As part of a general music class for 6th and 7th graders, various instruments are introduced. This lesson exposes students to the various timbres produced by the saxophone using popular, contemporary music.


Students will be able to: 

  1. Define the term “tone color;”
  2. Identify the various types of saxophones visually and based on the sounds produced;
  3. Compare and contrast two different listening examples.
  4. Explain the differences in sound between the various types of saxophones and the science that produces these differences.


General music students; grades 6 and 7. The lesson could be modified and expanded for high school students.

Time Frame

One class period.


CD player/tape cassette recorder; saxophone listening examples listed in “Selected Recordings”; notebook paper; pictures/posters of saxophones; optional soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones to display.


Explain that the saxophone was invented in 1842 by Adolphe Sax. His objective was to find a woodwind instrument that would match the power and volume of the brass instruments for marching band and outdoor use. The saxophone, consequently, has had a slow acceptance in the traditional orchestra, but was quickly used by jazz composers, arrangers, and musicians. Dixieland clarinets could easily convert to the more powerful saxophone with a minimum of different fingerings and some embouchure adjustments. The saxophone has enjoyed this popularity to the present day and the instruments can be heard on numerous recordings and movie soundtracks. President Clinton’s ratings were never much higher than when he played the saxophone on national television.



  1. Introduction: Have instrument posters on display before students enter. Do the same if you are using actual instruments. In my case, I’ll plan on briefly playing each instrument for the students.
  2. Development: Explain that tone color is similar to the color palette of paints used by an artist. Each color can then be “shaded” to make subtle variations.


    Put the following antonyms on the board. The students may think of additional ways to “visualize” tone color.

    harsh - mellow 
    bright - dark 
    with edge - without edge 
    round - thin 
    gritty - clarity

    Explain to the class that one answer is not “right” or “wrong”, but rather an expression of the artist’s mood and conception of the music. An extension of this idea could be to have the students use colored pencils to write their answers, or simply write the color they see.

    Play two examples of each instrument (see “Selected Recordings"). Ask the students to write their answers on notebook paper and share them with the class.

    Explain that each instrument also sounds different because of range, which is determined by the science of acoustics. The shorter the tubing, the higher the pitch; the longer the tubing, the lower the pitch. An extension of this would be to discuss how more subtle differences make an impact on the tone, i.e. choice of mouthpiece, reeds, brand of instrument, etc.

  3. Closure: Ask if anyone has any questions or further discussion about anything that was covered in today’s lesson.


Have the students listen to recordings and circle the instrument they hear. This may be done at the end of a unit on woodwind instruments to add more variety of timbre.

Selected Recordings

Soprano Saxophone


  1. “Gaia"; soprano saxophone solo by Branford Marsalis; recorded by James Taylor (Hourglass, Columbia, 1997); lyrics and music by James Taylor.
  2. “The Wedding Song”; recorded by Kenny G (Breathless, Arista Records, 1992); music by Kenny G.

Alto Saxophone


  1. “Just The Way You Are”; alto saxophone solo by Phil Woods; recorded by Billy Joel (Billy Joel: Greatest Hits, Volume 1 and 2, Columbia, 1985); lyrics and music by Billy Joel.
  2. “One More Night”; alto saxophone solo by Don Myrick, Phoenix Horns, recorded by Phil Collins (Serious Hits...Live, Atlantic, 1990); lyrics and music by Phil Collins.

Tenor Saxophone


  1. “Still Crazy After All Those Years”; tenor saxophone solo by Michael Brecker; recorded by Paul Simon (Paul Simon: Concert In The Park, Warner Bros., 1991); lyrics and music by Paul Simon.
  2. “Born To Run”; tenor saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons; recorded by Bruce Springsteen (Born To Run, Columbia, 1975); lyrics and music by Bruce Springsteen.

Baritone saxophone


  1. “Soul With A Capital ‘S“‘; baritone saxophone solo by Doc Kupka; recorded by Tower of Power (TOP., Sony Music, 1993); lyrics and music by Emiho Castillo and Doc Kupka.
  2. “Too Much”; baritone saxophone solo by Leroi Moore, recorded by The Dave Matthews Band (Crash, RCA, 1996); lyrics and music by Dave Matthews.

Enrichment/Additional Resources


  1. For homework, have the students listen for an example of the saxophone in their CD collection, or on the radio or television. Name the tune or artist. You may add this as a bonus question on the next listening quiz.
  2. Show a video where the saxophone is prominently featured. One of my favorites is Paul Simon: Concert In The Park, Warner Reprise Video, 1991. This video is also an excellent source for introducing Brazilian and African percussion instruments.
  3. Present additional recordings by the sidemen, in which they act as leader or featured performer. It may surprise the students to see that many of these studio musicians are established artists in their own right. A good example of this is Phil Woods, who has had numerous Grammy nominations and is among today’s outstanding jazz artists.

Contributed by

Ed Michaels
Mentor, OH