The saxophone is an aesthetically and objectively beautiful instrument that produces even more beautiful music. From soft jazz to upbeat rock, it’s been featured and applied across music genres. Since it looks so complex, it’s no wonder that many choosing their first instrument ask, “is playing the saxophone difficult?”
The saxophone itself is a relatively easy instrument to play, due largely in part to its intuitive and comparatively modern design. However, like with any instrument, learning how to play the saxophone can be frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive.
Blowing through a saxophone’s mouthpiece and producing a sound is easy. Learning how to properly play the saxophone and read music is more difficult. But when compared to other instruments, such as the trumpet or violin, learning how to play the saxophone is still simpler, even with the challenges ahead. We’ll discuss all of this in more detail below, so read on.
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How Hard Is It to Play Saxophone?
Compared to many other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy to learn. It’s a more modern instrument (in that it was designed in the mid-1800s instead of the mid-1600s) and many of its components are specifically geared towards minimizing extra work.
Here are some of the ways the saxophone is easier to play than other instruments:
- Keys – The keys are deliberately spaced out so that they match the natural shape and curve of the human hand, meaning you’ll never have to bend your fingers into unusual shapes or stretch them out.
- Octaves – Unlike other instruments, you simply press a button on the saxophone to change octaves. This means that you only need to learn one set of fingerings, which is much simpler than brass or orchestral instruments.
- Effort – Instead of using brute force and pushing air through the instruments with your lips, saxophones use a mouthpiece and reed to simplify this process and prevent over-exertion. No bulging cheeks for you!
- Ambidextrous – The saxophone is also easily adapted to both right-handed and left-handed players. You can grasp the body and press keys with either your right or left hand, whichever is dominant.
In these ways, it can be very easy to learn to play the saxophone.
However, that doesn’t mean that you’ll become a professional in a day, either. Like any instrument, there are challenges to learning the saxophone. You’ll have to familiarize yourself with a new instrument and everything that goes into playing it. This take time and effort.
It will also require a financial commitment, since you’ll need to either rent or buy the saxophone itself and accessories like a case, music stand, cleaning supplies, and more.
If you choose to take lessons, that’s also more time, effort, and money on your part. Many people become frustrated when learning a new instrument, so you’ll also have to be patient with yourself, which can be difficult.
All in all, the saxophone itself is a comparatively easy instrument to play; but learning how to play the saxophone can still be difficult and time consuming, much like any instrument.
What Do You Need to Know to Play the Saxophone?
Boiled down to its most basic components, you play the saxophone by blowing air into the mouthpiece. But, obviously, real music involves a bit more than that.
To learn how to play the saxophone, you’ll also need to learn:
- The parts of a saxophone, how to care for them, and how to assemble/ dissemble them
- How to read music and which notes correspond to your saxophone keys or certain actions (pressing E sharp or playing softly, for example)
- How to tune your saxophone correctly
These are the building blocks to learning how to play the saxophone. Each is just as important as the other. After all, it doesn’t matter if you can read music if you don’t know how to put your saxophone together, and it won’t matter if you play your assembled saxophone if it’s always out of tune and producing the wrong notes.
Once you learn these, you’re ready to go. Assemble your saxophone, tune it, prepare your sheet music, and play! Don’t be discouraged if you don’t sound like a professional right away. It will take time for you to become competent and confident, but with regular practice and hard work, you’re sure to be able to carry your favorite tunes in no time.
Keep in mind, saxophones are transposing instruments, which means that their pitches (or musical notation) aren’t written at concert pitch. This basically means that C on a saxophone won’t sound like a C from a violin, flute, trumpet, etc.
This degree of separation from the concert pitch is the interval of transposition, and it can be difficult for beginners to grasp and adapt to.
Alto and baritone saxophones are tuned to E flat, while soprano and tenor saxophones are tuned to B flat. The former is one and a half steps above non-transposing instruments, and the latter is one step under non-transposing instruments.
This tuning process bridges the intervals of transposition so that saxophones match the same notes as other instruments in an orchestra or band.
Breaking Down The Saxophone for Beginners
The saxophone is comprised of four main parts. Each of these parts is essential to a saxophone and can also impact how easy or difficult it is to play it.
- The Mouthpiece – The tip opening size, chamber size, baffle, and reed strength all play a part in how easy or difficult the saxophone is to play. Small tip openings, small chambers, sloped baffles, and hard reeds are all more difficult.
- The Neck – In professional saxophones, the neck bore is typically larger. This can make it slightly more difficult to play, which is why beginners should look for “student” saxophones, which are constructed to be lighter and easier to play.
- The Body – Student saxophones will have single post construction, which means the keys are directly attached to the body. Professional saxophones feature ribbed construction, wherein the keys are attached to a “rib” on the body, adding weight and rigidity.
- The Bell – The materials a saxophone is made with, including the bell, depends on the saxophone variety. Student saxophones have cheaper, lighter materials, whereas professional saxophones use more expensive, denser materials.
Overall, student saxophones aren’t necessary bad or inferior to professional saxophones; they’re just specifically geared towards beginners. If you want to learn how to play the sax, or play the saxophone quietly, it’s better to err towards a student version. These are designed so that players can focus on learning the music and their instrument.
It’s also important to understand that, while the saxophone does have brass in it, it’s not itself a brass instruments. Brass instruments like the trumpet don’t have reeds, which vibrate against the mouthpiece and produce sound.
Saxophones come in various sizes. Most people picture saxophones as the iconic U-shaped instrument, but this is just one example of the various sizes.
Four of the most common sizes are the:
- Alto – The smallest size, altos are lightweight and easily produce sound. They’re also the most versatile and affordable option. Though they’re not necessarily the most popular size, they are a great choice for beginners.
- Tenor – Also popular, the tenor is larger than the alto and produces a lower/ deeper sound. This requires more air, but more closely aligns with “traditional” jazz. It is slightly more difficult to learn than the alto, but still suitable for beginners.
- Baritone – The baritone is the largest size and produces the lowest/ deepest sound, but is just as easy to play as the tenor. Just like the tenor and alto, many beginners are drawn to this size.
- Soprano – This is the hardest of the four sizes to play. It’s the highest pitched, has the smallest mouthpiece, and rests all its weight on the player’s right thumb. Because of this, it’s not prudent for beginners, but is a great option once you learn how to play.
Besides being the most common sizes, these are also the sizes that are the easiest to play. Other types of saxophones, such as the subcontrabass, are more complicated in terms of their size/ parts and the technique(s) used to play them.
Is Playing Saxophone Difficult? Final Thoughts
In conclusion, no, playing the sax isn’t hard. It does however take much practice to get good and even master the instrument.