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A few years back, I have noticed by accident (I forgot to press the octave key while practising one of the musical pieces) that I can play all the notes on the tenor saxophone that normally require the octave key to be pressed without even touching it. I have never deliberately practised harmonics, and I have not attempted altissimo yet.

Recently, I have asked my teacher whether it is alright to play without using the octave key, and he said that he knows plenty of saxophonists who don't touch it "because it's just another key that needs to be pressed", but he thinks that the notes sound off by about 10-20 cents when played without the octave key and don't have the same "feel" to them (and that's true for his MKVI), so he recommends using the octave key. I've spent some time with my tuner and found that for my horn this is not the case. The notes sound absolutely the same (I've even recorded them, to make sure that it's not an audial illusion), whether I utilise the octave key or not. In fact, it is much easier for me to play notes that require palm keys that way (including F# which, with the octave key pressed, I cannot even get out of the instrument, unless I approach it from below, like E). I have not tested it with fork fingerings yet. At this stage, I don't even know anymore whether the octave key does anything at all, or if the sound comes entirely "from me".

My question is the following (and I am happy to remove it if it's an opinion-based question): should I start playing without the octave key if it works so well for me, or am I potentially setting myself up for some problems down the track, like with altissimo? Because this technique allows me to do huge jumps (12 or more semitones) seamlessly, some of which even my teacher has never been able to perform.

I am also curious as to how the overtones are produced, because I have never practised them, and they just came to me naturally. I have tried to notice if anything changes about my embouchure or throat when I play them but couldn't really find out how I do it.

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    FWIW the overtones are always there but many dB down from the fundamental. Air pressure and pressure on the reed can suppress, or "blow out" the fundamental, at which point the energy goes into the octave. – Carl Witthoft Jul 17 at 13:20
  • I'd love to hear those recordings. Consider uploading them to instaud.io, soundcloud or vocaroo or something and including them in your question? – Some_Guy Jul 17 at 15:40
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    @CarlWitthoft: I don't think your description is quite right. The overtones are always there, but it doesn't matter whether they're strong or weak compared to the fundamental. If the fundamental is entirely absent but you still have 2f, 3f, 4f, ..., the pitch is still f. When you pop up an octave, what's happening is that f, 3f, 5f, ... (all the odd harmonics) are vanishing completely. – Ben Crowell Jul 17 at 16:33
  • @BenCrowell fair point -- or in the case of the clarinet, where only the odd overtones exist in the first place, all sorts of harmonics disappear. – Carl Witthoft Jul 17 at 17:44
  • @BenCrowell, I'm not sure if I fully understand the technicalities (I'm not a physicist like you and Carl). What do the coefficients before "f" denote? I am assuming, "f" is the fundamental tone. – Pyromonk Jul 18 at 2:27
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If it works for you, keep on doing it. The only issue you might run into is if you get a new horn or mouthpiece that requires more consistent use of the octave key, you'll need to develop the habit of pressing it.

How easy is it to play low notes on your sax? It's possible that you're easily getting the higher octave out due to a small leak in the upper stack somewhere that's essentially acting as an octave key opening. If low notes are challenging to maintain, check for leaks.

EDIT: As the other answers suggest, you should continue to practice with the octave key also, as there will be times when using it will be a better choice and you don't want to lock yourself into a technique that requires a specific instrument to play. However, if there are passages you can play without using the key and it sounds good to you then there is no reason not to.

  • Thank you, I've considered that. It's unlikely that I run into a different horn or mouthpiece in the next 40+ years (I have a really good setup), but it is indeed a potential problem, especially if I play soprano for some of my gigs in the future. No leaks on my horn. The instrument is well-maintained, and all the notes (except D5-G#5) do not require any embouchure adjustments. The low end is amazing (comparable to King Zephyr). The low end is actually the easiest to play, even with a 3.5 reed. The low B♭ is fat and round and much better than a MKVI one. – Pyromonk Jul 17 at 9:46
  • @PiedPiper - if you have a different answer, please write it. Comments are not for insulting others. – Doktor Mayhem Jul 20 at 9:59
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem Jul 20 at 9:59
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First of all, I strongly disagree with your teacher about using the key. The key is there for a reason: to make it much easier to produce the desired pitches.

Now, it is certainly true on most if not all wind instruments that you can "overblow" to produce the upper register sans octave key. I had a couple teachers (clarinet) who recommended this as an exercise to help focus on getting exactly the right embouchure and breath control for each note. But don't ignore the octave key -- that makes as much sense as ignoring the alternate fingerings for accidentals.

  • Thank you. My teacher actually insists that I use it. Perhaps I didn't word the question well. – Pyromonk Jul 18 at 2:23
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I think it is good for practice to not use the octave key for certain passages, you learn how to voice the notes better and makes some transitions smoother in my opinion, this works for me on clarinet and saxophone as well.

Properly using he register key will deliver the best sound and pitch without any doubt, that is how the instrument is designed, there is no way around it. You will perform your best using it, still I think there are advantages in training without using it sometimes. If there is really no difference I would go as far as saying you need to get that horn checked by a technician.

Just try this then, play a long G and instantly go up an octave while slurring, can you do it without the register key? Even if you manage to do this, isn't it a lot easier to just press a key to jump an octave right away. No tonguing, no attacks. Even if you think they sort of sound the same in situations like this the register key is helpful.

  • I agree. I seem to "subconsciously" alternate between using it and not using it as well. Some passages in pieces like "Pink Panther" just flow much better without the octave key. You reckon my octave key is not functioning? There are no leaks or dirt on the pads though. There is a very slight difference on D6 and above (about 3-5 cents). G is one of those notes where it's more of a struggle to use the octave key for me, actually. It's notoriously wobbly on most horns, and mine is no exception. Pushing in the octave key introduces a rush stop into the sound that just muddles it more for me. – Pyromonk Jul 19 at 12:57
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Are you able to play the entire range of the saxophone without the use of the octave key, including the highest notes using the LH palm keys? And can you jump from every note to any other note instantly on the saxophone without the use of the octave key and perfectly in tune? If so, go ahead and keep on doing what you are doing. But if you cannot do all of either one of those things, you need to use the octave key.

I think using the octave key is better because the embouchure does require adjustment moving from register to register, and in very fast large jumps that would be found in advanced music the embouchure could easily "overshoot" and cause serious intonation problems. The octave key helps to stabilize this.

Also, it is easier to get harmonics out of the tenor saxophone, as is true for all larger instruments. My guess is this no-octave key technique will not work on all saxophones equally well.

  • Thank you. I can play the entire range of the saxophone without the octave key, including the highest notes (up to F#6). I have not tested out ridiculous jumps, like from F#6 to C4, but I I can make seamless transitions within 18 semitones. I agree, and I cannot perform this technique on soprano (I don't play E♭ instruments, so I haven't tested it on alto or baritone). – Pyromonk Jul 19 at 13:05

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