In the mid 19th century, a musical instruments manufacturer from Belgium created a new series of instruments unlike any that had ever been seen. Adolphe Sax, who played clarinet, wanted to create an instrument that would bridge the gap between woodwinds and brass instruments in the orchestra.

Sax hoped to create a new line of instruments that would have more range than current brass instruments yet be more powerful than current woodwinds. Ultimately, he created the saxophone, which he exhibited for the first time at an 1841 Brussels exhibition.

Commonly known as the “sax,” the saxophone is a cone-shaped musical instrument made of brass that’s played with a reed mouthpiece similar to a clarinet. The sax is the only woodwind instrument made of brass.

Adolphe Sax patented the sax on June 28, 1846, in two groups of seven instruments each. Many people don’t realize that there are actually many types of saxophones.

Although there have been dozens of different types of saxophones over the years, the most commonly played saxophones today are the alto, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones.

Each sax has its own particular musical range. For example, alto and soprano saxophones play higher notes, while tenor and baritone saxophones specialize in lower notes.

As Adolphe Sax intended, the sax bridges the gap between woodwinds and brass instruments. Like the clarinet, sound is generated by the vibration of a single-reed mouthpiece.

The sax also allows the player to play different notes by pressing different combinations of keys that open or close tone holes. Like brass instruments, the bodies of saxophones are made of metal, usually brass that is often plated in another metal, such as nickel, silver or gold.

Two types of saxophones — baritone and contrabass saxophones — have something else in common with brass instruments, like trumpets and trombones: the spit valve.

When you play a brass instrument, your warm, moist breath will condense inside the instrument. What this means is that the warm water vapor in your breath will be cooled as it travels through the cooler metal tubes of the instrument.

When this happens, it turns from a gas to a liquid and sits in the metal tubes of the instrument. As this water vapor (and, yes, some of it will consist of saliva or “spit”) collects in the instrument, it can affect its sound.

To remove the accumulated water (or what players call “spit”), players open the spit valve — also called the “water key.” The water key or spit valve is a small hole that’s usually closed.

It’s located at a spot where water will tend to accumulate naturally due to gravity. Pressing the water key or spit valve opens the small hole, allowing the water to empty.

 

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    • We think Mr. Williams (the musician in the video) can play the saxophone REALLY well, don’t you, Nmb? Thanks for letting us know what you thought about the video for today’s Wonder of the Day®! :-)

    • It’s fun to learn new things, isn’t it, Missy? We’re happy to hear that you learned about Adolphe Sax by exploring this Wonder! We bet you are an AWESOME clarinet player! :-)

  1. Hi, Wonderopolis.

    I am a flute player and I really dislike the
    saxophone and the clarinet. I think that they’re
    too loud, but, after seeing this video and this man,
    I have actually changed my mind about the sax.
    I now think their sound is very interesting
    and unlike the other instruments!! You guys
    have really changed my mind about them!!!
    Thank you so much!!
    •aidan’s girl•

    • Hello, Aidan’s Girl! We think it’s really cool that you changed your mind about the saxophone after learning a little more about it and hearing the awesome musician in the video! Thanks for being such a great Wonder Friend! :-)

    • Thanks for adding something awesome to this Wonder of the Day, Jeff! We appreciate your comment! We will definitely check out the music of Cannonball Adderley and Boots Randolph, and we hope our Wonder Friends will do a little extra WONDERing about them, too! :-)

  2. Played Alto Sax in grades 7 – 11. That was in the early 80s. Loved the sound of all the instruments – still find myself searching out music made by real instruments – and Boots Randolph IS awesome. My dad actually introduced his music to me at a young age.

    • Thanks for leaving us such an AWESOME comment, Brenda! We think it’s GREAT that your dad introduced you to music when you were a child…what marvelous, musical WONDER he instilled in you! We’re glad you shared some of those memories with us today! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is a spit valve?
  • What is the only woodwind instrument not made of wood?
  • Who invented the saxophone?

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Saxophones proved to be very popular in military bands. Although they’re also often a part of orchestras, they’re usually associated most often with jazz and classical music.

Ready to enjoy some saxophone music? Check out these famous saxophone players:

 

Still Wondering

Check out ArtsEdge’s Instrument Spotter’s Guide activity to learn how to identify the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments that make up an orchestra.

 

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