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WHY IS THE SAXOPHONE A WOODWIND INSTRUMENT?

Many people (who do not know much about instrument design and their history) think the saxophone is a so called “brass instrument“. And, perhaps at first sight that seems logical, the saxophone is made of brass (material) after all, right?

Yes, most saxophones are made from brass … BUT … they aren’t brass instruments! The saxophone belongs to an instrument group called “woodwind instruments “.

brass-saxophone-Yamahaacrylic-plastic-saxofoon-Graftonplastic-saxofoon-Vitratowood-saxophone-Sawad-Dejprakune

From left to right: Brass (Yamaha), Acrylic Plastic (Grafton), Plastic (Vibrato), Wood (by Sawad-Dejprakune).

When people are told the saxophone belongs to the woodwind instruments, many presume is must be because reeds (bamboo) are used to generate sound. Yet again, a misunderstanding. Bamboo isn’t wood, bamboo belongs to the “family” of grasses. Besides that, flutes (also members of the woodwind family) do not use reeds. So it’s not the usage of a reed that defines if an instrument belongs to the woodwind family or not either.

So … what then defines a woodwind instrument?

The early woodwind instruments (various types of flutes and reed instruments like the Clarinet and Oboe, to name a few) were all made from wood, at least their “bodies” were. This is why this “family” of instruments was given the name “woodwinds”. And just like with human families, you don’t change the name when other people marry “into the family”, right?

In fact, when you listen to the sound of a brass saxophone, the Grafton, the Vibrato or even the wooden build version of the saxophone, you clearly recognize them all as saxophones. The materials used do have an effect on the sound of the instrument, the material resonates and vibrates differently after all. The brass version sounds the loudest and brightest, the wooden version the softest and least bright and the plastic versions somewhere in between. But, what makes a saxophone sound like a saxophone is mostly the shape (design) of the instrument itself and the type of reed, ligature design and mouthpiece design. 

Now, there might be some differences between the members of the woodwind family (some use reeds, others don’t … some are made of wood, others not), but there are a couple of characteristics (family trades) that they all have in common (and define them as members of the woodwind family):

All woodwind instruments have holes in their bodies through which the wind flowing through the instrument escapes. With other wind instruments (like those commonly called “brass” or “brasswind”), the air escapes only at the end (the bell) of the instrument (body/pipe/tube).

With woodwinds the pitch of the tone changes due to the number of tone holes you close (the length of the body of the instrument itself does not change), unlike with “brass” instruments where the length of the route (body/pipe/tube length) is changed in order to change pitch.

So … it’s not the usage of reeds … nor the material of the body that determines the instrument family they belong to, it’s their “design” (shape and mechanics) that makes it so.


WOODWIND INSTRUMENTS
Below various examples of woodwind instruments and their wood, brass and “plastic” variants:

Recorder (Wood) Recorder (Plastic) Flute (Brass - most common) Flute (Wood - less common) Contrabass Clarinet (Wood) Contrabass Clarinet (Brass) Irish Whistle (Tin)

BRASSWIND INSTRUMENTS
And just like there are woodwinds made from materials other then wood, so are also some “brass” instruments from other materials other them metal, take for example some Sousaphones made from fiberglass instead of brass (material).

Below various examples of brasswind instruments and their brass and “plastic” variants:

Sousaphone (Brass) Sousaphone (Fiberglass) Trombone (Brass) Trombone (Plastic) Trumpet (Brass) Trumpet (Plastic)
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