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How Are Saxophones Categorized? (13 Beginner’s Questions)

If you play the saxophone or want to, you may wonder what groups it falls into.

Some groups are more obvious than others, and some even sound counterintuitive.

Read on to learn more about how you can categorize saxophones:

Is a Saxophone a Woodwind Instrument?

The saxophone is one of the most common members of the woodwind family.

While saxophones have almost always been made of metal, their mechanics are more important for classification.

Saxophones share many of the same fingerings as clarinets and flutes, at least in written notes. Like those other woodwinds, the saxophone uses keys to adjust the pitch, rather than valves, like on a brass instrument.

You may also notice that the saxophone uses a black plastic mouthpiece with a reed.

You put the mouthpiece in your mouth rather than on your lips, which is what you do with a brass instrument mouthpiece.

Is a Saxophone a Brass Instrument?

You could argue that the saxophone is a brass instrument because brass is one of the most common materials.

The body and keys often use brass either as the base material and/or as a lacquer.

However, many saxophones use nickel or even silver or gold for the body. Other brass instruments don’t always use brass for their main design.

Still, the brass instrument family uses valves or a slide to change the length of the tubing.

The saxophone requires players to open or close keys, so it’s not technically a member of the brass family.

Though it is a bridge between the woodwind and brass families, while it uses the mechanics of a woodwind, it shares more sound qualities with brass instruments.

Is a Saxophone a Percussion Instrument?

Percussion instruments are those that you hit to make a sound.

Think of instruments like drums or the xylophone, which you strike with mallets.

Now, you can play percussive effects on the saxophone, such as key clicks. This is where you intentionally close a key more forcefully than you normally would.

That extra force creates a sound, and it’s not uncommon to see key clicks in modern works.

The technique is especially clear on larger instruments, like the bari sax, but that still doesn’t make any saxophone a percussion section member.

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Is a Saxophone a Horn?

A saxophone is not a horn in the same way a French horn or baritone horn is.

They’re both members of the larger brass family, and “horn” is in the standard name.

However, the saxophone is a horn in that it’s a regular member of the horn section in jazz. In this context, “horn” is an easy way to refer to saxophones, trumpets, and trombones.

Some players also refer to any wind instrument (brass or woodwind) as their horn.

Calling it a horn can be a quick way to speak about different instruments, especially among doublers who play the saxophone and the trumpet, for example.

Is a Saxophone a Reed Instrument?

The saxophone is a reed instrument because it uses a reed to make a sound.

When you blow into your saxophone, the reed will vibrate and cause the air column in the saxophone to vibrate.

Playing one reed instrument usually makes it easier to switch to other reed instruments, such as the clarinet. You must learn how to form a good embouchure while protecting the reed from your teeth.

If your teeth hit the reed, you can damage it and keep from getting a full sound.

Is a Saxophone a DOUBLE Reed Instrument?

Saxophones fall into the sub-family of single-reed instruments because they combine a reed with a mouthpiece.

Double reeds, such as the oboe and bassoon, bind two reeds together.

As those reeds vibrate against each other, you’ll make a sound.

However, on a single reed, the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece to produce a given pitch.

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Is a Saxophone a Transposing Instrument?

Transposing instruments are those where the written note is different from the sounding pitch.

Most saxophones are considered transposing instruments because they’re in the key of Bb or Eb.

Saxophones in Bb (soprano, tenor) sound a major second lower than written, and some sound an octave or two lower than that. If a saxophone is in Eb (alto, baritone), it sounds a major sixth lower than written, plus or minus any octave transpositions.

While they aren’t common today, inventor Adolphe Sax developed a line of saxophones in C and F.

The C melody saxophone is probably the most well-known of this line, and it sounds exactly one octave below written, but that still makes it a transposing instrument.

The C soprano saxophone is the only saxophone that doesn’t transpose in any way.

Unfortunately, you won’t find any saxophones in C at your local music store, and most saxophone music is for instruments in Bb or Eb.

Is a Saxophone Considered a Solo Instrument?

Like many other instruments, you can play the saxophone as a soloist.

You can learn solo repertoire for the saxophone alone or the saxophone with piano.

Another option is to solo with jazz bands and combos. You can also be a member of those groups and play in the background for other soloists.

Now, because there isn’t a ton of solo music out there, you won’t find many concert saxophonists who tour, but you can still play solo in your home or with groups in your area.

If you start in private lessons like I did, you’ll probably start playing solos immediately.

That can help prepare you to play more difficult music later on.

Is a Saxophone Considered an Orchestral Instrument?

The saxophone isn’t considered an orchestral instrument.

By the time the saxophone gained prominence, the modern-day orchestra instrumentation was already set up.

However, some composers in the 20th century started writing the occasional saxophone part in orchestral works. Examples of this include Bolero by Ravel and Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev.

Another way the saxophone can join the orchestra is with a saxophone concerto.

The saxophonist will stand at the front near the conductor and play a solo while the rest of the orchestra plays the accompaniment.

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Is a Saxophone Considered a Band Instrument?

A saxophone is a standard part of concert bands and wind ensembles.

Some beginner bands may not have saxophones, especially in schools.

The saxophone is a bit too large for many elementary students. However, middle school and high school bands may start to have players on the alto and tenor saxophones.

Collegiate and adult amateur bands often have alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones.

Depending on the piece, one alto player might switch to the soprano sax.

Is a Saxophone Considered a Classical Instrument?

You won’t find a ton of classical music written for the saxophone, but it can still be a classical instrument.

There is some music for it, usually from composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

You can also play transcriptions of works by composers such as Bach and Mozart. If you play the baritone sax, you can transpose the basso continuo parts and play the bass line in many Baroque works.

Some players throughout history primarily played classical music on the saxophone.

A notable example was Marcel Muse, a French saxophonist.

Is a Saxophone Mainly a Jazz Instrument?

While you can play classical music on the saxophone, it’s more common in jazz.

The sax is a standard part of big bands and many smaller jazz combos.

Also, many non-musicians think of jazz when they think of the saxophone.

If you want to take the sax seriously, you’ll probably eventually have to learn jazz.

Is a Saxophone a B Flat Instrument?

The soprano and tenor saxophones are both in the key of B flat.

Soprano saxophones sound an octave higher than tenor saxophones, though.

When it comes to less-common saxes, the bass sax is also in Bb, and it sounds an octave lower than the tenor.

However, the popular alto and bari saxes are in the key of Eb.

Final Thoughts

You can put the saxophone into many different categories, depending on how you want to classify it.

It’s everything from a woodwind to a reed instrument to a Bb instrument.

However, not all saxophones fit all of the given categories.

Be sure to consider the specific size of your saxophone, especially when it comes to keys and transposing.