Interesting Questions . . .
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Q. Can you please explain to me the reason why some instruments (i.e., clarinet, saxophone) are NOT in the key of C — but really confusing ones like E flat or B flat? Is it due to the history of when the instruments were invented? I’ve wondered this for a while, and would be very grateful if you could let me know. Many thanks, Sarah.
A. Good question. The main reason is that all music is based on the human voice. I take it you are familiar with our several different ‘voicings’, which is simply a way to assign a label to each of the M/L ‘normal’ set of pitch ranges in which our human voices function. The most common of these voicings are soprano & alto in the female voice, then tenor & baritone in the male voice. Occasionally a rare individual will be capable of an even higher or lower range of pitches, hence we see less frequently the sopranino female voice, or the bass male voice. That’s all quite a simple concept, yes? Instruments (and their musical parts) emulate one (sometimes more) of the human voicings in order to make instrumental music compatible with vocal music. IOW, an orchestra is simply a big choir, with the various singers’ parts assigned to the various instruments according to their sound properties & the range of pitches (their ‘voicings’) of which they are capable.
That overly simple explanation ignores one pertinent fact: These various instruments in our orchestras didn’t just happen to be pitched in a certain way. They were specifically engineered to occupy one of the sets of pitches that corresponds M/L to a specific human voicing. That too, is an over simplification since instruments, as machines, aren’t bound to a practical set of pitches by purely physical limitations such as is our human voice (think piano), but over the eons instruments that are intended to be M/L portable have come to be made in a manner that M/L fits one of the human voicings better than the others. Every human tenor voice may not be able to sing from low Ab concert all the way up to high Eb concert as the tenor saxophone plays its normal range, but any music that can be sung by a good male tenor voice can be played on a tenor saxophone. It is a paradox that machines, while less flexible than human voices, can be made with enough overlapping range so as to exceed the capabilities of most human voices
I’m dancing all about your question, seemingly ignoring a direct assault at this point, yes? Well, Sarah, here is your answer: How far apart in pitch is the lowest note a normal female alto can sing from the lowest note a normal male tenor can sign? How about this same comparison between their highest notes? If you said an octave you would be wrong. An octave describes the difference between a soprano and a tenor, or a baritone and an alto. The interval between the adjacent ranges of normal human voicing is only about half an octave, say a major 4th or 5th. So what would happen to our set of instrumental voicings if all instruments were keyed in C? Hmmm. We would have only soprano, tenor & bass from which to choose, UNLESS, we decided to make the fingerings different on the alto & baritone saxophones. Essentially, what we now call C on a tenor sax would become Bb, and the names of all the other fingerings would change to match. Then on alto sax, what we now call C would become Eb, with the corresponding changes in all its surrounding notes to match. So there would be multiple sets of fingerings to learn if one wanted to become proficient on all the differently voiced saxophones. All the keys would still look & feel the same, but the player would need to keep in mind that on an alto and baritone, the fingerings were different than on a tenor or soprano.
The confusion wouldn’t end with saxophones, Sarah. All of the instruments that are suited to families of voicings – clarinets, flutes, all the 3 valved brass instruments – would need two different sets of fingerings. Musicians would need to be proficient on twice the number of instruments as today in order to be functional under a system where all instruments were keyed to C (or any other single key standard). So a lot of music folks got together eons ago & decided that if a few common keys were used to voice our instruments, they could become a lot more standardized – and that would make life easier for musician & composer, alike. It’s a lot easier for a composer to write a chart in a different key than it is for a saxophonist to consistently play different fingerings for the same notes as they switched back & forth from alto to tenor. It would only take one instance of confusion to completely ruin a concert. Neither performers nor audiences are willing to accept that inevitability.
Well, you say that saxophones are in up to four different keys, if you count the obsolete & extinct oddities of the past, eh? That’s true. Saxophones have been made in Bb & Eb, and also in C & F. You will note that the relationship between the two sets of keys is that same major fifth when ascending & major fourth when descending. This is the set of intervals that define the break in our human voicings. The reason that there are two sets of correlative keys at work is: as in all things human, all individuals will not agree. The C-F convention was adopted by orchestras back when the instruments were primarily strings & woodwinds – with the lonely French horn as the only brass instrument accepted. In fact, this C-F convention was promulgated before there were any of our modern, piston-valved brass instruments (the valved trumpet dates to c.1830, if I recall my instrument history correctly). So when brass bands sprang up in the mid 1800s (the orchestra snobs didn’t want all that noise), the instrument makers were free to adopt any system of voicings that they chose. I don’t know why the Eb-Bb convention was chosen, but it was – and it works just as well as C-F for what it is supposed to do for musicians & arrangers.
