Like other wind instruments, the saxophone is played by creating air and covering and uncovering holes in the instrument's body to control the flow of air. The buttons which cover these holes are known as keys.
Saxophones can have a range of 20 to 23 keys. The number of keys depends on the model of saxophone (year and brand) and the type of saxophone. Each key corresponds to a different note, so saxophones with additional keys have a slightly extended range or use slightly different fingerings.
What are the different keys on a saxophone? What keys do some saxophones leave out? Do you control all 20 to 23 keys yourself? For the answer to all these questions and more, keep reading!
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The keys of a saxophone refer to the buttons which cover or uncover holes in the saxophone’s body to create different notes. Saxophone keys have padding on the underside to create an airtight seal.
There are many different types of saxophone (14 in all), and the number of keys may be affected by the type. The 2 most common types of saxophone (alto and tenor) tend to have the same keys and note range.
The number of keys may also differ on a saxophone depending on the make and model. Professional saxophone models are more likely to have additional keys than student models for example.
When considering the number of saxophone keys, we must ask ourselves what the various keys are and what they do as this will explain why certain keys are dropped or added to certain saxes. Here is a list of the keys found on a saxophone and what those keys do.
- Octave Key: The octave key allows you to play the same notes in a different octave. It is played using the thumb on the left hand and found near the top of the saxophone.
- Palm Keys (3): Your left hand also has access to three different keys played with the palm. These skinny keys are on the side of the saxophone where your left-hand grips. They are the D, E flat, and F keys.
- Front F Key: The front F key is the top key descending the front of the saxophone. This key is not used often so your fingers rest below it, starting with the second key in descending.
- Left First Finger Key: This is the second topmost key on the front of the saxophone and where your index finger rests when holding a saxophone. It allows you to play a B.
- Bis Key: This small key is located between the left first finger and left second finger. It is not used often, but this key controls the B flat note in certain situations.
- Left Second Finger Key: This is the fourth descending key down the front of the saxophone and where the middle finger on your left-hand rests. It allows you to play both an A when pushed with the left finger first key and a C when pushed by itself.
- Left Third Finger Key: The fifth descending key on the saxophone makes G when pressed with the left first and second finger keys.
- Spatula Keys (4): Beneath the left finger keys and slightly off to the side are four keys that can be reached with the left pinky. These keys play G sharp, low C sharp, low B, and low B flat.
- Side Keys (3): Moving on to the right hand, there are three keys in a bar on the side where the crook of your right-hand rests. These three keys are the E, C, and B flat side keys in descending order.
- Right First Finger Key: The index finger of your right-hand rests on the first button in the bottom set on the front of the saxophone. It is used for B.
- Right Second Finger Key: The second finger goes on the key below the right first finger and controls the E note.
- Right Third Finger Key: The third finger key in the bottom set controls the D key. Unlike the left-hand set, there are only three buttons on the bottom set of descending keys for the right hand.
- E Flat Key: Two keys can be reached with the right-hand pinky. The top one controls E flat.
- Low C Key: This is the bottom key that can be reached with the right-hand pinky. It controls low C.
This gives us a total of 21 keys. Most saxophones will also include at least one of the extra keys.
Most saxophones have the above-mentioned keys, but some saxophones have more. Here are the extra keys you may find on particular saxophones.
- High F Sharp Key: This is a key that now comes standard on pretty much all saxophones. It is located below the side keys on the right hand. This key is used to reach a higher range of notes. Some older models do not include this key, so it is still possible to find saxophones without it.
- Side F Sharp Key: This key is sometimes left off of certain models of saxophones. Like the High F sharp key, if present it is located below the side keys on the right hand.
- Low A Key: This key appears on professional baritone saxophones to give them increased range.
- High G Key: This is a key that may be added to high-end soprano saxes to increase the range.
Having a saxophone with fewer keys does not mean that your saxophone is subpar. Many of the extra keys control notes that are rarely played, and there are usually alternate fingerings for those notes. In other words, you can still play high F without a high F key.
The addition of extra keys has happened as the saxophone has evolved to make it easier to play. Saxophones without these extra keys can, in most cases, still produce the same notes and sound. An exception to this rule would be additional keys specifically designed for increased range such as Low A on the baritone and High G on the soprano.
If you purchase an average saxophone the keys that may or may not be present are the High F and F sharp keys. However, you can still play these notes with alternate fingerings! Most saxophones have between 20 and 23 keys which change how some notes are played, not which notes you can play.
Some specialty saxophones, like the soprano and baritone, may have additional keys for extending the note range. These extra keys do more than changing the fingering. They extend the note range of the instruments. These types of extra keys are only found on professional instruments and are not something beginner or even intermediate sax players will need.
If you are buying a saxophone counting the number of keys is not particularly important for determining the quality of the instrument. Things like material and neck size are far more important. The only times the number of keys should be a concern is for a professional saxophone or if you want to ensure that a new saxophone has the same number as your old one.
How Many Keys Are On A Saxophone? Final Thoughts
Saxophones can have a different number of keys. There are around 21 standard keys found on every saxophone and a few extra keys that some models may use. Whether your saxophone has 20 or 23 keys, it can still make lovely music!