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Saxophones Tenor vs Alto

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One of the most frequent discussions that ensues when new people come to this café, is whether it's better for them to play tenor or alto or which is preferred or which is easier to play. I say "ensues", because it often just comes up when someone pops in, or when they're "asking for a friend".

I'm here to settle the tenor vs alto discussion right now!

That was an incendiary joke, I actually just want to bring up something I don't think has been mentioned before in these numerous friendly talks.

Nature.

Some like to go to physics for answers. I want to bring nature into this controversy. But first, physics: yes, the tenor is heavier and longer. I am not the only person who bought a soprano because they're light and easier to carry. But these are obvious physical facts. Nature probably takes some of its cues from physics, anyway.

Which runs faster, an elephant or a cheetah? The cheetah runs up to 100 km/h, although I wouldn't recommend following one for an hour. The African Bush Elephant can get up to 40km/h. The physics of weight and musculature of the two animals is physics, right?

I believe one place where physics and nature meet is in music. We know this from studying overtones. We also can observe this in the progression of consonance and dissonance. Once the tritone was called the devil's interval. Then it became a major force in the blues (and jazz and rock). It has been observed that what we consider consonant has gone from the low end to the high end of the overtone series.

So what does this have to do with cheetahs and elephants?

Think of the Road Runner cartoons, or any children's animal populated cartoons. The music is usually very good orchestral music, composed to accompany the action. The wah wah wah trombones, the xylophone glissando of a fall down the stairs, and the tuba or contrabass illustrating the slow and cumbersome giant. These go with our natural feeling for these things.

Getting to the point, while you can play fast notes on any saxophone, they sound more at home on a soprano than on a bass. By extension, they sound more natural on an alto than on a baritone. Of course there are contexts where this isn't true, but by and large, if you think about Bird's playing, how it was almost always lightning fast, it sounded like... a bird in flight. Personally, I don't think this would have flown on a tenor. (Ducking the tomatoes)

So in short, it isn't only the timbre and frequency of the sound of tenor or alto, but also the density of attacks in a given piece that gives its character. If you stretch the idea to soprano, you very often hear really fast passages on it that are angular, dissonant, "outside". Steve Neff has a video about this and listening to it, I feel like you can play almost anything fast on a soprano and make it sound natural. I know at least one modern tenor virtuosos who plays like this and it doesn't sound natural to me. While this is completely subjective, I'm also someone who loves Coltrane's wildest sheets of sound, but he didn't play them in everything.

Getting back to the summation, there is a different feel between the alto and the tenor. It's not just the sound, which in certain ranges is actually hard to identify, or just the range. They are fingered the same, and others have pointed out that modern instruments are very similar in feel, other than weight and length. I feel there are almost different natural roles for the instruments. That doesn't mean anyone should or should not play either a certain way. It doesn't mean that someone like Leo P can't play crazy good, fast stuff on a bass sax, either. But Leo P is the exception that proves the rule, it's what he's most known for at the moment.

I look forward to this theory of nature being gently torn apart by the saxophone experts of whom I am not one. I do believe the common wisdom is correct in saying to choose the one whose voice suits your own inner voice.
 
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Alexandra

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Really interesting read. I'm by no means a seasoned sax player but my ears agree with you.

As a beginner it's easy to factor in who you want to sound like but impossible to know how you will end up developing and expressing your sound. Or the constraints one's own body may have on that tonal outcome. So we trust our ears, or are swayed by those lovely Blue Note covers! <Ahem>

I do find the individual approach and voicing to each instrument interesting; by that I mean the players ability to bend the instrument to their will, often outside the normal boundaries of what is expected of it, and pull it off! The ability to 'voice' a tenor like an alto ala Coltrane, or bring the depth and tone of a tenor sound on alto. This was a light bulb moment for me because it's the basis for the sound I want to achieve on alto and tenor; that mirroring.

Gary Bartz (1.10) talks about this here:

Gary Bartz - Developing a Personal Sound in Jazz

On a side note, I must ask "who?" ;)
I know at least one modern tenor virtuosos who plays like this and it doesn't sound natural to me.
I can think of a couple!

Alex
 
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On a side note, I must ask "who?" ;)
I can think of a couple!
I'd rather not say, but the whole "shredding" thing is old hat to me, being a guitarist. I'd rather find the right notes, than play too many. Speed is good as a tool for certain short passages, though.

I think you've said some additional good points, and not just because you agree with me :). There are many reasons to want to play an instrument. Some people take it up lightly as a pass time, and that's great. Others may want to pursue a career. One of mine is that I'd like to get it to be an extension of me. I do find myself wanting to get a "Trane sound" on the low end when that's what my ear hears, or a "Texas honk". The second is the hardest!
 
Alexandra

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One of mine is that I'd like to get it to be an extension of me

Very well put. It's a difficult one to express to non-muscicians! Descriptions can come of sounding pretentious and/or people look at me like I'm mad..."the saxophone is my means of expression, it's an extension of my voice!!!". Cue raised eyebrow.
 
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That's a great short video from Gary Bartz, lots of quotable things there.
 
GCinCT

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This is an interesting thread and it should spark some lively discussion.

I chose alto because I tend to hear things in that range and it is my voice. I am just starting to reach the point where the horn feels like an extension of me. I have a long way to go, but I think I've taken the first step on that never ending path.

As to speed, from a personal standpoint, I can get around the alto much faster than I can on tenor. In this case because nature gave me small hands. I also play alto far more than tenor so familiarity is another factor. I can play faster on soprano than tenor though and I have spent about equal time on both.

