One Reason Accidentals Confuse Sax Players (and other woodwind players)
An accidental is a word for note pitches which have been either sharpened or flattened, usually by a semitone. When we arrive at these altered notes we have to do a quick transposition in our heads from the natural or normal note to the altered or accidental note. This takes double the amount of time than reading a normal note.
However, this is not quite what I want to discuss today. Rather, I would like to discuss the mechanics of the Saxophone as this can lead to confusion, because we either don’t understand the mechanics of the Saxophone or we have forgotten its effects on the sound we play.
There are two types of keys on a Saxophone. Keys which cover a hole - lowering the pitch, and keys which open a hole - raising the pitch. Problems arise when we don’t know which keys do which, especially when it comes to accidentals. Most keys used to play accidentals on the Saxophone open holes and raise the pitch of the initial note. In other words, most notes on the Saxophone are in fact sharpened rather than flattened. This leads to a lot of confusion when playing flattened notes.
When we play a G sharp on the Saxophone we cover the three top keys to play G as the picture below.
We then cover the G sharp key with our little finger as the photo below:
This raises the G sound to a G sharp sound. The enharmonic equivalent to a G sharp is an A flat – but on the Saxophone it is played in exactly the same way as a G sharp. We play a G and then use the G sharp key to raise the pitch.
The brain works logically. When we see a “G sharp” we think “G something” and our fingers move to G, while we rack our brains to think of the extra key we need to press to raise the semitone. However, when we see “A flat” we think “A – something” we move our fingers to A and try to rack our brains to add the extra key and end up playing… you’ve guessed it an “A Sharp”.
There is no way mentally to get to “A flat”. But when we understand that most accidentals on the Saxophone are sharps we know to flip the A flat to a G sharp before we play it. That means flats are going to take triple the time to get to. We think “A flat – G sharp – G something – find the extra key”. It’s only one extra step, but understanding the reason why means less confusion.
There is also something else to conclude from this. Sax players need a good knowledge of enharmonic equivalents. If you are still getting confused by these the best place to turn for answers is the keyboard. The illustration below shows the enharmonic equivalents for the black keys so you can understand what to flip an A flat to, or what to flip a B flat to.
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