What Is an Alto Saxophone?

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  • Written By: H. Bliss
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
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An alto saxophone is a wind instrument that falls into the family of woodwinds. These types of saxophones have a curved body shape with many padded keys and a mouthpiece equipped with a reed that makes the sound. They are usually made of brass, giving them a yellow look, but some saxophones are made of nickel and are silver in color. Compared with other types of saxophones, it is a mid-ranged saxophone, and it is the type of saxophone people play the most. It is higher than tenor and baritone saxophones, and lower than soprano saxophones. Famous alto saxophone players include John Zorn, Charlie Parker, and Cannonball Adderley.

Like other types of saxophones, the alto saxophone is part of the woodwind family of instruments. Most woodwinds are grouped into this family because they use a wooden piece known as a reed to produce the vibration needed to make the instrument's sound. One exception to this is the flute, which employs breath blown over a hole, like one would blow over a bottle top, to produce sound. A flute is in the woodwind family because early flutes were usually wood, but modern flutes are most commonly made of metal. A saxophone is sometimes called a sax for short.


Within the family of common saxophones, alto produces a mid-high range of sound. It has a lower range than the straight-shaped soprano sax. The alto saxophone is higher than tenor and baritone saxophones. With saxophones, the larger the size of the instrument, the lower the sound range, so alto saxophones are larger than soprano saxophones, but smaller than tenor and baritone instruments.

The alto saxophone is called alto is because of its range, or the span of notes the instrument can play. On a common piano, middle C is the C note in the center of the keyboard. The alto sax generally can produce notes from the D below middle C to the A that is two octaves above middle C.

The saxophone was invented in the mid-1800s by a man named Adolphe Sax. There are more than nine types of saxophones, but only four types are commonly used. Besides the alto saxophone, other common types of saxophones include the tenor saxophone, the baritone saxophone, and the soprano saxophone. Each saxophone has similar fingering controls, but differs in size, shape, and range.


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