I just got some new sheet music for alto sax and wonder how to play this notation: enter image description here

For example in these contexts:

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3 Answers 3


To follow up Wheat's definition answer, here's how I would play this:

When playing glisses on wind instruments, especially in a contemporary or jazz context, the change in pitch should be as continuous as possible. In contrast, a piano is only capable of playing absolutely defined pitches, so glisses all sound like a fast scale (chromatic or otherwise).

All wind instruments have ways of "fudging" glisses so that they sound continuous instead of just like a fast chromatic scale. Trumpet players, for example, would use half-valves in many cases, and clarinets can partially cover tone holes. Saxophone is a bit trickier since all of the tone holes are keyed, but there is quite a lot you can do with the embouchure to bend a pitch. The playing technique for this kind of gliss on saxophone will involve a mixture of embouchure bend and fingering, and the emphasis should be on the embouchure. For experienced players, it's not even imperative that you be fingering a chromatic scale instead of something that falls easier under the fingers, because the embouchure should be able to cover the missing ground anyway.

This takes a VERY well-developed embouchure, however, and a lot of practice. If you're just starting out, focus on making the chromatic scale clean and even, and practice embouchure bends separately before adding them in.

  • 2
    There are two styles of notating a fall-off in jazz. As a reed player, when I see the wavy line style that E. Lüders asked about, I usually interpret that as a fingered (often chromatic) fall-off. The other style is a non-wavy curved line, which I usually interpret as a pitch bend fall-off using the embouchure. I especially tend to make the distinction in charts where the composer uses both styles. Context rules, though, and sometimes a particular interpretation makes more sense regardless of how it is notated.
    – SWB
    May 19, 2014 at 21:19

The first example is a glissando. Wikipedia defines this as "A continuous, unbroken glide from one note to the next that includes the pitches between."

The second example is a fall-off, meaning to glissando downward in pitch to an unspecified point (you choose how far to go), possibly with a rapid decrescendo to silence.

  • 1
    As both a reed and (bowed) string player, I take exception to Wikipedia here. Strictly speaking, glissando is what you can do on a piano, i.e. stream distinct notes. Portamento is what string players can do by sliding their fingers along the string, producing a continuous delta frequency. That said, I understand that most jazz and jazz-esque music expects a "gliss" to be more of the latter. May 14, 2013 at 19:28

I disagree with the first (currently accepted) answer by @NReilingh A glissando can be played on a piano - there is no embouchure changes or pitch bending at all.

NReilingh says:

The playing technique for this kind of gliss on saxophone will involve a mixture of embouchure bend and fingering, and the emphasis should be on the embouchure.

I have read many jazz saxophone charts (over 20 years) and upon seeing these 2 snippets you've shown, I would definitely not be using embouchure in either.

The definition of a "gliss" doesn't suggest it nor does this particular example require it.

Taking your 2nd snippet, it is very natural to start at the A (2 fingers held down) and roll the remaining fingers down to D (6 fingers held down) while allowing the volume to decrease. This is what I would do upon seeing this.

No embouchure change required.

In your 1st snippet (with a high D down to B) - this happens to work well with the fingering on a sax, in that it's easily possible to slide down chromatically from high D down to B - and this is a very natural gliss to play.

Once again, most definitely, no embouchure changes required (or desirable)

I've never used embouchure to play a gliss and I don't believe it's actually correct to do so - hence I believe @NReilingh's quote is wrong & that you should never use the embouchure when playing a gliss. Using the embouchure to drop from a note has a separate way of being notated ,after all.

  • FurryToes, thanks for your answer! It sounds very interesting and this way it seems to be easier to play a glissando. Maybe you can provide an example for your statement that using the embouchure to drop from a note is notated different.
    – E. Lüders
    May 10, 2013 at 6:46
  • See this Tenor Saxophone jazz chart for examples of embouchure drops and "ups" - several in the first few bars - cloud.freehandmusic.netdna-cdn.com/preview/530x4/warner/…
    – FurryToes
    Dec 28, 2014 at 11:19

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