Nothing hits quite like a saxophone solo, no matter what style of music the instrument is accompanying. This woodwind instrument has a unique vocal quality with a massive range of expression beyond the playing of simple notes.
While the saxophone has gone through various eras of popularity, the instrument’s capabilities continue to be pushed to new boundaries. All of the following saxophone players are considered to be the best and are often studied by students of all instruments.
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John Coltrane is undoubtedly one of the biggest and most recognizable names to be associated with the saxophone. Many of his works, including Giant Steps, and My Favorite Things, continue to be challenging staples that all serious saxophone players learn.
A huge part of Coltrane’s success is the fact that he worked with so many iconic jazz legends in his formative years. Some of the names Coltrane worked with include Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk, among others.
Coltrane is noted for being a pioneer, particularly where the free jazz movement is concerned. However, his experimentation was not always met with the best reception at the time.
John Coltrane is also one of the few musicians to actually become a bona fide saint in a church. Toward the end of his career, Coltrane began making conscious efforts to make his performances a spiritual fusing of soul and mind.
Without Sidney Bechet, you might as well assume that none of the names on this list would be as they are. Sidney Bechet had the fateful opportunity to be one of the first people to record a jazz solo on record.
What resulted from this is the fact that Sidney Bechet’s influence rubbed off on almost every name in this article. He was also a formative member in helping to pioneer the sound of swing jazz alongside Louis Armstrong.
Bechet’s style is certainly indicative of that New Orleans sound that we all know today. Even his recordings from nearly 100 years ago still serve as repositories all learning saxophone players should study.
If there was to be 1 name that would stand out as the most influential out of all the others mentioned in this list, it would be Charlie Parker. In some sense, Charlie Parker is the saxophone equivalent of what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar.
Charlie Parker’s virtuosic skill remains unparalleled even by today’s standards. However, it’s a safe bet that almost every serious saxophone player since Parker’s time has been directly influenced by his insanely fast and clean playing style.
His nickname “Bird” is just as ubiquitous, finding mention throughout pop culture history well outside the context of jazz. Many of his songs continue to be must-learn repertoire, including the track, Donna Lee.
Alongside Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker helped to pioneer the sound of bebop jazz. Though it was met with mixed reception at the time, it’s needless to say that its impact is still felt and heard to this day.
What’s even more insane is that Charlie Parker accomplished the notoriety of his legacy early in life. He passed away at the age of 34, with the wear and tear on his body due to certain habits taking its toll.
Clint Eastwood directed a film entitled, Bird, in 1988, which dramatizes the saxophonist’s life.
If you thought saxophone-led jazz music was a dying art, you’d better think again. Listening to Kamasi Washington will show you that the instrument, and the way that it’s played, is still evolving for modern times.
Kamasi Washington is the youngest player on this list, but he has the chops to go toe-to-toe with the best of them. What makes his approach unique is that he is influenced by both traditional jazz elements and free jazz, with some modern pop stylings sprinkled in for good measure.
Be sure to check out his version of Clair De Lune from his 2015 album, The Epic. You’re guaranteed to at least crack a smile.
Scott Hamilton is likely a name that you recognize, but this particular Scott is not known for his professional figure-skating skills. The saxophone player Scott Hamilton picked up the instrument at the spry age of 16, and just 10 years later began working with the famous Benny Goodman.
Scott Hamilton is primarily known for being a bandleader, with his career skyrocketing in popularity during the 1980s. With that being said, Hamilton does have a massive catalog of recordings, both as a bandleader and as a hired sideman.
His traditionalist approach to jazz has seemingly always been in demand, appearing on records by artists such as Duke Robillard, Gerry Mulligan, and Jimmy Bruno. Hamilton’s latest solo release came out in 2021, proving that he’s still quite active today.
Not all of the names on this list made their claim to fame in the jazz world. If you’ve ever spent time listening to Bruce Springsteen, you’re probably all too familiar with Clarence Clemons and his saxophone style.
Some of the songs you’ve heard Clarence play include Springsteen’s Spirit Of The Sky and Blinded By The Light, along with Jackson Browne’s You’re A Friend Of Mine. Interestingly enough, Clemons also had a career as an actor, appearing on various popular TV shows throughout the years.
