Saxophone vs Trumpet: Guide to differences and similarities

Saxophone vs Trumpet – What’s the difference and similarity? (Explained)

Written by Greger Hillman, Saxophone teacher and music educator

The Saxophone and Trumpet are two very different instruments. While the saxophone is a woodwind instrument with keys and keypads, the trumpet is a brass instrument with just three valves.

Still, these two instruments are often combined when writing arrangements as their sounds are complementing each other.

For example, I've played in many bands where my Alto Sax and Tenor Sax has been part of a horn section with trumpets and trombones.

That combination of just three horns, 1 Saxophone, 1 Trumpet and 1 Trombone can build a really solid sound on top of pop, funk, jazz and rock tunes.

In my experience, combining a trumpet with an Alto Saxophone adds a bit more depth to the overall sound while still getting that crisp “trumpet sound” in the upper register.

Find out more about other similar instruments to Saxophone here.

The Saxophone – explained

The key concept of playing the saxophone is that you place the mouthpiece between your lips, partially into your mouth. On the mouthpiece there needs to be a saxophone reed (piece of cane) which is the source of the saxophone sound.

It works like this:

  • Placing the mouthpiece with the reed into your mouth with a good embouchure position is part of the basics of getting a good sax sound.
  • When you blow air into the mouthpiece it cause the reed to vibrate which produce the sax sound.
  • You change notes on the saxophone by pressing down on the sax keys in different combinations. This is also referred to as Saxophone Fingerings. Simply by learning these fingering combinations unlocks the possibility to play many different songs.

The Saxophone comes in four main sizes. The Soprano, the Alto, The Tenor and the Baritone Saxophone.

  • There are two E-flat saxophones – The Alto sax and the Baritone Saxophone
  • There are two B-flat saxophones – The Soprano and the Tenor Saxophone

The E♭ saxophone can be transposed to natural key by going a sixth above the note in natural key.

An example:

If the Piano plays a C note you would have to go 6 whole steps up to the A note on your E-flat Alto or Baritone sax in order to sound the same. Playing the same natural note.

So, the relation between the Piano (natural key) and the E-flat saxophone is a major 6th. However, transposing like that on the fly is really hard and there's actually a trick that makes it a lot easier.

A major 6th up is equivalent to a minor third down. Keeping the same example that means you can transpose the Piano melody sheet music a minor third down and sound in tune with the piano. Pretty cool, right?!

The B-flat saxophone can be transposed to natural key by going a whole step above the note in natural key.

An example:

If the Piano plays a C note you have to transpose the note a whole step up on tenor and soprano sax in order to play the same natural note. In comparison to the E-flat instrument, it's easier to transpose the tenor and soprano as it only involves moving a whole step up.

However, when doing so, you need to be aware of the key change that happens when you do that. Continuing on the example with the Piano and B-flat saxophones:

When you play a song on the piano in C major key it translates to D major on soprano and Tenor saxophones. That means you have to add two sharps (F-sharp and C-sharp) while transposing the piano sheet music into Saxophone notes on soprano and tenor.

The Trumpet – explained

The key concept of playing the trumpet is that you place the mouthpiece outside your mouth onto your lips. As the trumpet only use three valves you need to make adjustments to your lips on the trumpet mouthpiece in order to alter the notes.

It works like this:

  • Placing the brass mouthpiece onto your lips with your mouth closed and lips together is the starting point for the trumpet
  • Making a buzzing sound with your lips, onto the trumpet mouthpiece, will create the trumpet sound. Just as with the Saxophone, you need to use the proper position of the mouthpiece and embouchure in order to get a solid sound from the trumpet.
  • Changing notes on the trumpet is done by a combination of pressing down the first, second and third valves in different combinations while, at the same time, making adjustments to the embouchure on the mouthpiece by changing the angle of the air flow going into the mouthpiece.

The Trumpet is a B-flat instrument. That means that a trumpet player can reed the same sheet music as a soprano- and tenor sax player as those instruments are B-flat instruments as well.

Transposing the B-flat instrument (Trumpet, Tenorsax or Soprano sax) to fit with the piano is really simple. Playing a C note on the piano translates the note a whole step above on trumpet which is the D note.

