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3 Aspects Of Tone

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3 Aspects Of Tone

The 3 Aspects Of Saxophone Tone

In February 2010, I wrote a blog post where I mentioned an article written by Sue Terry, in which she likens sound to light. Just as light is made up of multiple colours that can be split apart and seen through a prism, so too is a specific tone comprised of multiple frequencies that blend together. Taken in their entirety, these sound frequencies are what are known as the overtone series.¹

When saxophone players talk about tone—oftentimes because they want to improve theirs—they may not be aware that there are actually multiple aspects of it. Over the years I’ve read all kinds of different names for these 3 aspects of tone, but I’ve found that the names that Sue Terry² uses are easy to remember, and work quite well. She uses the terms: main tone, shadow tone, and overtones.

3 Aspects Of Tone, overtones, main tone, shadow tone, boxes, rainbow, blue,

Illustration by: H. Kahlke

The main tone is what we hear the most of. It really forms the core of our saxophone’s sound. The emphasis on this core sound was fashionable for years, and certain players, such as Paul Desmond, had a very solid core sound, with very little of either overtones or shadow tones. To achieve this type of sound, players would use a mouthpiece piece with a closed tip, and a hard reed.

The shadow tone is really just a very plain echo of this core sound. When I was in junior high, my first private teacher had me practice listening to my tone by having me play against a wall. This is the best way to hear your shadow tone. I still use that technique today—some 30 years later—and I still find myself hearing new things sometimes in my tone, that I haven’t heard before.

As Terry³ points out, don’t be surprised if you notice that your shadow tone seems to change in pitch to your main tone. Depending what kind of saxophone you are playing, the direction of the air changes as it follows the curves of the instrument. This can result in the shadow tone being more than a whole tone different than your main tone, depending on what notes you are playing.

The easiest way to hear your overtones, is to stand against a wall and play, just as you would to hear your shadow tone. If you’ve never heard an overtone before in your playing, the easiest one to hear comes from playing low Bb. Stand against the wall and blow a low Bb. Depending on how good your ear is, you should year the F, an octave and a fifth above the low Bb. In the on-line sax community, this note is commonly referred to as F2.

A tone rich in overtones is a more modern sound. David Sanborn is good example of a player who has many overtones in his tone. To achieve this type of sound, players would use a mouthpiece with an open tip, and soft reeds.

This was really the introduction for a multi-part series on saxophone tone, that I’ll be writing over the next little while.

In part 2 we’ll take a look at where these 3 aspects (main tone, shadow tone, overtones) of a saxophone’s sound come from, and how to work towards changing one’s tone.


¹ Performance: The Secret Of A Good Woodwind Sound, by Sue Terry. Published in: School Band And Orchestra, October, 2002.

² A good resource for players is Sue Terry’s, Practice Like The Pros that you can get through Your local brick–and–mortar store may have it too.

³ The Secret Of A Good Sound, by Sue Terry. An article published on Sax On The Web.

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