How familiar are you with the hit song, The Girl From Ipanema? This Stan Getz song became an international hit in the mid-1960s, helping to cement the sound of bossa nova in the fabric of pop culture.
One of the biggest names to be associated with the tenor saxophone specifically is Stan Getz. At a young age, Getz was rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names in jazz music, including Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole, and Jimmy Dorsey.
Certain pop songs that feature the saxophone have become prominently known worldwide specifically for the saxophone sections. The iconic Gerry Rafferty song, Baker Street, is undeniably one of the most influential saxophone parts in all of pop music, featuring Raphael Ravenscroft on the instrument.
Funnily enough, Ravenscroft has gone on record to say that he isn’t a fan of his playing on the recording. While it’s imperceptible to the average ear, his saxophone was slightly out of tune.
Baker Street is a song that continues to have frequent play on radio stations across the world. Outside of this, you’ll also hear Ravenscroft on Pink Floyd’s album, The Final Cut.
Jimmy Heath has a story that runs parallel with so many of the biggest names of jazz during the 1940s. Early in his career, Heath’s playing was derivative of Charlie Parker’s stylings, which eventually prompted Heath to transition to tenor saxophone.
During the 1950s, Heath began experiencing the fallout consequences of having a heroin habit. However, he managed to tame the dragon and stay clean from 1959 until the end of his life in 2020.
Jimmy Heath’s catalog is certainly impressive, with a massive collection of recordings as a bandleader and sideman. Some of the biggest names he worked with include Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis.
Some musicians seem destined for greatness from an early age. Environmental factors almost ensured that Jackie McLean would become a big name considering some of the mentors he had at a young age.
When he was still in high school, McLean received lessons from Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. He even worked with Sonny Rollins while still in school and would go on to record with Miles Davis shortly thereafter.
You’ll hear Jackie McLean on records made by some of the most famous names in jazz music. This includes cuts by Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Gene Ammons, Charles Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, among many others.
Jazz is often associated with and depicted as being something extremely hip and cool. It’s also stereotyped as having a massive dictionary of slang terms that are commonly used amongst jazz musicians.
History accounts Lester Young and his influence as being a primary factor in jazz being portrayed in such a manner. Watching and listening to him play, you can immediately tell that he exudes a relaxed sense of cool in his note selection.
Lester made a name for himself alongside Count Basie, but would, unfortunately, experience a decline in his ability due to alcoholism.
Fred Ho is unlike many of the saxophone players listed in this article. While his playing fits into the “jazz” genre, his personal style is influenced by his Chinese heritage, which undoubtedly brought a new perspective to the genre.
Fred Ho might not be a household name, but his works spanning from the 1980s until the early 2010s are sure to suit any saxophone fan’s fancy. Outside of music, Ho was a social activist and also wrote a number of books informed by his personal battle with colon cancer.
As you’ve seen, many of the names mentioned in this article had the heyday of their career in the first half of the 20th century. Like any instrument, the generation that followed was greatly influenced by these greats, with Joe Lovano being an excellent example.
Joe Lovano is considered to be in today’s upper echelon of jazz saxophonists, especially when taking into account his frequent collaborators. The legendary jazz guitar players Bill Frissel and John Scofield are just a couple of names you probably recognize.
If you know your bebop jazz history, you’re probably all too familiar with Dexter Gordon. His sound was undeniably as large as his tall stature and was perfectly complemented by a knack for being a great entertainer.
For those of you who love when jazz players insert musical quotes from other songs into the song they’re playing, you’ll love Dexter Gordon. This characteristic would come to be one of his musical signatures, leaving everyone in anticipation of what he might quote next.
If there’s one person who has made playing the saxophone a lifelong pursuit, it’s Sonny Rollins. After 84 years of performing professionally, Rollins finally hung up the phone in 2014.
During that impressively long career, Rollins has gone on record multiple times to state how important his practice routine and learning new material was to his personal approach. Where others would be content to rest on the laurels of their hard-earned legacy, Rollins continued to push the envelope.
Throughout the 1950s, Rollins worked with many of the biggest names in bebop jazz music. There’s no doubt that the influence of his contemporaries informed the direction of his playing throughout his life thereafter.
