When most people think of saxophones, they just imagine a single instrument.
In reality, there are 14 different types, with one being more common than the others.
Often this is followed up with a question about popularity; which saxophone do most people play?
The alto saxophone is the most popular and commonly played type of saxophone. It uses less air than the tenor sax and is easier to play than the soprano sax. When looking at specific genres, such as jazz, the tenor sax approaches a close second in popularity.
Why is it this way? The answer’s not as clear.
Let’s dig into the details below.
Saxophones And Popularity Chart
|Common Types of Saxophone||Estimated Percentage Of Players*||Where You Find Them|
|Soprano Saxophone||5%||High-level ensembles, concert bands, jazz groups, and saxophone quartets|
|Alto Saxophone||60%||In every type of music and group (though less in orchestras)|
|Tenor Saxophone||25%||In every type of music and group except for some beginning bands; quite popular in jazz|
|Baritone Saxophone (Bari)||10%||Most high school groups and above, jazz bands, saxophone quartets|
*The estimate is based on a middle school, high school, college, and community bands and jazz music survey.
The exact percentage fluctuates depending on the group, and many higher-level players will keep several or all of these types.
However, most saxophonists specialize in one or at least have one that’s their favorite.
Interesting Note: With professional saxophone players, the tenor saxophone reaches an almost equal level of “popularity” as the first choice of sax.
Why Is The Alto Saxophone The Most Popular?
With the alto sax dominating the market, especially with new and intermediate players, it’s worth looking at the instrument to figure out why this is.
A huge part of this is because the alto saxophone is almost exclusively the type of saxophone band directors use for their beginners.
Some may start a few kids on the tenor sax, but most middle school bands will only use alto saxophones in the first couple of years.
Why is this? Why do people like it so much?
Let’s take a look.
Requires Less Air
People prefer the alto because it requires much less air to play than the tenor and baritone saxophones.
When beginning an instrument, breath control is one of the toughest things for people to handle.
This makes sense if we stop to think about it.
After all, we don’t focus on breathing most of the time. We just breathe as we need to.
Now, we’re using our air in a way we never have before. This is a huge part of why many wind instruments are so hard for people to pick up at first.
The alto sax takes a little bit of this stress out of the picture compared to the bigger types of saxes.
Easier To Sound
But if the air is easier on the alto, wouldn’t the soprano saxophone be even easier?
It’s smaller than the alto, about the same size as the clarinet.
Yes, this is true, but the alto is easier to sound and make sound good than the soprano.
The soprano saxophone combines the tendency to squeak of the clarinet (especially in newbies) with the bigger sound of the alto (comes from the metal body).
It’s a loud and potentially frustrating combination.
For instruments, the alto is considered by many to be the easiest woodwind instrument to play.
The only other band instrument close to it is in the brass instrument family: the trumpet.
Fits A Lower Role In Beginning Bands
Smaller instruments are usually easier to play, but it won’t sound very satisfying if you have a band of all high music instruments.
We humans like variety in our lives and our music.
Sure, I suppose you could make the argument about including the soprano sax more because it uses less air, but you wouldn’t have any lower woodwinds.
The alto gives the variety needed while still using less air.
Instruments Are More Affordable
Supply and demand are real with musical instruments, and the saxophone family is also affected.
In a sense, it creates a feedback loop, making the alto more and more popular over time.
The alto sax is smaller than the tenor and bari saxophone, thus cheaper to make and lower in price.
But the soprano’s smaller than alto, right?
Well, because the alto is more popular, it’s easier to streamline making the altos. This makes production cheaper and lowers the price.
It’s shocking to think, but in similar models on alto and sopranos, the alto is cheaper for this reason alone.
As a more affordable option, the alto gets picked more…which makes it easier to produce…which makes it cheaper…you see where this is going?
One of the challenges of woodwind instruments is in their many keys and fingerings.
It makes sense, then, you want a type of saxophone that’s easy to hold and reach all the keys.
For young players, the alto saxophone body is right within their natural reach. It’s easy for them to hold.
The tenor sax is a little bit of a stretch for some at a younger age.
The alto and tenor are quite easy to hold and reach for fingers with older teens and adults.
The baritone sax isn’t bad, but it’s not quite as easy. The soprano being closer together is tougher for some with large fingers.
Beginners won’t likely notice this as much, but advanced players will tire quickly as they play the faster notes required by classical music, marching band music, and jazz.
More Music Written For Them
Here’s another feedback loop situation with this common saxophone.
For the reasons above, the alto is popular, which makes composers write more music for it.
A bigger audience means more money for them.
More music generates more interest and results in more people playing.
This is especially true in jazz with the alto and almost equally the tenor.
There are many famous jazz musicians and music to inspire kids, but not as much for the baritone or soprano.
Which Saxophone Should You Choose?
The easy answer is: play whichever one you want!
But there’s a bit more detail than that.
Use this list to help you decide:
- If you’re a middle school student with no experience = Alto
- Middle or high school student with some experience = Alto, tenor, or bari
- Skilled high schooler, college student, professional-level = Soprano, alto, tenor, or bari
- Into jazz = Alto, tenor
- Love low voices = Bari
- Like playing in small groups or chamber music = Soprano, alto, tenor, or bari
If you’re asking about which specific sax model you should get, the answer’s a bit trickier.
The easy answer is to make sure you get a model from one of the best saxophone brands.
Check out our detailed guide with videos and options for you at the link.