Now for the last piece of the saxophone voicing/key story. Adolphe Sax originally conceived the saxophone as an orchestral instrument – a quieter way to introduce the zing of brass into the musical mix – so his initial work on the saxophone was in the C-F convention (it is said that the very first saxophone was a bass sax keyed in C). Soon old Adolphe came to the rude awakening that orchestras didn’t want his new instrument cluttering up their arrangements, but the burgeoning new brass bands didn’t mind having saxophones at all. So saxophones came to be built in the Bb-Eb, or brass band convention of voicings.
There have been experiments, of course: Notably, the ventures into C and F saxophones in the post WWI boom period. That was short lived, though, and today we are again firmly locked into the Bb-Eb voicing convention for our modern saxophones. The C & F saxes that still play are a lot of fun, and quite useful in filling musical niches. The C-Melody often finds its way into church music, where it eliminates the need to transpose when reading sacred music from hymnals. Ditto the C-Soprano, though these more tightly wound little jewels also find their way into the orchestra pits where professional saxophonists use them to read oboe or flute charts (or any other upper voiced chart of a C-tuned instrument). I know there are trumpets & clarinets made in other keys, like D or A (note the same relationship to human voicings), and that there are piccolos made in Db. I suppose we have to chalk that up to a simplification for the musicians, allowing them to play parts in much simpler keys than the normal transposition from the conventions of Bb/Eb or C/F would permit. IOW, a piece written in E would put a Bb clarinet in the very difficult key of Gb, while an A clarinet could play the same part written in the much simpler G. The same sort of advantage would apply to instruments keyed in Db or D under isolated circumstances, but those infrequent instances do not justify whole families of instruments being built in yet a third or fourth set of voicings.
Do I need a different saxophone?
Q. I’m 14 years old & sometimes worry because I do not have a name brand sax. I am playing a sax called a ‘Maxima’, using a generic mouthpiece. I also have an old Yamaha sax that was damaged in a ‘parade experience’. I wanted to ask should I buy another sax and mouthpiece? Should I stick with what I’ve got, or should I get this Yamaha repaired? Finally, do you have any suggestions about a mouthpiece or a brand of reed to better my tone? Jay.
A. At some point you will need to upgrade your instrument if you wish to excel in your music career. Whether that is sooner or later depends upon your progress, your parents’ budget, and on the advice of your teachers. When that time comes I will be happy to assist you in finding the right instrument. Since we specialize in vintage saxophones our recommendations – and stock – is pretty well limited to this saxophone genre. The right vintage sax will serve your musical performance needs for a lifetime, and continually increase in value. New saxophones that sell for a similar price as our vintage instruments often cannot be re-sold after the fact at all – to anyone, at any price. That fact alone should tell us where the value for your sax investment dollar lies.
Saxophone mouthpieces are a very personal thing, Jay. For that reason I try to avoid making specific recommendations. I encourage all players to learn as much as possible about mouthpiece theory – what causal factors make a given mouthpiece sound & respond as it does – so they can recognize which mouthpieces are likely to meet their musical performance goals. Our oral facilities form a significant part of our saxophone’s air column, so a mouthpiece that meets my needs may not play & sound exactly the same for you. And then there’s the matter of our differing perceptions of the sounds we hear. The more we learn about saxophone mouthpieces the more we start to realize what a vast & complex topic this is. I hope you can see that learning about mouthpiece design theory is the best path to selecting the right saxophone mouthpiece for your own personal musical needs. This is a subject that we can never know enough about, but the more we study & play different mouthpieces, the fewer surprises & mysteries we encounter in the process.
