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What Is a Bass Saxophone?

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  • Written By: Angela Colley
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 26 March 2014
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The bass saxophone is the second largest instrument in the saxophone family. Designed by Adolphe Sax in the late 1800s, the bass saxophone has a different design from other more popular saxophones, with a wider loop around the mouthpiece, a longer curvature throughout the body, and a much larger size in general. It produces a much deeper sound than the others, two octaves lower than a soprano saxophone. Jazz musicians, big band groups, and rock bands have incorporated the instrument into their sound.

Only the contrabass saxophone stands taller than the bass saxophone. The contrabass can reach over 6 feet in length, making it difficult to play or transport. Since the contrabass is not a popular instrument, very few exist. While the bass saxophone is still several feet in length, the slightly smaller size makes it more popular than the contrabass.

As a member of the saxophone family, the bass saxophone is similar in appearance to the other instruments, with the larger size being the most noticeable difference between the bass and other instruments. When compared to a baritone saxophone, the bass has a longer loop coming off the mouthpiece. The bass saxophone also has a longer curvature along the neck of the piece.

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The larger size allows musicians to create a deep, resonating bass line. The instrument plays in B flat, and its range is a fourth lower than that of a baritone sax. Composers write music for the bass sax in treble clef, but the sound is much lower than written when played.

Hector Berlioz was the first composers to use a bass saxophone in a major musical production. Berlioz introduced the saxophone into his compositions in the late 1800s. By the turn of the century, the instrument was appearing in a few operas and other compositions. It reached the height of its popularity after the 1920s, with the rise of big band music and jazz.

Shortly after World War I, many big band players preferred the deep sounds produced by the bass saxophone, and several jazz groups also included a bass sax player. The instrument began to lose popularity around the 1950s, when smaller instruments took its place. In 2011, a few jazz musicians such as Scott Robinson and Anthony Braxton still prefer the larger instrument, and a few popular rock bands, such as Fishbone and They Might be Giants have also adopted it.

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