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Which saxophone to choose: alto, tenor, soprano or baritone?

Written By
Gwenn Daniel
About the author
Passionate about music from her childhood, Gwenn Daniel studied the piano at the conservatoire while also maintaining a steady stream of musical activities beyond this. This young piano teacher's constant lively curiosity encourages us to discover music from all eras and in all styles. She is now putting her literary and musical talents to the service of Tomplay and enjoys helping you discover the history of the great classics and guiding you through the vast choice of scores offered by Tomplay.
Date published
16/06/2021
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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 saxophone (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.

If you look to learn the Saxophone notes, try our Saxophone fingering chart tool.

  • 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, favoring 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 that 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.

And then, which pieces to play? Explore Tomplay sheet music!

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 catalog of sheet music for alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones. Each piece is available in several levels of difficulty and contains a play-along recording synchronized with the sheet music to accompany you!

Choose your favorite sheet music and play accompanied by a play-along recording recorded by us using professional musicians!

See how it works below!

▶️ Explore the Tomplay sheet music catalog for the saxophone 

Add a comment...

  • Ambert Régis
    11/08/2020
    Bonne analyse ! Sur les 4, il ne me manque plus que le soprano. Ténor récemment acheté...et effectivement, 'spécificités' techniques...en cours d'acquisition... Par contre, une 'petite' remarque ? Tomplay ne propose pas de partitions pour Baryton ? Même si celles pour Alto ont déjà largement de quoi me satisfaire.... Ça manque (un peu) de La (Grave.. )... :-)
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    • Tomplay
      19/11/2020
      Cher Monsieur, merci de votre intérêt. En effet nous ne proposons pas encore de partition pour saxophone baryton. Cependant, le sax baryton jouant une octave en dessous du sax alto, vous pouvez tout à fait utiliser nos partitions et accompagnements pour sax alto. Nous transmettons votre demande d'ajout de partitions pour sax baryton à l'équipe de production.
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  • Dusty
    28/02/2021
    Very very informative! I am learning to play the saxophone and have acquired an alto sax. But I was also very curious about the other types of saxophones and was wondering if I have made the right choice. Now I know I have. Thanks a million!
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    • Anonymous
      16/03/2021
      Hey uhh, you know there are more than 7 types of saxophones right? There are c tenors, c sopranos, mezzo sopranos, slide saxophones, double bass saxes are actually called contrabass saxophones, subcontrabasses in c and bb, soprillos, etc... and also tenor is better than alto, even though it is a bit larger, and goes down almost halve an octave lower. Maybe go a year on the alto and then switch to tenor. That is what I did.
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    • Anonymous
      16/03/2021
      A lot of this information is wrong actually. You would be better off looking at the wikipedia saxophone family.
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  • Gary Lewars
    12/06/2021
    The reason saxophones are woodwind family is NOT because of the reed. METAL flutes are also woodwind, but no reed there. It is the FINGERING PRINCIPLE that determines a woodwind family. Recorders are also woodwind. All evolutes of original wooden flute are woodwind. WOODWINDS are long tubes with holes along the tube which vary the length of the tube to produce variable pitch. The reed family is a subclass of woodwind where sound is produced by a reed, either single (e.g Sax, clarinet) or double (e.g oboe, bassoon).
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  • Gary Lewars
    12/06/2021
    Contrary to popular belief, It is not really the reed that makes saxophone a woodwind. Metal flutes are also woodwind, and they have no reed. Woodwinds are long pipes with tone holes along their length , which can be covered by fingers or pads, to vary the length of the pipe, thereby varying the pitch.
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  • Ester Siewert
    13/06/2021
    Guten Tag, ich finde es sehr schade, dass es keine Aufnahme von dem Baritonsaxophon gibt..... Kann das noch ergänzt werden? Ich würde mich sehr freuen. Mit freundlichen Grüßen Siewert
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