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The saxophone is a woodwind instrument — not a brass intrument — largely because when the symposium of brass players met many, many, years ago to decide whether they would admit the saxophone into the brass world, they decided not to.
What is the Difference Between Woodwind and Brass Instruments?
The Woodwind Family of Instruments
The woodwind family is very much the most inclusive house of the musical world, a Hufflepuff house of sorts.
It’s a home for those instruments that don’t qualify or that don’t quite meet the standards to put them into the proper musical families such as string, brass, and percussion.
As a result of the family being a dumping ground, we have a lot of instruments that have no transferrable skills from one to the other, or that bear no real similarities.
You have some instruments, such as the Oboe, that you just blow across the hole to make the noise. You have single reeded instruments, you have double reeded instruments.
You a completely separate set of fingering to play the notes on nearly every instrument of the family.
You end up with a situation where, if you were to play one woodwind instrument, and wanted to transfer to another, there is almost no tranferrable skills.
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The Saxophone as a Woodwind Instrument
There are some similarities between the saxophone and other woodwind instruments, especially the fingering.
If you play the flute or the oboe, you’ll find that the fingering is pretty similar.
Unlike the clarinet, the holes on a saxophone are quite big, you couldn’t cover them with fingers on your own. So they have rather large pads that you activate with your fingers, but they close bigger holes.
However, the actual way of making the sound is closer to the clarinet.
Much like the bassoon, and the clarinet, and unlike the oboe and the flute, the saxophone uses a reed as a vibrating material to create a sound.
Basically, you’re sending some air through a very thin gap. That makes the reed vibrate, which in turn vibrates the air, and so you hear a sound.
The reed is, literally speaking, the skin of the drum for the saxophone.
Across the brass world, we do this ourselves. We do not have to result to various accessories to get a vibrating material.
The main articulations on the saxophone are very similar to other woodwind instruments.
The saxophone has a mouthpiece every similar to the clarinet, but obviously, it a different shape and size, and so the embouchure is different.
You can play legato, tongued, or staccato.
Legato is very smooth, tounging gives each note a little bit more definition with the “tuh” sound. Staccato is the musical term for very short. You start the note the same as a tongued note but quickly cut off the reed with your tongue, so you get a very short, detached note.
Where it gets confusing with the saxophone for most people, which has always been made out of metal is when that metal is brass — sometimes they’ll use chinesium, sometimes they’ll use something else.
The Brass Family of Instruments
For brass instruments, the vibration that produces the sound comes directly from the musicians lips. The escaping air meets resistance from the lip muscles to create this vibration — called the buzz.
A brass mouthpiece is held up to those vibrating lips to slightly refine and amplify the buzz.
Unlike the woodwinds, this concept spans across the entire brass family. The only thing that changes across the brass family is the instrument attached to that mouthpiece.
And even then, the similarities don’t end there.
A brass instrument’s body is essentially a tube that resonates with the air column flowing through.
The way that sound waves travel through this column forms a limited pattern of pitches known as the harmonic series with notes spaced far apart at the lower end but coming closer together as the pitch increases.
The musician can alter the pitch of the note with slight contractions of the lips and alterations to air volume and speed.
Any single harmonic series has gaps where pitches are missing. The versatility of brass instruments lies in their ability to switch between multiple harmonic series.
On instruments like the trumpet, valves can be lowered to increase the length of tubing the air travels through. On a trombone this is done by extending the slide.
In brass instruments, lengthening the tubes stretches the vibrating air column, reducing the frequency of vibrations, resulting in a lower pitch.
The Saxophone as a Brasswind Instrument
Although the saxophone is classified as a woodwind instrument, it’s actually made out of brass.
Just like all other brass instruments, with the mouthpiece attached to the saxophone, you’ve got a way of lengthening the brass tube that the sound is being sent through.
That gives you a way of changing the pitch.
Just like the valves of a trumpet, as you press down saxophone pads, the tube lengthens, stretching the vibrating air column, reducing the frequency of vibrations, resulting in a lower pitch.
As you release the pads, the opposite happens.