June 28 – A Lot Of Brass

Today’s Factismal: Even though the saxophone is made out of brass, it is classified as a woodwind.

If you are an average person, then you probably don’t think much about musical instruments. The piano, the harp, the guitar – for most of us, they’ve always been there. But musicians know better. Every musical instrument had to be invented at some time by some person. The invention could happen when someone tries to duplicate an existing instrument electronically, as Moog did with the synthesizer. It could happen when someone notices an unusual sound being produced by something with another use, as happened with Theremin’s eponymous invention. Or it could happen when someone tries to combine the best parts of two different instruments, as Sax did with the saxophone.

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments) (Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments)
(Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Sax was a musician living in Paris, who made a living by building musical instruments. His specialty was woodwinds and brass instruments and he had achieved a minor level of fame for some improvements he made to the bass clarinet. But Sax had noticed that there was a problem with most woodwinds: either they had a wide range but were quiet or they had a limited range but were loud. He decided to fix this by taking the mouthpiece of a clarinet (the most versatile of the woodwinds) and marrying it to the larger horn of an oboe (the loudest of the woodwinds). He tinkered with the design for a bit, including making them straight or curved depending on the register, until he found the right combination and revealed it to the world as the Saxophone.

Originally, he made saxophones out of wood. But as anyone who has priced a Stradivarius can attest, working with wood can be very expensive. Fortunately for Sax, a new process for stamping forms out of metal using the hydraulic press had just been invented. By adapting his design to a metal form, Sax was able to bring down the price of his new instrument which made it popular and him rich. Unfortunately, he also made a lot of enemies who attacked his patents and twice drove him into bankruptcy. Nevertheless, his instrument lives on as one of the most popular ways to make music ever invented.

If you’d like to see if you have what it takes to be a musician, then why not take the Perfect Pitch Test? These scientists are trying to determine why some people (like Florence Henderson) have the ability to determine any note by ear and other people (like me) couldn’t carry a tune if it were in a bucket.

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