Are you familiar with the 1939 Benny Goodman jazz hit, Flying Home? If so, you’ll have heard a teenage Illinois Jacquet playing a solo that is still regarded as one of the best-recorded saxophone solos.
In fact, Jacquet’s solo would often be the highlight of the night during that specific period of Benny Goodman's performances. Some of his other highlights include playing with President Bill Clinton and earning the first residency for a musical artist at Harvard.
Duke Ellington is a name that just about everybody is familiar with, even if they aren’t well-versed in the jazz world. If there was to be somebody that was a nemesis to Ellington, it would be Ben Webster, who served as a member of Ellington’s band for a period of time.
In the 1950s, after Webster left Ellington’s band, he worked alongside names like Johnny Hodges, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, and Herb Ellis. During the following decade, Webster found moderate success living and playing jazz in Europe.
Not every player has to be considered a boundary-pushing pioneer to be considered one of the greats. Such is the case with Ike Quebec, who made his name playing the tenor sax in the world of big band music.
Eventually, big band music fell out of popularity to other emerging styles of jazz, and with it, so too, did Ike Quebec’s career. Despite this, the work he did toward the end of his career with Grant Green and Jimmy Smith remains some of his outstanding examples.
It isn’t a regular occurrence that a musician be equally virtuous and fluent on both the saxophone and the flute. Sahib Shihab, on the other hand, is an exception, which allowed him to work alongside some famous names during his long career.
Sahib Shihab was also a pioneer in the spiritual realm, setting an example for infusing Islamic influences into his playing. If you’re unfamiliar with Shihab’s playing, be sure to check out Coltrane’s 1957 self-titled album as well as Quincy Jones’s albums from 1959-1960.
2023 saw the unfortunate death of Wayne Shorter, signaling the definitive end of a very prestigious career. Shorter made a name for himself in the famous Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers group, eventually rising to hold a role as its primary composer.
While he worked alongside many of the greatest jazz players of all time, Wayne Shorter is perhaps best known for his role in the band, Weather Report. He’s also had a decorous career as a session musician, lending his skills to the likes of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell.
There aren’t too many musicians who can say they had a cameo on the popular children’s show, Arthur. For the modern saxophone virtuoso, Joshua Redman, this is just one of many of his career highlights.
Joshua Redman’s career is the perfect meeting point for jazz fans and non-jazz fans alike who can appreciate tasteful saxophone playing. He’s one of the few that have been able to collaborate with Pat Metheny, Umphrey’s McGee, and The Dave Matthews Band, among an impressive list of others.
For a saxophone player, Alto Reed had one of the most creative names in the industry. However, there’s a good chance you aren’t immediately familiar with his work unless you’ve seen him on TV or taken the time to read album liner notes.
Do you remember the saxophone solos in Old Time Rock And Roll, and Turn The Page? If you’ve spent any time at all listening to Bob Seger’s biggest hits, you’ve heard Alto Reed’s playing, maybe without even knowing.
John Coltrane wasn’t the only saxophonist pushing the boundaries of spirituality-influenced free jazz. While his name isn’t as prominent as Coltrane’s, Albert Ayler was a saxophone player who deserves his share of recognition.
Part of what makes Ayler one of the best saxophone players of all time is that his style is undeniably unique and almost indescribable. Unfortunately, Ayler’s career was cut short due to an early death at the age of 34, the cause of which could be either suicide or murder.
Ayler is, by far, one of the only musicians on this list to have been discovered floating in the East River.
Cannonball Adderley is a name that everybody who is slightly interested in jazz makes a point to check out. His intriguing name is ubiquitous in the stories of some of the greatest jazz musicians.
If you’ve ever listened to Miles Davis’s biggest records from the end of the 1950s, you’ve heard Cannonball without even knowing it. He also managed to have a massive hit with the song, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, which ended up performing extremely well on Billboard charts at the time.
There’s no denying that the bebop stylings of Dizzy Gillespie contain some of jazz’s greatest recorded moments. Dizzy’s career was littered with some legendary lineups, some of which included saxophonist, James Moody.
