Which Saxophone Is The Hardest To Play?

which saxophone is the hardest to play (900 x 600 px)

As people learn more about the saxophone and the types of saxophones, they often start to wonder which one is the hardest to play. 

As a music teacher and friend to many professional-level saxophonists, I was curious about this myself, so I asked around, and the answer surprised me. 

The soprano saxophone is considered the hardest to play by most people, with the baritone saxophone being the distant second. The soprano sax is tough because of its difficulty to create sound, higher range, harder and more complex music, and increased backpressure. 

Let’s dig into the details as to why this all is below. 

What Is The Most Difficult Saxophone To Play?

While picking the most difficult saxophone is largely a matter of personal preference, I was surprised by how one-sided the discussion was. 

The alto saxophone and tenor saxophone I knew would be considered the easiest to play. 

They require less air, are easier to hold and make sound easily. 

But the soprano was head and shoulders above any other type. I expected the bari sax to be a closer second, but it wasn’t at all. 

The line seemed to be drawn around ability level and age. 

Younger saxophone players tended to find the bari harder to play than older players. 

I imagine this is because the larger size affected their air and fingers more. 

Older and experienced saxophone players were quick and confident in their answer of the soprano. 

For them, it wasn’t even a question. 

Why Is Soprano Considered The Hardest Saxophone To Play? 

Tone Production

The soprano sax is the hardest to create a sound on. 

The relaxed embouchure (mouth shape) of the other type of saxophone isn’t present here. 

Creating the sound is the hardest part of the soprano and what puts it at the top of the list. 

This is somewhat counter-intuitive to me. After all, a soprano sax is similar to another musical instrument, the clarinet. 

The clarinet is tough to make a sound on, but it’s not overly difficult. 

Some even use the same mouthpiece. 

Check out our guide on why saxophone mouthpieces make a difference

Still, in the world of beginner saxophones, experts cringe at the idea of starting on this one. 

Difficulty Of Music

Another reason the soprano saxophone is considered hard is that the music is much harder in general. 

The soprano saxophone isn’t a common saxophone type, and it serves a special purpose in the ensembles it’s in. 

The soprano usually plays high, fast, and jumps around a lot. As such, it’s much harder than the other difficult saxophone, the bari. 

There aren’t many easy pieces for the soprano; most classical music and jazz music composers assume a soprano player will be more skilled. 

Rarity Of Examples

A huge part of learning wind instruments (and any musical instrument) at a high level is listening to good performers. 

I even advocate for all my students to include intentional listening in every practice session. 

There aren’t a lot of examples of the soprano sax out there to listen to, especially when compared to the popular alto sax or tenor sax. 

Speaking of, check out our detailed article on which saxophone is the most popular.

Higher Range

While the alto and tenor sax fit into a middle and middle-low range, the soprano is much higher. 

This is more abrasive to some and throws off people who’ve played the saxophone before. 

Backpressure

From an enjoying-playing-the-sax perspective, the backpressure when playing adds a lot to why the soprano is considered the hardest instrument in the sax family. 

Backpressure happens with woodwind instruments and a brass instrument with smaller mouthpieces. 

As you blow harder into smaller holes, the pressure increases and pushes back against you. 

The saxophone notes become harder to make sound, but it starts to hurt your head over time, especially if you’re a complete beginner and not used to it. 

What Makes The Baritone Sax (Bari Saxophone) Hard?

Larger Air Requirement

The baritone sax is the biggest of the types of saxophone, and if you’re a complete beginner and young, you don’t want to start with this. 

As the largest, it requires the most air, and many people have a hard time with this. 

Young players may not be able to play the bari’s saxophone notes for more than a few minutes at a time without running out of breath. 

But with practice, it gets easier. 

The tenor sax requires more air than the alto or soprano, but not nearly as much as the bari. 

Harder To Hold And Finger

To play the different saxophone notes, you’ll have to stretch your hands to reach the keys a bit. 

Most adults will only need to make a little adjustment here to reach the keys, but the younger players (middle school and some early high school) will have trouble holding it, let alone playing it. 

Which Saxophone Should I Choose?

It’s largely a matter of preference, but stick with the alto or tenor if you’re a beginner or intermediate player. 

For advanced and professional players, you’ll need to learn a bit of all four of the common types of saxophone and then pick a specialty based on what you like. 

In searching for the perfect sax, stick with the best saxophone brands

Click the link to check out our detailed article for more info. 

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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