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What Is a Tenor Saxophone?

H. Bliss
Updated May 23, 2024
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A tenor saxophone is a musical instrument that is classified as a woodwind. These types of instruments generally have metal bodies fabricated from brass or nickel, with a single-reed bearing metal ligature fitted on a mouthpiece. The tenor saxophone is played in many types of music, including orchestral, jazz, and rock music. In a standard saxophone lineup, the tenor saxophone is lower than both the alto and soprano saxophones, but higher than the baritone saxophone. Famous tenor saxophone players include Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, and Dextor Gordon.

Tenor saxophones are called woodwinds because a wooden reed creates the vibration required to make the saxophone sound. Other woodwinds include the clarinet, the flute, and the oboe. The reeds for clarinets and saxophones are flat, while oboe reeds are round. The size of the wooden reed used in a tenor saxophone is so similar to the size of a bass clarinet reed that they are interchangeable as substitutes in an emergency situation. Flutes do not have a reed, and are classified as woodwinds because they were originally made exclusively of wood.

Saxophones were invented around 1840 by a man from Belgium named Adolphe Sax. Tenor saxophones were among his original designs, as were the alto, soprano, and baritone saxophones, in addition to many more. The timbre of a tenor saxophone is often described as warmer than the alto, even in the higher registers of its range.

Musical timbre refers to the unique sound qualities that make one instrument sound different from another, even when they are playing the same pitch. In music, the pitch is how high or low a note is. Since the timbre of a tenor saxophone is widely considered to be pleasing to the ear, tenor saxophonists are frequently chosen as soloists in many types of music. This instrument is commonly used in smooth jazz, but is just as often featured in solos in jazz and old fashioned rock and roll ensembles.

The main parts of the saxophone are the body, the neck, and the mouthpiece. Like other saxophones, a tenor saxophone has a part called a ligature that holds the wooden reed in place on the mouthpiece. To achieve the proper sound, the reed needs to be moist before playing. Many saxophone players place the playing end of the reed in their mouths to soak up saliva to moisten the reed before playing the instrument.

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H. Bliss
By H. Bliss
Heather Bliss, a passionate writer with a background in communication, brings her love for connecting with others to her work. With a relevant degree, she crafts compelling content that informs and inspires, showcasing her unique perspective and her commitment to making a difference.
Discussion Comments
By titans62 — On Jun 10, 2012

I can't believe that John Coltrane was not mentioned as being a famous tenor saxophone player. I believe he is usually considered to be the greatest, although Dexter Gordon comes in a close second.

I think it is safe to say that John Coltrane had the same influence on saxophone players that Jimi Hendrix had on guitar players. Although Coltrane didn't quite have as much to work with in terms of coming up with a new sound, he completely changed the way tenor saxophone players and jazz players, in general, think about music.

Even if you don't care for jazz music, it is still worth taking a listen to "Giant Steps" and "Blue Train." The music is very relaxing, and is full of great ideas for people who play jazz music or any music at all. I'd say any saxophone player would be remiss if he didn't study Coltrane's style.

By Emilski — On Jun 10, 2012

@Izzy78 - jmc88 had a very good explanation of the different types. As far as identifying them each by sound, that is a little more difficult. It is not impossible, but takes some practice. I have been playing the tenor saxophone for 16 years, so I am at the point where I can immediately recognize them by timbre.

I would say the tenor is usually the most common type of saxophone used in rock or pop music, because tenor saxophone scales are usually able to cover the whole range of the average human voice. The timbre of the horn is also very similar to human speech. Whereas the alto sax and baritone would sound add with a voice, the tenor blends very well.

If you ever listen to music by Bruce Springsteen or the Dave Matthews Band, the saxophones there are usually tenors, although they switch pretty often.

By jmc88 — On Jun 10, 2012

@Izzy78 - Since this was a high school band, I can be almost certain you just saw the alto, tenor, and baritone saxes. Soprano saxophones are the least common type and usually only used in wind symphonies or some jazz music.

The type that had the most players was most certainly the altos, since that is the most common in bands. Most saxophonists start out playing the alto, because it is smaller and easier for small hands. Eventually, some of them branch off and play the other types as the need arises. This is pretty easy considering that all have the same fingerings.

The baritone saxophone is easy to identify, because it is very large (about 5 feet tall) and has a curly part near the mouthpiece. The tenor and alto can look very similar in pictures, but the tenor will have a slight arched section between the mouthpiece and the rest of the horn. Altos will typically just have a straight section.

By Izzy78 — On Jun 09, 2012

I was at a high school band concert the other day, and I noticed for the first time that there were different kinds of saxophones. I just saw three types, but don't know enough to know which ones I saw. How are you able to tell the difference between the various styles? Also, there was one type that had 7 or 8 players while they other ones only had a couple players each. Why is that?

Now that I know there are actually different types of saxophones, is it the tenor that is most often used in popular music? Is there really any way to tell what type of horn it is just by listening to a song? I don't know that the different types would actually sound different from each other rather than being able to play in different ranges, right?

H. Bliss
H. Bliss
Heather Bliss, a passionate writer with a background in communication, brings her love for connecting with others to her...
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