The saxophone family is a surprisingly large one when you take into account every member, no matter how common. Made up of 14 different types (only 9 of which can be reliably found in playing condition now), there are 2 particular saxophones in the family that have risen above the rest in popularity: the alto and tenor saxophones.
When you look up the most popular and influential saxophonists, most of them are either alto sax players or tenor sax players. But a question that I have heard often from students over the past few years is, “Which is better? The alto or tenor?”, and I usually just tell them that it just depends on your personal taste. However, during a sleepless, hot, California night, the question wouldn’t leave my head and I just had to delve a little bit deeper and see if there was any credence to the question.
First, let’s start off with a quick analysis of how each of the horns are similar and different.
Both instruments have to do some transposing in order to play in the right key with other concert pitch based instruments. This just means that instead of being able to play or read a note as C and have it sound like a C, a saxophonist has to play or read different notes from what an instrument in concert pitch would play or read.
While both instruments have to transpose, they both have to transpose different intervals. In my opinion, the tenor sax's job is slightly easier as the transposition is up a 9th, meaning the note you finger on the tenor sax is up a whole step from the concert pitch music you are reading. This is different from alto, which requires you to go up a major 6th (from Concert C to Eb).
The easiest difference between the two saxes is their size. The alto is noticeably smaller than the tenor. The tenor’s neck has a trademark question mark-like look to it, while the alto has a more right angle appearance to it. Because of their size difference, the alto is lighter, requires less air, and has a brighter, punchier tone. In contrast, the tenor is heavier, takes more air, and has a generally mellower, fuller tone. In the hands of an expert, the tenor can be just as punchy as the alto, and vice-versa; in the hands of a beginner, however, the alto is definitely the easiest to handle. This is due to its keywork being closer together, and the lessened importance of good air support.
While the alto and tenor saxophone both use the same note fingerings (apart from some of the altissimo notes), because of their difference in size, they actually have very different ranges. The alto can play from Db3 on the bottom, up to to concert Ab5. In contrast, the tenor can go lower, all the way down to Ab2, up to E5. This adds up to an interval difference of a perfect 5th between the two. However, if played by an expert, both saxes can go as high as each particular player wants, effectively making both of their top ranges almost unlimited.
Check out this great video playing the two instruments side by side for a real time comparison of sounds!
Because the alto and tenor saxophones are so similar, they have practically identical essential saxophone accessories. When purchasing the necessary additions that both instruments need, neckstrap, reeds, and mouthpiece, the only thing you need to pay attention to is purchasing the correctly sized accessories for your instrument. You don't want accessories for an alto when you play tenor! These items serve the same function across the board, however their sizes differ depending which sax you choose. When looking to purchase other vital items such as cleaning cloths, tuners and metronomes, you won’t have to worry about them working for one or the other as these items work for all saxophones in the family.
Which Is The Better Instrument?
So do we have enough info here to decide which is the better instrument? Well, not really. Each sax has it’s own strengths and weaknesses if we are just looking at them from a purely technical perspective.
The alto saxophone is smaller, lighter, is relatively easy to get in tune, and takes less air to play; thus making it an ideal saxophone for beginning students. Because of the small size, however, the alto can very easily sound very bright and edgy which many people can find to be polarizing; some people love it and others despise it.
In comparison, the tenor saxophone is bigger, heavier, and takes a bit more air to play. These things add up to make the tenor a bit better for either larger/older musicians to play or for students who don’t mind having to work a little bit harder to make notes sound. This instrument also has a flip side however, as it is generally the more versatile instrument and can fit in with every setting it is put into with the properly trained musician.
There are too many similarities between the alto and tenor saxes to really consider one or the other to be superior. However, depending on your personal needs or sound preferences, it is possible to find one that works a bit better for you specifically. If you are new to the saxophone or music in general, then the alto saxophone would most likely be the easiest to pick up. Check out our awesome article on choosing the best alto saxophone for you. If you are more experienced or want a sax that has a warmer, generally more mellow sound, then you should go for the tenor saxophone. At the end of the day, they both can make beautiful music!