I've never wanted to sound like on tenor on alto. I don't find that to be a compliment. Yes, I want a big sound, but if I want a tenor sound, I'll pick up my tenor.
 
Alexandra

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Obviously a tenor and alto will fundamentally sound like themselves, but I love to add a richness and 'tenor timbre' to my alto sound and (in future) a pure, more 'singing' tone to my tenor sound.

Of course, one instrument cannot supplant the other. A simplified description would be a dark, warm alto tone and a lighter, more centred tenor tone, but obviously it's more complex than that!
 
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Yes, when I say sound like a tenor (or did I? Gary Bartz did in the video!), I mean evoke the richness of that tone. It's possible to get such a rich alto tone up to about D# (F# concert). After that, I guess the laws of physics give it away with the timbre. Bartz said something like he liked when a tenor tried to sound like and alto and an alto tries to sound like a tenor, or maybe he said "played like"?

By the way, does anyone have examples of one sounding like the other?
 
GCinCT

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Yes, when I say sound like a tenor (or did I? Gary Bartz did in the video!), I mean evoke the richness of that tone. It's possible to get such a rich alto tone up to about D# (F# concert). After that, I guess the laws of physics give it away with the timbre. Bartz said something like he liked when a tenor tried to sound like and alto and an alto tries to sound like a tenor, or maybe he said "played like"?

By the way, does anyone have examples of one sounding like the other?
I know exactly what you mean. As a dedicated alto player, I sometimes overreact to these things because there are a fair number of people out there who consider the tenor a superior instrument. I've even seen people refer to a switch from alto to tenor as an "upgrade". All the saxophones are beautiful instruments.

As to the two in question sounding like each other, many have commented that while listening to Miles Davis' great sextet, in terms of timbre, it is sometimes difficult to tell when Cannonball is playing and when it's Trane.
 
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s.mundi

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I recently purchased a new alto for my nephew and it was the first time that I've been able to try an alto. I didn't want to inundate it with old man saliva, so I only gave it a five-minute test.
Compared to a tenor, the alto felt tiny. I can't comment on the playability, because it was five-minutes of horrible sounds.

A good analogy is similar to a good glass of wine and I loved your analogy.

When I added the soprano to my gig, it was for a little variety. I realized that soprano accommodated some of the faster songs better. In my mind, it has always been due to my lack of ability.

After reading your post, I feel better. It validates my reasons for playing a particular song on a specific horn. Thanks for the cool post.
 
nigeld

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By the way, does anyone have examples of one sounding like the other?

There are some recordings of Johnny Hodges (alto) and Ben Webster (tenor) where I find it difficult to tell which is which. There is a recent Café thread about a recording by Hodges that has been attributed to Webster.
 
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As a relative newcomer, I often have to listen for a long time to decide which I'm hearing, while I think even the lowest note on soprano would be obvious to me as is the higher (not altissimo) range of bari. Bari and soprano both have a very specific timbre profile.

If you've watched the Gary Bartz video, he says some surprising things about this topic.
 
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Jeanette

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I know exactly what you mean. As a dedicated alto player, I sometimes overreact to these things because there are a fair number of people out there who consider the tenor a superior instrument. I've even seen people refer to a switch from alto to tenor as an "upgrade". All the saxophones are beautiful instruments.
You'll get on well with one of our esteemed members, who shall remain nameless, who refers to tenor players as failed altoists.. .... All in jest :)

Jx
 
Jeanette

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I do believe the common wisdom is correct in saying to choose the one whose voice suits your own inner voice.
That's not something I've seen often more often I've seen people advised to choose the one you prefer the sound of. I take your comment to mean the one you can produce a better sound on. Interestingly I've wondered recently if from this perspective I've chosen the right one. :)

Jx
 
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choose the one you prefer the sound of. I take your comment to mean the one you can produce a one. :)
I think that's a similar thing and I don't think you chose wrong, unless you did so constrained by some "outside" factor such as physical, price, etc.

It seems to me if it sounds better, it's closer to your inner voice, but maybe some of us haven't "heard" that voice :)
 
jbtsax

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I asked my private teacher who plays soprano, alto, tenor, and clarinet at a professional level which sax he liked to play the most. He said, "I like to play all of them, but the alto is my voice".
Upon introspection I concluded the alto is my "voice" as well. I enjoy playing tenor on some types of tunes but I feel like a "visitor" on that instrument. When I am playing alto I feel that I'm at "home".

For me the biggest difference between the two is the voicing or feeling inside the oral cavity. Each one is unique to play and sound the best. After playing alto exclusively for over 16 years I found the transition to tenor took a lot of practice and required changing my concept of tone production.

I don't believe that on instruments with good ergonomics one size enables the player to play faster than the other. There are far too many examples that prove this isn't true.
 
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I don't believe that on instruments with good ergonomics one size enables the player to play faster than the other. There are far too many examples that prove this isn't true.
I agree with you on that. But my take is that some things are more natural on the smaller instruments. But that's my take, not a universal law. :)
 
Halfers

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In my dream World, where I could play this bloody instrument, I'd record a solo starting on bari, going up through tenor, alto and soprano, just to confuse the horn players..
 
Targa

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Which runs faster, an elephant or a cheetah? The cheetah runs up to 100 km/h, although I wouldn't recommend following one for an hour. The African Bush Elephant can get up to 40km/h. The physics of weight and musculature of the two animals is physics, right?
The cheetah only achieves that speed for a few seconds, following one for an hour would be a lot of sitting down and walking.
The elephant at top speed still has one foot on the ground so doesn't run but walks faster.
Tenor or alto, I play either according to mood.
 

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