Which saxophone to choose: alto, tenor, soprano or baritone?
The saxophone is among the most widely-played instruments of the 20th century. From Maurice Ravel and his famous Boléro, to John Coltrane or Sidney Bechet, via the Beatles and Pink Floyd, they have all used its silky, vibrant sounds to advantage in their compositions!
Let’s start with a little history: it was the Belgian instrument-maker Adolphe Sax who invented the saxophone at the beginning of the 1840s. His father was also an instrument-maker and he started to invent and make his own musical instruments when he was very young. In 1841, he presented his saxophon (without an ‘e’ at the time) to the panel of the Belgian Industry Exhibition, patented it in 1846 and turned his invention into one of the greatest innovations of its time.
Although entirely made of metal, the saxophone is not a member of the brass family. Owing to its reed, it is a member of the woodwind family. There are seven types of saxophone, from the highest to the lowest: sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass saxophone and double bass. Today, we’re interested in the alto, tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones, to help you better understand which to choose and why.
The alto saxophone (E flat)
The various advantages and expressivity of the alto saxophone make it the most widely-played of the saxophone family. This is also the instrument on which beginners often take their first steps as it is quite light, more accessible and simpler to master technically than tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones. It is the perfect instrument for students, favouring without any doubt a pleasing and encouraging learning process.
If you are looking for a saxophone for a child in particular, the alto saxophone is a very good choice as its weight and mouthpiece, which is less technical than the other saxophones, make a big difference. It should also be noted that there are alto saxophones specially designed for the littlest hands!
Do you want to explore the sound of an alto saxophone? Below you’ll find the recording of the piece “Baker Street” for the alto saxophone. You can compare the sound with the sheet music for the tenor and soprano sax further below in this article. Here is the link to the sheet music if you want to play the piece.
- The tenor saxophone (B flat)
Around the middle of the 1950s, the tenor saxophone became the most popular Jazz instrument and a real romance was born between the instrument and style. They are made for each other!
It is played more by adults, owing to its greater weight. If you already play the alto saxophone, tackling the tenor saxophone could not be more straightforward. It is rare, however, that someone begins learning the saxophone with a tenor, as mastering the technique is more challenging.
Nevertheless, if you have decided to start the saxophone in order to play some jazz and find the sound so characteristic of these tenor sax giants, go for it! It is quite possible to start with a tenor saxophone, which will simply require a little more work at the beginning.
Do you want to explore the sound of a tenor saxophone? Below you’ll find the recording of the piece “Baker Street” for the tenor saxophone. You can compare the sound with the sheet music for the alto and soprano sax in the other sections of this article. Here is the link to the sheet music if you want to play the piece.
The soprano saxophone (B flat)
Like its big brother the tenor saxophone, the soprano saxophone is tuned to B flat, but an octave higher and covers two and a half octaves. Its high tone makes it one of the most difficult saxophones to master, as the highest notes are the most difficult to get out.
Although there are soprano saxophones which are curved like the alto, it is most often straight and its shape is like that of the clarinet and its sound resembles the oboe.
In spite of its technical difficulties, the curved soprano saxophone is sometimes used by young children when learning: its small size, lightness and close together keys allow them to start very young and then continue on an alto saxophone. However, this is only an option if the child is really having difficulty playing an alto saxophone owing to its greater weight. If this is the case, he or she is more likely to turn to an instrument such as the flute or clarinet.
It is often used in Classical or Jazz compositions and is less appropriate for Electronic music.
Do you want to explore the sound of a soprano saxophone? Below you’ll find the recording of the piece “Baker Street” for the soprano saxophone. You can compare the sound with the sheet music for the alto and ténor sax in the other sections of this article. Here is the link to the sheet music if you want to play the piece.
The baritone saxophone (E flat)
To finish, let’s get to know the baritone saxophone! It is the largest of the four saxophones introduced in this article and its intense, deep sound dedicates it more to bass lines, particularly in Classical orchestras or big Jazz bands.
It is the one we recommend least for someone who is learning: as well as its weight and size justifying a higher price than the other types of sax and although it makes it easier to create sound, its loose mouthpiece makes accuracy more difficult to control as going from the highest to the lowest notes requires much more muscular strength.
However, if you are already familiar with the saxophone and want to explore the world and sounds of the baritone sax, don’t hesitate! Amateur saxophonists don’t need to be rocket scientists to learn to play it.
So, which one?
Everything depends on your level and what you’re looking for!
The alto saxophone is the most appropriate for learning the instrument and for beginners, owing to its lightness and its ease of handling from a technical point of view. It would also be suitable for children and there are special models for little hands! It is the most widely-used of the saxophone family, both for composition and performance.
You can opt for a Tenor saxophone if you want to learn Jazz and retrieve the sound so particular of the great jazzmen who play a tenor sax. It will nevertheless require a little extra effort, especially at the beginning!
Although it is smaller and often much lighter, the soprano saxophone is also the most difficult to master technically and is therefore not recommended for beginners. Its mouthpiece is smaller and it will therefore require more work from the muscles of your mouth to get a nice sound out. Even so, the Soprano saxophone produces a magnificent sound when it is well controlled!
So, in summary, the criteria on which your choice should be based when acquiring a saxophone are: your age, your musical experience and experience with saxophones and, finally, what music you like, ie the style or styles of music you wish to explore.
There we are! Now you have your saxophone in your hands, everything is ready! Or almost... You just have to choose what to play.
You will find tens of thousands of scores for the saxophone on the Internet, but even so, it’s not easy to find quality sheet music appropriate for your level!
At Tomplay, we offer a wide catalogue of sheet music for alto, tenor and soprano saxophones. Each piece is available in several levels of difficulty and contains a play-along recording synchronised with the sheet music to accompany you!
Choose your favourite sheet music and play accompanied by a play-along recording recorded by us using professional musicians!
See how it works below!