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What Is a Soprano Saxophone?

By Shereen Skola
Updated May 23, 2024
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The soprano saxophone is the third smallest member of the saxophone family. It is pitched in the key of B-flat, exactly one octave higher than a tenor saxophone. Like all saxophones, the soprano saxophone is a single reed instrument usually made of brass; it is typically straight and conical in shape, resembling a clarinet. The soprano saxophone is not recommended for beginning saxophone players, as it is notoriously difficult to master and has a distinctive, high pitched sound favored by many famous jazz artists.

Saxophones are a group of woodwind instruments invented in 1846 by Belgian clarinetist Adolphe Sax. There are a total of ten saxophones in the saxophone family, all varying in size and sound, yet with the same keys and fingerings. The sopranissimo is the smallest at just 7 inches (17.78 cm) in length and has the highest sounding pitch, followed by the sopranino saxophone.

The four most commonly known saxophones are increasingly larger and include the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. The three deepest sounding and largest saxophones are the bass, contrabass and sub-contrabass. The modern soprano saxophone, like the tenor saxophone, is pitched at B-flat, exactly one octave higher than the tenor. A C model soprano saxophone was available when the instrument was first invented, but was discontinued in favor of the B-flat model in 1940.

The vast majority of soprano saxophones are made of brass, though they are classified as part of the woodwind family because they use a single reed to produce sound rather than a mouthpiece. They typically have a straight, round shape, 27.56 inches (70 cm) long with an average width of 7.87 inches (20 cm), dimensions which are very similar to that of the clarinet. The similarities between the two instruments have led to the soprano saxophone's nickname, "The Golden Clarinet." Some soprano saxophone models are made of plastic resin, and some have a curved shape resembling a miniature alto saxophone, though these models are rare.

Soprano saxophones are not recommended for beginners, because they are considered the most difficult of all the saxophones to play. The small size make intonation extremely difficult, even for accomplished musicians. Soprano saxophones have become very popular with jazz musicians, however, who favor its unique sound. Famous jazz artists including John Coltrane, Kenny G, and Winton Marsalis have all regularly included the soprano saxophone in their repertoire and have featured it on their musical recordings. This instrument is also featured in a limited but growing list of classical music selections.

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Discussion Comments
By anon334310 — On May 11, 2013

I played the alto sax from fifth through eleventh grade. I took a long break and picked up the soprano in my 30's. It was not a walk in the park, like I had assumed. I remembered how to read sheet music on all of the high notes but I struggled near the lower clef until I retaught myself. The mouthpiece was what turned things around for me. This is one instrument where trying to get by with a cheap, poorly crafted mouthpiece will not work. My local music shop (in Las Vegas, NV) makes custom premium hard rubber mouthpieces.

This has allowed me to gain intonation with ease. With that being said, it take take some time for to learn the soprano.

By kentuckycat — On Jan 03, 2012

@Emilski - I am glad to hear you are enjoying the soprano. I played the tenor, but was never very good with the soprano. I think buying a new saxophone is about the same process for every type of horn, though.

Saxes will either be considered beginner, intermediate, or professional. You obviously have figured out you have a beginner sax. What you will probably want to go with is an intermediate. There's really no need to have a professional horn unless you truly are a professional.

Intermediate horns are a great step up from a beginner's instrument. The keys have better action and the sound is much smoother. Anyway, just go to the music store and ask to play some intermediate horns and look around online. The best horns are usually Yanigasawa, which is what I have, Selmer, or Bundy. Remember to play the horn first, and don't get fooled by some of the gimmicks like the black laquer.

By Emilski — On Jan 03, 2012

I have been playing the saxophone for about 4 years, since I started in grade school. I started off with the tenor, but when I entered 6th grade my band director wanted me to switch to the soprano, since our band doesn't have one. I didn't know the tenor and soprano were in the same key, so maybe that is the reason he wanted me to switch.

Anyway, when I started playing it, I had a beginner Yamaha soprano saxophone that I borrowed from the school just until I could get used to it and make sure that it is what I want to stay with. I have really liked playing it, and am pretty sure I am going to keep it up. Plus when I get to jazz band, I will get all the soprano solos.

I would like to get a better quality instrument of my own before I start high school. Does anyone have any suggestions about what I should be looking for?

By jcraig — On Jan 02, 2012

@matthewc23 - I think it is a combination of things, really, but I think you are on the right track. I am almost positive that the reason tenors are the most used by recording artists (or non-concert bands) is because most men sing in the same range as the tenor. That's why it became so popular in jazz music, because it mimics a voice.

As far as the soprano being more popular than the alto in the same settings probably has a lot to do with the key. Since a soprano sax and tenor are in the same key, a tenor player can pick it up and improvise the same way without having to think as much about the different keys in his head.

The other thing I have always thought is that, since the tenor and soprano are one octave different than each other, what use is there really for the alto? Either pick a tenor for a man singing or a soprano for a woman, and you will probably be covered.

By matthewc23 — On Jan 01, 2012

I really like the sound of a soprano saxophone. It's a shame it doesn't make more appearances in everyday music like the tenor does. Something I have noticed, though, is that the soprano does still seem to get played more than the alto does in popular music even though the alto is more common. I know in my band, almost everyone started out on the alto and then there were just a couple of tenor saxophones and one baritone sax.

Just like the article mentions, too, in jazz music, the soprano is usually played by people like John Coltrane whose primary saxophone is the tenor. Does anyone have any ideas why this might be the case? I am just taking a wild guess, but I think it might have something to do with the different keys, but I had never heard this mentioned until I read the article, so maybe that doesn't have anything to do with it.

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