I recently ran into a little conundrum while playing in the pit orchestra for my high school's musical - if I got my soprano saxophone in tune on the written middle C, the upper-register C would be very sharp, and vice-versa if I tuned to the written upper C.

I know a simple and obvious answer to this is "Tune to whichever octave is played more often", but across the entire musical it's hard to tell which is played more - both because of amount of music and not knowing where the endpoints of an octave is considered to be - and they're very likely quite close in amount.

Should I tune to a single octave, and just try to modify the other octave with my lips, or tune to the average* of the two octaves?

*By "average" I mean making the lower octave a little flat and the upper octave a little sharp.

  • I added a saxophone tag so that saxophone players are more likely to respond specifically. I thought it would be better on soprano sax to tune to the sax C which is Bb below middle C on the piano. Then all other notes will be tuned by the lip as necessary. I say this because I think I remember that sounding C (written D) on the sop. sax is a somewhat hinky pitch across multiple registers... Mar 17, 2014 at 3:56
  • @PatMuchmore Woops, yeah, I'm talking about all these notes in reference to the saxophone's Bb key, not concert pitch. How do I denote that in my post?
    – ananaso
    Mar 17, 2014 at 11:23
  • 1
    You could add the word "written" at least in the first mention. "in tune on written middle C" or something. Maybe sax players would just assume that anyway... Mar 17, 2014 at 15:48

2 Answers 2


If you're not playing in tune, either your axe sucks (always possible) or you haven't yet learned to play that instrument. Certainly the soprano is a lot less cooperative than a tenor (and I've played soprano, alto, tenor, as well as clarinet, alto clarinet, and bass clarinet).

The real answer is always "get some lessons." But in the meantime, work hard on proper breath control, and avoid changing embouchure as much as possible. In time, you'll learn the air pressure required to keep every note in tune.

BTW, you young folk have it easy w/ your fancy curved sopranos. In my day (Mark VI) there was no such animal :-)

  • Yeah, I'm not a great musician :( it's something I just do for fun (and hence don't bother taking lessons). I use a straight soprano (since it's what the school has), but I do really like how funny curved sopranos look. Does curve/straight really make that much of a difference?
    – ananaso
    Mar 17, 2014 at 19:30

I would find which pitch would stick out more if it's out of tune. I know from experience, you're very exposed in a pit orchestra. It's probably the higher one, but it depends on which are in your pit.

Once you know which one is more noticeable out of tune, tune that one, and try to bend the other one.

This in itself leads to another conundrum, though, sort of...

If we assume that the higher one sounds worse when out of tune, then you have to bend the lower one. But generally (at least for me) higher pitches are easier to bend then lower ones.

That means you might have to do a lot of practice just bending the lower note...

PS. Hooray for soprano! In the last pit I did, I played both tenor and soprano -- until all the songs in which I had a soprano part got cut. I almost cried =)

  • Yeah, I hadn't played soprano before this musical, and it was a lot of fun! I also got to play tenor, bari, and bass clarinet - and I could have played the clarinet part, but that probably wouldn't have been pretty...
    – ananaso
    Mar 17, 2014 at 19:33
  • Bari is fun...I don't have the rep (yet) to comment above, but about the curved v straight I've heard that curved has some kind of harmonics that make it more like the rest of the sax family. I'm not sure though...
    – evamvid
    Mar 18, 2014 at 2:49

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