I'm learning the trumpet, and I chose it over the saxophone because it has fewer keys to press. I also liked how the trumpet relies on the harmonic series to play all the notes since it can only play half an octave without using overtones.

  • What is the range the saxophone can cover without using overtones?


Whenever I pick up the trumpet, I have to listen to a Bb on my computer before I can start playing because the trumpet allows you to play a little higher or lower (especially in the low register). If I try to play the low Bb (no valves pressed), I could be playing any of the notes Ab, A, Bb and B and I can hardly tell which one I'm playing unless I hear the Bb in my head first.

  • Is the saxophone (and reed instruments in general) as hard as the trumpet to play in tune?
  • How much can you alter the pitch without changing the fingering or moving to another overtone?
  • 1
    Can you explain how you finger a low Bb? It's the open note at the beginning of the harmonic sequence, isn't it ? I used to tap the mouthpiece with an open palm, and that gave me the reference.I wonder if you're asking about initial tuning, to start at concert pitch.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 13:25
  • Yes it's the open note. But you can call it a fingering, can't you? I'll edit the question to avoid confusion. I don't know what initial tuning means ; I'm not talking about the tuning slides, just buzzing in tune.
    – Anthony
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 13:59
  • 2
    Saxophones can be "overblown" to produce higher tones of the harmonic series using the same fingering as for the fundamental (as demonstrated by Michael Brecker in Delta City Blues {see 2:38...}). However that is considered an extended technique. Normally for the upper register you press the octave key which opens an appropriate "speaker" hole that kills the fundamental, and so your first question isn't really applicable; all notes have their own fingering(s)! Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 22:57
  • 2
    In simplified terms, though, you could say that the saxophone repeats its fingerings by the octave. Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 22:57
  • Saxophones are easy to control, so long as you use proper embrochure and breathing techniques. Saxophones provide a richer tone and are easy to memorize the keys. I play Alto Saxophone, and it is incredibly fun to play.
    – user19853
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 18:19

2 Answers 2


All instruments are equally difficult for different reasons. You can't escape by choosing an "easy" instrument because there are none.

All pitches from all instruments have overtones. It is impossible not to use an overtone as they are inherent in the physical properties of vibration that actuate the pitch. It is precisely the reliance on the ear to negotiate the harmonic series on brass instruments that make them so difficult to play. I believe you're looking for the term "partial" - as in a particular note from the harmonic series.

Brass players have a saying that if you can hear it, you can play it. Next time you go to play, hear the Bb first and then sing the pitch, making sure it doesn't waver. Next, bring the mouthpiece (not the whole trumpet!) up to your mouth and buzz the Bb into just the mouthpiece. Do this several times until the pitch does not waver. Next, use your lips to bend away (higher and lower) from the pitch and see if you can come exactly back to it (it's okay to use the computer as a drone if necessary.) Repeat this a few times. Now add the mouthpiece to your trumpet and play.

You may want to read my answer on "Audiation" as I think that might help a little bit - at least in terms of understanding why what I just told you is important.

Like the trumpet, the saxophone is a transposing instrument, so it's important to specify if you're looking for written range or sounding range. For all saxophones, the written range is Bb3 - G6. As alluded to earlier in my answer, it is impossible not to use overtones when playing the saxophone.

Yes, the saxophone is just as difficult to play in tune as all other instruments. You are using different muscles in a different embouchure and that requires different technique.

On brass instruments, altering the pitch without changing the fingering is actually a lip-exercise used to develop flexibility and intonation. First, do not worry that you're having a hard time with the first note - almost everyone feels lost at first when beginning to learn a brass instrument. Most students have a much easier time playing the "G" (written) because it is easier to slot at first. Because the trumpet mouthpiece is small, the low range is actually difficult to produce satisfactory sounds and takes easing into.

To answer your question more directly, generally you can bend a full 1/2 step (semitone) in either direction. In the lower range, and especially on larger brass instruments, you can bend as much as a perfect fifth (as is the case of the tuba.)

I hope that answers your questions.

As a side note, I think you made a good move going for brass - now everyone doesn't have to hear you complain about reeds. :P

Hope that helps!

  • @jjmusicnotes Thanks for explaining overtones. I just need one extra piece of information I couldn't find on Wikipedia. Sax players have a technique (I have seen videos on Youtube) that allows them to jump to next note in the harmonic series (just like the trumpet) by adjusting their embouchure.However the sax (I think) has a good enough range playing the full notes (the lowest notes in the series for a given fingering), how many octaves can it play like that?
    – Anthony
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 18:18
  • 1
    @Anthony I was going to mention that: with some practice, you can get several overtones by "tightening up" on the reed and boosting the air pressure. Alternatively, skilled reed players will find that if they're planning one note but finger another, there may be no sound output; albeit this is much less common than with a brass instrument. (and both brass & reed instruments are susceptible to a variety of squeaks and clams when there's a mismatch of one sort or another) Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 18:28
  • 2
    @Anthony - yes, sax players can pinch their embouchure in the lower register to get the octave up, however, it's not usually desirable. In the same way, flute players can overblow and get the octave or a different partial as well. Also like clarinet, sax players typically can reach different partials in the altissimo register of the instrument - where the notes are very close together. Sometimes this is done for intonation, other times to facilitate playing ease. I should note here that the two instruments are very different in function and we are talking about extreme examples. Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 18:42

Brass players talk about "slotting" - the idea that when you play a note the instrument supplies a correction, pulling you towards a certain pitch. When you first start playing brass instruments, there can be a tendency to compress the lips together as you work too hard to make them produce the vibration.

Side effects of this are that the quality of the sound is also compressed and dull, and it tends to override any slotting help the instrument would naturally give to pull towards the true pitch. You want your lips to excite the resonance of the instrument, but by compressing them you decouple them from the instrument resonance. So you can play a wide range of pitches with a single fingering, which sounds like what's happening here.

When you whistle, you set a particular mouth cavity size and form your lips just right and then you just exhale - you're not actually making the vibration. Try to adopt a similar thought process with the brass note production - set up embouchure consistently and then supply the breath. Don't think about forcing your lips together to make them buzz, and you'll find those slots.

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