even sent saxophones to foreign instrument makers to be stripped of Sax’s markings and rebranded so they could claim his patent was fraudulent.
It was clear that the Association was jealous of Sax’s success and recognition, as many of them began producing their own saxophones as Sax’s patents expired.
6. It’s the Only Woodwind that was Never Made of Wood
The saxophone has a body made of brass, but it’s played with a single reed, which classifies it as a woodwind.
Flutes are also made of brass alloys, but the instrument was originally made of wood.
Clarinets, oboes, and bassoons are all still made of wood.
7. It has a Dynamic Personality
The saxophone is a sort of brass/woodwind hybrid, bringing characteristics of both type of instruments to its sound.
The range of the saxophone family is massive, so its blending voice and versatility make it a prominent member of many kinds of ensembles.
Saxophones are perhaps most well-recognized in jazz bands, where sax soloists can shine and a section can provide support for other instruments.
It’s also used widely in concert bands, marching bands, military bands, and even saxophone-only ensembles.
While being a relatively new instrument generally means it’s not found in orchestras or classical pieces, some classical French composers, like Jacques Ibert, Hector Berlioz, and Jean-Marie Londeix, wrote beautiful classical saxophone repertoire.
8. It Gained Popularity in Military Bands
In the early 1800s, French military music was declining in quality and popularity.
To help bolster its success, the French government created a competition for instrument inventors.
In April of 1845, twenty thousand people gathered to hear the finalists.
Two bands comprised of various instruments performed the same works, and the band with Sax’s instruments won overwhelmingly.
In August, the French military awarded Sax with a contract for his instruments.
9. The Sax is Related to the Clarinet
The saxophone and clarinet share several fingerings, but the saxophone’s fingerings are much easier to learn.
The clarinet has a register key that raises the pitch of a note by a twelfth; this means that a clarinetist has to learn different fingerings for notes in high and low octaves.
All saxophones have an octave key, meaning fingerings for most notes are the same in different octaves.
10. Famous Saxophonists
There are quite a lot of people who have played saxophone, including many celebrities.
US President Bill Clinton started playing saxophone at age nine.
British comedian Hugh Laurie may be more well-known now as a pianist than a sax player, but he and his son both play the sax too!
Bob Hope sometimes played the saxophone in his comedy acts.
Cricket captain Alastair Cook played a solo for the soundtrack of a BBC series.
11. The Sax Has a Lot of Keys
Saxophones have six parts (reed, ligature, mouthpiece, neck strap, neck, and body), but the only part with keys is the body.
Most saxes have twenty-two keys, though some beginner models might only have twenty.
The left hand, placed at the top of the body, controls thirteen keys and the right hand, placed closer to the bottom, controls nine.
Bari saxophones often have a low A key, bringing their total to twenty-three.
12. Reeds are Made from an Invasive Species
Saxophone reeds are made from a plant called giant cane.
Its Latin name is Arundo donax.
The plant can grow up to ten centimeters per day, making it one of the fastest growing plants on Earth.
It is considered an invasive species in many countries outside of Asia.
13. Brass Isn’t All!
Most saxophones are made of brass, but you can also find saxes made of a number of different materials.
Sterling silver saxophones are sometimes a favorite, but the instrument must be cleaned and polished frequently to prevent tarnishing.
Other metal saxes are made of copper or bronze.
There are also manufacturers experimenting with non-metal saxes made of acrylic or polycarbonate.
Summing up Saxophone Facts
That about sums up our post about some of the interesting saxophone facts we know.
The history of the saxophone