Moody actually worked with Dizzy in both the late 1940s as well as the 1960s and appears on many Dizzy records from that era. As a leader, Moody has an impressive catalog, with his work during the Blue Note and Prestige Records eras being his most notable.
If there’s one thing you may have ascertained by now, it’s that jazz music often embraces the sonic influence of different cultures. Jim Pepper is notorious for the fact that he's one of the few Native Americans to include the sounds of his heritage in his approach.
Of course, Pepper made his name legendary working alongside jazz guitarist, Larry Coryell in The Free Spirits. This particular group is credited with creating the fusion jazz movement that would become so prominent in the 1970s.
It might be a little hard to believe, but there was a time when the tenor saxophone wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today. Coleman Hawkins changed all of that and, in turn, influenced a generation of jazz musicians that are widely considered the greatest of all time.
Hawkins is primarily known for playing the tenor sax specifically and essentially approached the instrument as a trumpet player would approach a solo. As you might guess, the tenor saxophone was never pigeonholed to play accompaniment after Hawkins.
If you’ve listened to any Blue Note records from the late-1950s until 1970, it’s probable that you’ve read Hank Mobley’s name in the liner notes. Mobley is, by far, one of the greatest saxophonists to emerge during the era of bebop.
Before he was even 20 years old, Mobley had worked with Dizzy Gillespie and played with Duke Ellington a few years later. Hank Mobley seemed to have the perfect blend of energetic and calm in his sound, while simultaneously displaying a true talent for crafting original compositions.
In today’s day and age, the big band era often gets a little overlooked compared to that of bebop. Despite this, there are, indeed, certain names that have gained recognition that has lasted the test of time.
Johnny Hodges was influenced by players like Sidney Bechet and made his name playing in Duke Ellington’s band in his early 20s. In turn, he would come to be a massive early influence on John Coltrane.
The later part of John Coltrane’s career is usually associated with his foray into the free jazz movement. Of course, any attempt Coltrane made was, at the very least, influenced by Ornette Coleman, who is credited as the player who planted its seed.
It’s no secret that Ornette Coleman and the free jazz movement were not met with the best reception initially. However, it’s also quite evident that he was a musical genius who knew all the “rules” of music theory, as the only way to break the “rules” is to first master them.
Have you ever watched Saturday Night Live episodes from the 1980s? If so, you’ve probably seen Michael Brecker playing the tenor saxophone in the show’s house band.
Brecker’s playing has been quite influential, and his style made him one of the most in-demand musicians in history. His playing is featured on over 900 studio albums, playing for artists like Paul Simon, Parliament-Funkadelic, John Lennon, Steely Dan, and Todd Rundgren.
If you’ve ever taken the study of music seriously, you may have attempted to pick up Yusef Lateef’s book, Repository Of Scales And Melodic Patterns. Of course, one thing that becomes very clear is that Lateef obviously had a deep knowledge of even the most minute details of practical music theory.
This knowledge, along with a knack for infusing Middle Eastern sounds into his playing, is what made Lateef one of the greatest. His skill was not limited to the tenor sax either, playing the bassoon, oboe, and a number of folk instruments.
Eric Dolphy is one of the most renowned names in all of jazz history and is known for his virtuous playing on numerous instruments, including the alto saxophone. While his skills gave him early local notoriety, it wouldn’t be until he was 30 years old that he gained a widespread reputation.
Eric Dolphy is especially noted for his works with both Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. His playing during Coltrane’s legendary 1961 Village Vanguard era remains some of the greatest saxophone work recorded to tape.
Sometimes, it pays off to drop out of school to dedicate one’s focus to a specific thing, especially if there is a real skill already developed. While not everyone has success with this path, it certainly worked out for the baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan.
Mulligan is one of the key figures in the cool jazz movement, especially because of his involvement with Miles Davis’s legendary 1948 lineup. This would be the lineup featured on the widely-known album, The Birth Of Cool.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Being virtuous at the saxophone is the bare minimum to be considered a great player. But being able to play 2 instruments at the same time is something that only Rahsaan Roland Kirk could have done.
Not only was he a phenomenal musician, but he possessed a spirit that was both strong and resilient. Childhood blindness aside, Kirk lost mobility in one of his arms and modified his instruments so he could still play them.
