20 Interesting Facts About The Saxophone
The saxophone is one of the most popular musical instruments today and is probably the owner of the most recognisable sound in all of music. Every time you hear a saxophone playing, it gives you a sense of beauty and smoothness that no other instrument can emulate. That said, here are 20 interesting facts about this iconic instrument, ranging from its history to almost everything else in between. Read on for interesting facts that you might not have never heard of before.
1. A unique history
Unlike most other musical instruments, the saxophone is the only one that was invented by a single person. That would be the Belgian musical instrument inventor Adolphe Sax, hence, the name saxophone. He wanted to develop something that would feature the soloistic nature of the woodwind, but would also be heard better among other brass instruments. He first patented the saxophone in 1846.
2. There were once fourteen different types of saxophones
Adolphe Sax wanted to make sure that his creation would fit in with a wide variety of ensembles. So to do that, he made fourteen different types. In comparison, only four are commonly played today; the soprano, alto, baritone, and tenor saxophones. Imagine having to learn how to play all fourteen instruments to be considered a master! Yikes.
3. People hated the saxophone at first
When you hear the word saxophone or listen to its iconic tunes today, what comes to your mind? Romance. Smoothness. It’s a very sexy instrument. But back when Sax first introduced it in the early 1840s, he was mocked. A lot. It wasn’t until well-known composer Hector Berlioz’s editorial about how revolutionary the instrument is that it gained traction in the popular psyche.
4. It’s the only woodwind instrument made of brass
We know what you’re thinking: why would a brass instrument be classified as a woodwind? Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But that’s an interesting thing! The sax is classified as a woodwind instrument because it relies on a reed to produce a sound. But ever since its inception, the saxophone has always been made of brass.
5. The largest sax for commercial use is taller than the average British man
Saxophones come in four common types (and sizes). But the largest one is outside that and is called the Contrabass. If propped up, it stands at a towering 6 feet 4 inches (1.9 metres)! By comparison, the average height for a British man is about 5 feet 9 inches. (1.75 metres).
6. There is a world-famous saxophone playing Muppet
The Muppets are famous. We already know this. But what you may not know is that there’s one Muppet named Zoot (named after saxophonist Zoot Sims), who plays the saxophone! He is one of a few Muppets who is seen with a musical instrument or playing it, such as Animal (drums) and Kermit (banjo).
7. Saxophone reeds are made of an invasive plant species
When you say “invasive” in plant terms, it means that the plant grows really fast and can take over anything in a matter of days! The plant Arundo donax is what sax reeds are made of, and it can grow up to 10 centimetres a day.
8. Early jazz musicians never liked the saxophone
Nowadays, it’s easy to associate the saxophone with jazz music. When you hear jazz, you almost always have to expect a sax solo or two. But back in the early days of jazz, musicians were actively steering clear of the saxophone! They preferred the clarinet instead, which is why you rarely see the saxophone in all those old jazz performance videos.
9. Saxophones were once used to inspire troops on the battlefield
The French military used the saxophone a lot, but not its biggest and smallest types (i.e. contrabass and sopranino) because the instruments were either too cumbersome to bring along, or too soft to be heard by troops amidst gunshots and cannon fire. Imagine if you were the musician during a heated battle: you’d be avoiding missed notes as much as bullets!
10. The saxophone is relatively young compared to other instruments
As we previously said, the saxophone was only first patented in 1846. In comparison, flutes are generally considered the oldest (there are flutes found in the Swabian Alps which were at least 30,000 years old). This might be one of the reasons why people wanted nothing to do with the saxophone in the first place; they’d literally never seen one before!
11. The saxophone’s wide dynamic range closely resembles the human voice
We as humans are conditioned to consider other human voices “pleasant” to the ears (unless it’s your annoying gossiping neighbour talking, that is). The saxophone’s wide dynamic range allows it to almost mimic the frequencies of the human voice, hence why it’s capable of more emotional tones. That’s basically why we consider it’s sound iconic.
12. The first-ever saxophone was intended to be made of wood
Modern saxophones are made of brass, everybody knows this. But Adolphe Sax’s first blueprints for this instrument primarily featured wood. Sax only switched to using brass a bit later after patenting his invention. If you’re a saxophone player, try to imagine yourself playing an actual wood instrument. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
13. A saxophone made of plastic is the most expensive in the world
If you look at a typical saxophone, it looks expensive (brass all over, some are even made of sterling silver). But the most expensive one ever sold an auction was actually made of plastic! Sold at a Christie’s Auction in London in 1994 for $144,500 (£110,329), the sax’s value can actually be attributed to American jazz legend Charlie Parker.
14. The saxophone can credit its history of military use for coming to America
Since the saxophone has a long history of military use, this is the main reason it was first brought to American shores in 1888. Elkhart, Indiana native Charles Gerrard was credited for this when he started making brass saxes for military bands.
15. A “slide” saxophone exists, but it’s very, very rare
Musicians or musically minded people may attribute the slider to a trombone, but there is a saxophone that actually has this. A trombone player named Leo “Snub” Mosley is credited with making this, but the instrument itself never really became popular. You can play this with either a trombone or saxophone mouthpiece.
16. Politics kept the saxophone out of the modern orchestra for a time
When Sax first invented his instrument, he had his own shop where he made all the parts for it. Every other instrument maker in his town did not like this one bit, because they’ve been making interchangeable parts with their brand on it. This is why they used all their connections to keep Sax’s instruments out of orchestras for a while.
17. There used to be two octave keys on the saxophone
If you’re a sax player, you’ll know how important these keys are. Modern saxophones now have one key that operates the two key vents on the instrument. Before the year 1890, however, there used to be two individual keys controlling these vents.
18. Thomas Edison auditioned a few saxophone players for his recording company
If you know Thomas Edison, you’ll realise that while he’s a controversial figure, he still made his mark on history. For instance, his own record label Diamond Disks (one of the world’s first) used to audition saxophonists for his label, and he screened the candidates personally.
19. People didn’t start taking the saxophone seriously until the 1920s in America
By the so-called “Roaring Twenties”, the saxophone had a reputation for being a mere musical curiosity. Musicians never took it seriously! That is until Sidney Bechet, a clarinet player from New Orleans, discovered and started mastering the soprano sax.
20. The saxophone’s versatility as an instrument is almost unheard of
Since it was originally meant to “bridge the gap” between brass and woodwind instruments, the saxophone offers a level of versatility you won’t see in every other instrument. You’d be hard-pressed to find a music genre where the sax won’t fit, from classical to rock and even metal! Try to insert an Oboe in a rock song, and you’ll see what we mean.
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