Most good players end up with at least two different mouthpieces (and some of us have boxes full of ‘em, too). Your needs for concert band and marching band are different, and if you develop into a pop music or jazz saxophonist, your needs for these music genres expand even more. A mouthpiece such as the Selmer S-80 C* is a good place to start in finding your ‘legit’ music mouthpiece. Learn what design characteristics make that so and you will be well on the way to understanding how to move slightly in one or more directions (in terms of individual mouthpiece design criteria) in order to make a good fit even better. For a smooth, sophisticated jazz sound – especially on tenor – the Selmer metal Jazz model is hard to beat. Ditto the idea of learning what characteristics make this so, AND make this mouthpiece sound & respond differently than the S-80 C*. For bebop & classic jazz sounds look at the Dukoff ‘H’ or ‘L’ series, and for paint peelin’ Rock ‘n Roll (like Lenny Pickett on SNL) a Dukoff ‘D’ series fills the bill for most of us. These are four specific examples out of thousands of mouthpiece choices available to the modern saxophonist. If you take the time to learn what specific design characteristics make each one suitable for a certain type of musical performance you will soon be able to formulate a set of characteristics that might, in theory, produce a slightly different sound that is more like the sound you have in your head for your own music.
As for reeds, stay with the higher quality brands, or lines within brands. I personally like Vandoren, but I also have a stash of vintage Rico ‘brown box’ reeds that were produced 25 or more years ago. If you buy Rico reeds today you have to be careful to get their top lines. There is a difference in the quality of cane and the degree of processing from their cheapest to their best. With Vandoren you get excellent quality in all their different lines, the distinction between Vandoren lines being the style of their cut profiles. I recognize that not everyone can play vintage reeds (and students probably shouldn’t waste time & money trying to do so), but vintage reeds are a growing area of saxual interest. It seems that with most things related to saxophones, older is definitely better. The Vandoren discussion should serve to enlighten you that the important things about reeds are the actual cut profile, the quality of the cane that they began with, and the degree & quality of processing that the product underwent at the manufacturer. Many players take reed selection to a higher level by sanding, cutting, trimming or planing the reed material to their own specifications. There are charts that show how to work on reeds in different areas of the cut profile in order to customize the vibrating characteristics in certain ways. There are also special tools & equipment used for customizing reeds. Do you, as a developing player need to go this far? Probably not, but you do need to be aware of reed design factors just the same as with your mouthpieces.
The old adage, ‘Give a man a fish & he eats for today – teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime,’ was never more apropos, Jay. I hope this “fishing lesson” serves your needs.
One of my favorite mouthpiece sites is run by the very knowledgeable & capable Theo Wanne. Theo takes an approach similar to that of ours here at CS in that he provides lots of background information on his subject of specialty in addition to his quality commercial offerings. I especially enjoy the Mouthpiece University section of Theo’s site. There you can learn about the famous vintage mouthpieces, what mouthpieces & reeds noted saxophonists use in their work, and most of all, the significant parts of a mouthpiece & how changes in design criteria for each area affect the musical results. These are absolutely fascinating areas of exploration for either novice or advanced players. Each area builds upon your knowledge base. Once you study the classic mouthpieces you are aware of the key design criteria. Then you can read who used what, and if you listen to their musical results via recordings, you can begin to hear how different design criteria feed into the performers’ musical style. Once you have a good footing in the practical applications you can study the theory behind the distinctions that create sound nuances in your own performances. At this point you can begin to visualize what a mouthpiece might look like — chamber, table & tip — that will produce a target sound. It’s all quite fascinating …
Here are some reed links to get you started:
University of Kentucky
Van Cott Information Services
There is an active trade in both reeds and mouthpieces on eBay. The usual caveats about evaluating the item, bidding strategy & being aware with whom you are dealing apply, but you simply cannot beat the vast selection of new & used saxophone mouthpieces, and of both new & vintage reeds. You occassionally encounter rare deals on ‘NOS’ (new old stock) items that were found in old music stores or collector caches. The best thing about buying on eBay is that you can put items that don’t suit your needs right back up for auction. The astute trader can gain much experience & get the right equipment without sinking a lot of money into the project. Remember to ask questions about unclear details before bidding, and be sure to learn & follow all eBay rules. We also like PayPal for funding your purchases. ‘Verified’ PayPal memebers carry an added degree of assurance that they are straight dealers, and if you still aren’t sure you can always invest a small percentage in the PayPal ‘money back guarantee’. It’s hard to go wrong if you do things right…