This works throughout the entire register on trumpet and piano which means that you can be reading piano note melodies and transpose every note a whole step up to sound in tune with the piano.

Saxophone accessories

There's plenty of accessories that go together with the saxophone. You've got neck straps, sax reeds, the mouthpiece, ligature (that holds the reed in place), stands, saxophone cases, Neck straps and Palm key Risers just to mention a few.

Saxophone Reeds

The most important accessory to the saxophone is without a doubt the reed. Without the reed you'll not get any sound. And you don't just need any reed. It has to fit the type of saxophone you are playing as well as you overall embouchure.

  • If the reed is to hard you will struggle to produce a sound through the mouthpiece
  • If the reed is to soft you'll have issues with a squeaky sound on your saxophone

There are no shortcuts when it comes to reeds. You NEED a good reed as well as a good embouchure and technique to develop a solid sax sound. The best beginner reed for saxophone is using a 2 or a 2,5 strength reed, depending on the size of your mouth and how you are positioning the mouthpiece in your mouth.

Saxophone Mouthpiece

The mouthpiece goes on the neck of the saxophone and that's also where you attach the reed. There are plastic, rubber and metal mouthpieces which help shape the sound in different ways.

Generally you will get a softer sound playing a plastic or rubber mouthpiece compared to a metal mouthpiece. However, that's an simplification of the importance of choosing the right mouthpiece for your saxophone.

There's more to it than simply picking a mouthpiece and in my experience I've found that both the embouchure and how you play the mouthpiece greatly affects the overall sax sound.

I personally play a metal mouthpiece on my tenor sax and a rubber mouthpiece on my alto and soprano saxophones. However, there's more brands and variations of mouthpieces for saxophones than shoes in a shoe store so I will leave this at that.

If you are a sax beginner I do recommend that you stick with a rubber mouthpiece (Yamaha 5C or similar) as it's easy to play as a beginner.

Sax Ligatures

A ligature (weird name, I know) is what holds the reeds in place on the mouthpiece. You can look at it as the clamp that locks the reed in it's place on the flat surface underneath the mouthpiece.

The ligature both holds the reed in the right position and help close the seal between the reed and the mouthpiece. This is crucial in order to get a good sound from your saxophone.

There are several ligature models which are custom made for the type of mouthpiece you are using. A metal mouthpiece use a smaller and more narrow ligature while the rubber and plastic mouthpieces have wider ligatures.

This is all related to the shape of the mouthpiece and you will also see that most ligatures has a frontend and a backend. That's most noticeable on rubber mouthpieces as they have more of a cone shape, compared to the straight shape of the metal mouthpiece.

Saxophone stands

A saxophone stand is used to hold a saxophone securely when it is not being played. It's really useful to have and I always bring one to both practice sessions and gigs. That way I know that the sax is secured when I'm not playing it.

The stand allows the sax to be placed upright, like when you play it, but in sort of a hook that goes around the bell of the saxophone. That hook keeps the saxophone upright while the bottom body part rests on a rubber protected and Y-shaped plate, making it impossible for the sax to fall over.

There are several types of sax stands but they feature thick padding to protect the instrument and some have adjustable heights to accommodate different sizes of saxophones from soprano to tenor saxophones. The Baritone sax, which is the largest in the saxophone family, has it's own type of stand as it requires to be able to hold more weight than the smaller saxophones.

Most sax stands are collapsible or foldable for easy transport. However, they do not fit inside the saxophone case along with the sax. Some Saxophone Cases has an extra compartment on the outside where you can fit the stand. However, if you are using a slimmed flight case with your saxophone there's no room and you'll just have to carry it.

Trumpet Accessories

There are three main accessories for the trumpet that you want to keep at hand, both while practicing and playing gigs on the trumpet. That's the Trumpet mute, valve oil and a stand.

Trumpet mutes

A trumpet mute is a device for trumpet players that can be used to alter the sound produced by the instrument.

It is a small, detachable accessory that can be inserted into the bell of the trumpet. The primary function of a mute is to modify the timbre and volume of the sound, allowing musicians to achieve distinct tonal effects and create diverse musical expressions.