If that’s not considered tenacity, then the definition of the word itself is obsolete.
We hate to break it to you, but Bruce Springsteen was not the original musician to bear the name “The Boss”. Indeed, that title originally belonged to the tenor saxophonist, Gene Ammons.
Despite having a career put on pause on different occasions due to imprisonment, Gene Ammons had a decorous career. His accessible playing style made him one of the most in-demand tenor sax players of his day.
Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis
In the music world, nicknames are not earned without reason, though many questions surround the reasoning for Eddie Davis’s nickname. Either way, like Cannonball Adderley, Lockjaw’s moniker certainly adds another layer of memorability to his career.
If you’ve ever heard the combination of the tenor saxophone paired with a Hammond B3, you’re hearing Lockjaw’s influence. He is cited as being one of the pioneers who made that particular sound so popular during the late 1950s.
Charles Lloyd is one of the few people still playing today that rubbed elbows with many of jazz’s greats during the 1960s. Not only was he influential in the jazz scene at the time, but he also spent time working with The Beach Boys during the 1970s.
Because of his history, Lloyd’s playing is modern while being influenced and informed by the experiences he’s gained over the years. The year 2022 saw a number of albums being released on Blue Note, which feature collaborations with Julian Lage and Bill Frisell, among others.
If you’ve ever listened to Miles Davis’s live album, Miles In Tokyo, you’ve gotten to experience Sam Rivers on the tenor saxophone. Rivers made his name with the free jazz movement, with a style that eventually caused him to be replaced in Miles Davis’s lineup by Wayne Shorter.
Despite being a bit “out there” by straight-ahead jazz norms, Rivers had a talent for crafting improvisation filled with exposition. This was not limited to the tenor saxophone either, as he was fluent in a number of different instruments.
Like Charlie Parker before him, John Coltrane completely revolutionized the way the saxophone would be played. If there was to be a spiritual predecessor to Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders would likely fit the grade.
Sanders’s playing is directly informed by his experience playing alongside Coltrane during his free jazz years. His career spanned nearly 58 years, with his final album (released in 2021) widely being regarded as a masterpiece.
Jazz is a genre of music that openly welcomes the challenge of the status quo. While most of these challenges do not always please audiences initially, it is the result of this that has allowed the style of music to progress and evolve.
Arthur Blythe could very well be considered one of these saxophonists, who had a distinct style and regularly broke the rules regarding the types of instruments featured in his ensembles. He might be a “small fish” compared to most of the names mentioned here, but his work from the 1970s through the early 2000s has proved fundamental in forming jazz’s modern sonic landscape.
Mention has already been made of Gerry Mulligan’s involvement with The Birth Of Cool sessions on the tenor sax. Lee Konitz was the man who held the alto saxophone role in this legendary lineup.
Part of what makes Konitz so fascinating is that he developed his own unique style when everyone else was trying to be Charlie Parker. His subtly obtuse musical approach is what helped him stand out during the bebop era and beyond.
One of the earliest saxophonists to gain recognition as a bona fide soloist is Benny Carter. In fact, he is also known equally as much for his skills on the trumpet as well as the alto sax.
From an early age, Carter displayed a natural tendency to compose pieces that gravitated toward a higher range of difficulty than what was being played at the time. Carter’s career would end up spanning nearly 70 years before finally retiring at the age of 90.
Lou Donaldson is an alto saxophone player who made his come up in the early 1950s after working with Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey. While he was initially influenced heavily by the stylings of Bird, he began to gradually shift his sound as time went on.
This is especially evident when you compare recordings from early in his career with that of his later years. Rather than displaying a constant flurry of notes, his approach became more heartfelt, and in a way, more authentic as well.
That’s certainly not to discredit his earlier works, as some of the sessions he’s been involved in are truly legendary. The album, Night At Birdland, is still critically acclaimed.
Joe Henderson is a product of a positive environment, especially when it comes to the music recommendations he was given as a child. This would eventually cause him to be inspired by the saxophone players that were at the height of their careers at the time.
