A saxophone has the color of a brass instrument, but a reed like a woodwind. It has a bell like a tuba or a horn, but the fingerings of a clarinet or a flute. The saxophone seems to be the strangest instrument in the musical world. However, the composition of the instrument is key to both its sound and its role in music, whether it's being played in an orchestra or a jazz solo.
The saxophone takes its name from its creator, Alphonse Sax. Sax was a Belgian instrument maker working in Paris in the 1840s. He wanted to create an instrument that would have the same sort of volume and intensity of sound of a brass instrument, while at the same time having the ability to play a range of notes similar to a woodwind. He accomplished this in the creation of the saxophone, for which he drew on his experiences with the clarinet. Sax's design remains largely unchanged except for a change in the placement of some of the keys.
The most notable feature of the saxophone, and the key to its sound, is that is is literally a brass instrument. The majority of the instrument is made from brass, from the central tube to the bell, and including the various keys and pads that control the notes played. In modern instruments the pins on which the keys rotate are generally made from stainless steel, and the key touches where the musician's fingers touch the instrument are of a decorative material such as mother of pearl (or plastic in less expensive instruments). There have been a few made out of other metals such as copper or bronze, but brass is most common.
The saxophone itself comes in four types, based on the range of notes it plays. These are the sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Likewise, there are a number of different finishes that are used to coat the brass instrument. These coatings help protect the brass from tarnishing and keep it shiny. A clear or colored acrylic lacquer is the most common coating. Silver plating is also commonly used, creating a silver-colored saxophone. Gold has also been used, but it is expensive.
A saxophone needs a reed to be played, and this reed must go in a mouthpiece. The mouthpiece itself can be made of almost any material, though a hardened rubber, plastic or metal is most common. Mouthpieces come in different shapes, and which one is used often depends on whether the saxophonist is playing orchestral or jazz music. Unlike a clarinet's mouthpiece, which is held in the mouth at an angle, saxophone mouthpieces are held almost horizontally.
Despite its construction, the saxophone is not a brass instrument in the musical sense of the term. Brass instruments include trumpets, trombones, tubas, horns and other related instruments. These are all played by blowing against a funnel-shaped mouthpiece, and musicians can vary the sound of the instrument by changing how they blow. Different notes are created by changing the length of brass tubing through which air flows. The saxophone, by contrast, is a woodwind. It has a reed, and the notes are created by opening and closing holes in the chamber of the instrument.