You can find trumpet mutes being used in many genres of music. The muffled sound and high pitched super thin sound are two of the variations you can achive with a trumpet mute.

You can also use it as an effect to give the music more color and emotions. In big band music the trumpet mute is often used as a contrast to the free solid trumpet sound in arrangements to create that contrast which makes the music more interesting to listen to.

Trumpet mutes are made from various materials such as metal, rubber, wood, or plastic. Each material offers different characteristics that contribute to the specific tonal qualities produced when using a particular mute.

For instance, metal mutes tend to produce brighter sounds with more focused projection compared to rubber or wood mutes. The design of a trumpet mute typically consists of a cone-shaped or cup-like structure that fits snugly into the bell.

Depending on its form and construction, each type of mute offers distinct sound variations. Mutes can either partially or completely obstruct airflow through the instrument's bell, which alters resonance and modifies certain harmonics in the resulting sound.

Trumpet mutes have been used for centuries in various genres of music including classical, jazz, and contemporary styles. They have become an integral part of many compositions and are often employed for both expressive and practical purposes.

Furthermore, their ability to transform ordinary trumpet sounds into unique tonalities has made them popular among composers who seek unconventional sonic textures in their works. A trumpet mute is an accessory used by brass instrumentalists like trumpeters to modify the sound produced by their instruments.

Trumpet valve oil

Here is a paragraph about trumpet valve oil:

Trumpet valve oil is a lightweight lubricant that you apply to the valves of a trumpet. There are 3 valves on the trumpet which the player presses down to change notes along with changing the embouchure on the mouthpiece.

Valve oil is used to lubricate the valves so they can move smoothly and freely when pressed by the trumpet player. A small amount of valve oil is applied directly to the valves by putting a drop or two on the top of each valve casing.

The oil spreads evenly when the valves are pressed up and down. This lubrication prevents the valves from sticking when they are operated and this is essential for trumpet players to use in order to keep their instrument functioning properly.

Sticky or sluggish valves from lack of lubrication can cause playing difficulties, inaccurate notes, and unwanted sounds. A thin coat of valve oil allows effortless valve action so trumpeters can play notes accurately and with good technique.

Regular oiling is necessary, often before each playing session, to prevent valves from drying out or collecting debris over time. Keeping valves well-oiled with a high quality valve oil is one of the basic maintenance items for all trumpet players.

Trumpet stand

A trumpet stand is used to hold a trumpet upright when it is not being played. It provides a secure base for the instrument to rest by putting it down onto the stand with the bell first.

Trumpet stands come in a variety of designs but most feature three or four legs with a cradle or hooks on top to hold the trumpet. They are commonly made of plastic and are easily stored in the trumpet bell directly in the case, which makes it easy to bring along to both practice sessions or performances.

Saxophone and trumpets are different and similar

The major differences between a Saxophone and Trumpet are quite obvious. Looking at the instruments you'll see that while both are made of brass, the saxophone has keys and uses a reed on the mouthpiece while the Trumpet only has three valves and a circular mouthpiece.

The saxophone is played with the mouthpiece and reed inside your mouth while the trumpet mouthpiece is positioned onto your lips on the outside of your mouth.

Even though the saxophone is made out of brass it's still a woodwind instrument as it uses a cane reed. The trumpet is on the other hand a brass instrument which also relates to the mouthpiece that doesn't use any reed.

However, looking beyond those obvious differences there are some similarities as well.

  • The Trumpet, Soprano Sax and Tenor Saxophone are all B-flat instruments
  • It's popular to combine the Trumpet and Tenor Saxophone (playing one octave up) to blend the two instruments into a solid section sound.
  • It's easy to share sheet music between a Trumpet and Tenor Sax player as the can read the same music. However, the Tenor Sax sounds one octave lover so to compensate for that the Tenor player needs to transpose the notes a whole octave in order to get play in the same natural key octave.

Next: Learn about similar instruments to Saxophone.

Saxophone teacher online Greger Hillman

Written by Greger Hillman

Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher with +36 years of experience playing saxophone. 

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