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I am composing a Jazz Quintet. Never learned jazz theory but I know uneven rhythms are key to jazz. And saxophones are most commonly used in jazz. So I decided to compose a piece for 5 saxophones.

Train of thought

At first I thought of composing a piano sonata out of just 5 notes per octave(in other words, one based on the Pentatonic scale). Then I thought "Why not add a saxophone?" This lead to me not basing it off of the Pentatonic scale but rather the Bb major scale and adding 4 more saxophones and getting rid of the piano staves.

But now I have a problem. The saxophones blend so well that it is like listening to a single instrument almost instead of 5. Here they are in staff order:

  • Soprano saxophone
  • Alto saxophone
  • Tenor saxophone
  • Baritone saxophone
  • Bass saxophone

I can think of 3 ways to make an individual saxophone stand out:

Solo

This is the most obvious way. If 1 of the saxophones goes solo, than of course it is going to stand out because it is the only instrument playing.

Dynamics

This is another obvious solution. If I have 1 saxophone at forte and the others at mezzo piano, the one at forte is going to stand out while the others will still be heard but in the background.

Staccato

And this is the third way I can think of making 1 saxophone stand out. If only 1 is playing legato while the others are playing staccato, the legato is going to stand out over the staccato, even if the staccato is louder.

But I can't think of any other ways. I thought rhythm and melody alone would be enough, since it is, even for a group of flutes. But apparently, saxophones are even better at blending than flutes are because each one of the saxophones has a different line and a different rhythm and yet they still blend into an almost homogeneous sound.

With flutes, I could tell, even with the best blending, which flute is playing which line. But I can't with the saxophones. I wasn't at all aiming for it to be homogeneous and yet, that is how it sounds.

By the way, I'm using Musescore and have no idea if it is possible to mute all except 1 instrument in Musescore. Not that it is important, just figured I would mention that.

So how can I make a single saxophone stand out without having it go solo, be louder than the other saxophones, or be the only one playing legato?

  • The answer might be that you can’t. Normally I would suggest listening to and analyzing other music that is all saxophones and figuring out how it was done in those cases. – Todd Wilcox Nov 17 '18 at 8:12
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    The instruments blending is partly a MuseScore problem. If they're playing the same pitches, there isn't really any way to distinguish between the sounds being made. You could try picking different instruments for your MuseScore arrangement. Even if you're writing for real Saxophones, doesn't mean you can't use a Tuba instead of a Bari when you're writing in MuseScore. But with a small group, their shouldn't be many instruments playing the same part. One instrument should have the melody and the rest should be filling out the chord. – Greg Nov 19 '18 at 15:57
  • @Greg except that actually, the muse score playback for some notes are very much out of tune, and sound terrible. It really doesn't do the saxophone justice. – Mafii Nov 20 '18 at 9:25
  • @Mafii I've never noticed that (I mostly write for brass). But the my point is still valid, I think. Use different instruments to flesh out different voices if the instruments you're using don't work. – Greg Nov 20 '18 at 19:16
  • @Greg sure, I was just adding to the point, not contradicting it :) – Mafii Nov 21 '18 at 10:08
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Use real saxophones! They will phrase and 'bring out' a melodic line much better than the playback in MuseScore does. Saxes (like solo violins) are notoriously unsatisfactory in computer playback, without advanced sample sets and lots of tweaking. A sax section often ends up sounding like a fairground organ.

The saxes ARE a very homogeneous group. Write homophonic music and enjoy the blend. But write contrapuntal music, the lines WILL be heard.

Here's some Bach played with 'uneven rhythms'.

And a jazz standard.

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It sounds like you estimate your results based on Midi expanding five saxophone parts played by computer exactly from a score.

And you are writing for a saxophone quintet (guess why those are not actually in high demand in Jazz) with individual voices and call it Jazz because of uneven rhythm and using saxophones. At least that's the way you make it sound.

Saxophones were invented for symphonic orchestras and didn't make it there. Jazz developed from a number of genres into a number of genres and at some point of time increasingly adopted saxophones because they had nice articulation properties and were distinctive as lead instruments, supplementing a style carrying melodic material over a rhythmic and harmonic backdrop.

While physical instruments are more distinctive and playing styles are quite more distinctive and expressive than what a Midi expander will give you (because like with human voice, it can only capture a rather limited subset of the usually employed expressivity), with regard to orchestration a saxophone quintet is an awfully tricky device to master, particularly if you are aiming for individual voices. And that's independent from whether or not you want to call the result Jazz.

  • Saxophones were invented for military marching bands, to be robust, and project a lot. Otherwise, good answer. – Mafii Nov 20 '18 at 9:26
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I would suggest having only one instrument playing the melody line at any given time but different horns come in or take over as the piece progresses.

In a jazz context, and with no backing instruments; then your bass and barry and even the tenor sometimes are your rhythm section.

The highest three horns together are your choir. These groups of course overlap and can and should evolve over time to suit what the song needs.

But I think trying to keep all the parts distinct all the time is a recipe for disaster which deserves this warning IMO.

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The way you make individual instruments stand out in a homogeneous group is the same for any kind of group. You need to make independent lines of music that work together, using a variety of notes (ie. melodic lines, or pieces of melody) and rhythmic differences. The same problem is faced when writing for piano. By itself, certain styles of writing make it sound like a "block" of piano, rather than independent lines.

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While this solution won't necessarily fit depending on the structure of your piece, another way of making a single saxophone (or instrument, really) stand out from the rest is by having the rest of the instruments play in unison and have that single sax play the only other musical line.

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