As a result, Henderson would come to be a prominent name in the following generation. While starting out as a sort of Lester Young disciple, by the late 1960s, Henderson was helping to pioneer the funk-infused jazz that would become popular not long thereafter.
Branford Marsalis is probably a name that you’re all too familiar with, especially considering that his brother, Wynton, is a trumpet virtuoso. It’s quite clear that the Marsalis brothers had extremely positive formative experiences.
Branford has had massive success in both the jazz world and rock-based genres. Some of the artists he’s worked with include The Police, Grateful Dead, as well as appearing in a Spike Lee joint.
Charles McPherson made a name for himself early in his career by regularly working with Charles Mingus. He would revisit this role fairly regularly over the course of 14 years.
In addition to this, McPherson made a strong debut as a band leader, recording 6 albums on the Prestige label. McPherson is still considered an active player today at the age of 84, with his most recent album released in 2020.
While many saxophone players during Charlie Parker’s meteoric rise attempted to emulate him, only one player came the closest. In fact, Parker himself laughed and told Stitt that their playing styles were practically synonymous.
When he moved to the tenor sax, however, Stitt’s signature style started to make itself known. It's this style of playing that made his dynamic partnership with Gene Ammons so incredibly powerful.
Some nicknames are ambiguously obscure in their origins, but that isn’t the case with Eddie Vinson. All you need to do is look at one picture of him to immediately see that his clean-shaven head is the primary culprit here.
Eddie Vinson is primarily known for a few different things, one of which includes his alto sax skill. The other thing Vinson is known for is having an incredibly pure singing voice, which he utilized to moderate success.
Interestingly enough, Vinson also employed John Coltrane during Coltrane’s formative years.
Grover Washington, Jr.
There have been certain hit songs over the years that remain timelessly iconic, with a saxophone solo that only elevates its delivery. Grover Washington, Jr. has had his saxophone playing in more hit songs than practically every player in this article.
One popular cool jazz track he’s featured on is the undeniably legendary song, Take Five, by Dave Brubeck. He also played the saxophone for the massive Bill Withers song, Just The Two Of Us.
Grover Washington, Jr. helped give rise to the smooth jazz movement that would eventually rise to popularity in the 1980s.
If your personal music background is rooted more in the classic rock side of things, you’re probably familiar with Ernie Watts. Aside from being a touring member of The Rolling Stones, Watts has had an impressive career as a session musician.
Some of his best-known works include sessions done for Frank Zappa, Boz Scaggs, Paul McCartney, and Marvin Gaye. His work is also well-known in the jazz world and has a massive collection of studio albums recorded over nearly 50 years.
The saxophone has always been a key ingredient to a funk band’s sound, and Maceo Parker is a legend in that respect. Parker instantly made a name for himself after joining James Brown’s legendary 1960s lineup.
Of course, this only opened doors for him, serving time with both Prince and Parliament-Funkadelic. His playing has also found its way onto tracks recorded by groups like De La Soul and Jane’s Addiction.
Bleeding Gums Murphy
Ah, yes, Bleeding Gums Murphy…surely this has to be a joke, right? Well, if the animated and fictitious group, Gorillaz, could be considered one of the best pop groups, Bleeding Gums Murphy deserves a mention.
After all, can you really name another animated character (that isn’t Lisa Simpson) who is known primarily for playing the saxophone? Despite not appearing beyond the 6th season of The Simpsons, the memory of Bleeding Gums Murphy is still alive and well for anyone who has seen the show.
Bleeding Gums Murphy is known for being a direct influence on Lisa Simpson’s dedication to her saxophone. His story is parallel to many in the jazz world who rose to fame only to lose it to addiction.
Dan Higgins, the person who played the saxophone behind the scenes, undoubtedly deserves his own mention. In addition to providing work for over 800 soundtracks, he's worked with some of the biggest names in music history, including Selena, John Mayer, Kenny Rogers, and Aerosmith.
Top Jazz Saxophone Players, Final Thoughts
You’re not wrong if you think that this list of best saxophone players is exceptionally lengthy. However, the beauty of this particular instrument is that all of these people helped to shape how the saxophone is played today.
History has shown us that the saxophone isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In another 20 years, this list will have only grown with a new generation of saxophone players evolving its sound.