Saxophone Sound Description: How To Describe This Instrument

saxophone sound description

What does a saxophone sound like?

When my elementary music students asked me this question, I was a bit stumped. 

Often, we describe sounds by comparing them to others, but when asked in a void, the answer isn’t so easy. 

I took some time to think and ask my many music colleagues to come up with a saxophone sound description. This article is what we came up with. 

The saxophone sound is generally described as powerful yet mellow, round yet complex, and versatile across many genres, including classical, jazz, pop, and rock. In technical terms, on its softer end, it’s similar to a sine wave, but this similarity lessens when played louder. 

Let’s get into the weeds a bit to come up with some good describing words for sax timbre. 

How Does The Saxophone Make It’s Sound?

To figure out how the sax makes a sound, we need to find the vibration.

All sound must have a vibration. 

That’s what sound is, after all; vibration through the air. 

For most woodwind instruments, like the saxophone, the vibration comes from a thin piece of wood called a reed. 

The saxophone mouthpiece has this reed attached to it. When the sax player makes a tight shape with their mouth (called an embouchure) and blows, the reed vibrates. 

This vibration creates the sound. 

Then, the sound is passed through the tubes that make up the sax body. 

As it passes through the body, the sound changes to its distinctive sax sound. 

The fingering keys press down to change the length of the saxophone, altering the pitch too. 

Everything from the mouthpiece’s material to the bell’s diameter affects the specific timbre (or quality of sound). 

The saxophone has a distinctive sound, as described in the following section, even with these variations. 

Words For Describing The Saxophone Sound

The saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments in the instrument world. 

Great players can alter the sound they produce with different mouthpieces, embouchure shapes, and other techniques to match any style of music.

Still, there are a few words commonly used to describe the saxophone sound no matter what: 

  • Rich
  • Pure
  • Mellow
  • Strong
  • Beautiful sound

The situation the sax is used in may result in other words describing the sound. 

I played some videos for my students, polled other musicians, and asked random people for words to describe the sax sound, and here’s what I came up with (unedited). 

RoundBright soundComplex
HonkyAggressiveAgile
SmoothSweetMorphable
OpenAnnoyingAwesome
StraightWarbleMagical
NasalLazerWarm sound
ReedyBird-likeSqueaky

Sound Vs. Tone Vs. Timbre

It’s important to offer some clarification around these different terms. 

Some people use them interchangeably; others use them with a specific purpose. 

Either way, here is what many musicians consider when talking about each one. 

Tone – This is the pure audio you hear from the sax or other instruments before adding special things like vibrato. The tone is scientific and involves pitch and volume. 

Timbre – The quality of sound or tone after it comes from the instrument. This doesn’t involve any special aspects the play injects. It’s less scientific, but the timbre of an instrument remains largely the same regardless of the player. 

Sound – This is the result of the tone, altered by instrument to make a specific timbre and then altered with the player’s artistry. These involve things like vibrato, changing of the mouth shape, altering dynamics, and advanced techniques. 

If it sounds like these terms are splitting hairs, they are. Using all three without worrying about the difference isn’t a big deal. 

I just wanted you to be aware of what other people and musicians may use. 

Factors Affecting Saxophone Sound

There’s a lot that can affect the sound of the saxophone. 

Here is a quick list of many of the big things that make the sound change:

  • The reed material
  • Reed thickness
  • Mouthpiece material
  • Mouthpiece shape
  • Saxophone material
  • The shape of the opening in the saxophone
  • Seal on the key holes
  • Bell shape
  • Bell diameter
  • Temperature
  • Mouth shape of the player (embouchure)
  • Position of the tongue inside the player’s mouth
  • Openness of the throat in the player’s mouth
  • Using a damper inside the bell
  • How much air is used
  • The intensity of the air used
  • How much of the body is touching the saxophone body
  • Where the teeth are positioned on the mouthpiece
  • How tight the player holds their mouth

It’s a lot, right?

Much of this is for advanced players, so you may not ever have to worry about a lot of this. 

Variations In Sound By Saxophone Type

The saxophone family all has the distinct, personal sound we described above, but the different types of saxophones do have slightly different tendencies. 

If you want to learn more about saxophone types, you’ll get a lot from our tenor vs. alto sax comparison article. 

Again, the sound differences we’ll talk about here and just generalizations. Good players can make them sound similar or even more different than talk about here. 

Soprano saxophone

This one tends to sound brighter and more intense than the others. 

Tenor saxophone 

Tenors generally sound more powerful and richer than altos. 

They also require slightly more air. 

Learn more about tenor air in our article at the link. 

Baritone saxophone or bari sax

As the lowest of the sax family, it sounds the deepest, richest, and most dense. 

The bass saxophone is another member of this family of musical instruments, though it’s less common. 

It’s an even lower version of the bari saxophone.

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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