On this day in 1846, Belgian musician and instrument-maker Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax patented the saxophone. His creation—for its unique tone and distinctiveness of voice–was the first to successfully bridge the gap between woodwind and brass instruments. Music in the 20th century would have been very different if it hadn’t been for Sax’s innovations.
Sax, born in 1814, was the son of a respected maker of brass and wind instruments, and from an early age was encouraged not only to make instruments, but also to experiment with new forms and sounds. As a young man he gained the respect of his peers through a series of innovative improvements to the bass clarinet.
While living and working in Paris in the 1840s, he conceived of an instrument that would be primarily for use in military and marching bands. He wanted it to have the projection of a brass instrument, but with the versatility associated with woodwind. Sax decided to combine the qualities of the clarinet, with those of the ophicleide, an early type of conical brass instrument that sounded well but was cumbersome and difficult to play. After much experimentation, the result was a single reed instrument (without the static mouthpiece of all brass instruments) attached to a conical brass body.
In 1841, Sax demonstrated a prototype of his instrument to the composer Hector Berlioz, who was immediately impressed. He championed the new instrument in an article the following year, encouraging Sax to persevere with the saxophone’s development.
Sax went on to create an entire saxophone family of fourteen separate instruments, each a variation on the basic theme. They ranged in size and key, and fell into two distinct categories, some for orchestral use, the other more suitable for bands. The patent for the new instruments was issued on 28 June 1846.
Sax’s brass and woodwind hybrid would prove an instant success. Bandleaders, particularly in France and Belgium, were swift to integrate the instrument into their ranks, and composers began creating new works to best show off the saxophone’s versatility.
Sax’s patent ran out in 1866, after which time other instrument makers experimented with the form. But despite some technical changes being incorporated, including improvements to the keys and fingering, allowing for more intricate sequences to be played, the instrument has remained largely unchanged since its inception.
Although conceived with military music in mind, in the early 20th century the saxophone found its niche in jazz and blues music. Its sonorous qualities proved particularly suited to jazz, and it has become a vital component of the genre. The instrument’s popularity has continued to grow, and now some of the most recognised names in music are saxophonists, among them John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie “Bird” Parker.