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Pete Hales
Pete Hales

Pete "Saxpics" Hales is the former Moderator of the Sax on the Web Forum, a current columnist for Sax on the Web and is the webmaster and creator of the Vintage Saxophone Gallery website.

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High Pitch vs. Low Pitch

by Peter Hales

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I’m still often asked about high pitch vs. low pitch. This is a bit surprising to me, as other folks and I have waxed prosaic – and at length -- about what these are and why they’re incompatible. So, I decided to try and write out the definitive document on this subject.

What ARE You Talkin’ About?
As a very minimal definition, “high pitch” and “low pitch” are two intonation standards. That is, if you have a low pitch C soprano saxophone, play an A on it and measure it with an oscilloscope, it’ll read (if you’re perfectly in tune), 440 hertz – or 880, depending on the octave that you’re in. This therefore means that all the rest of the notes you play on the horn should be some fraction or multiple of this number – if you’re perfectly in tune.

On a high pitch horn, you’d play an A and you’d get 457 hertz and all the other notes on the horn are a fraction or multiple of this number (1).

Why the Controversy?
When the saxophone was invented in 1843, there wasn’t a standard for pitch (2). While this wasn’t too much of an issue for closed-pipe instruments, it was a bit of a pain for open-pipe instruments: you’d have to get a horn in the proper pitch for the ensemble you were playing with – or, if the pitch variation wasn’t too intense – you’d have to perform extreme embouchure and mouthpiece adjustments.

In 1859 (3), the French proposed a standard of A=435hz. This standard was internationally adopted in 1887 and is the pitch used on many of the A. Sax instruments (4).

“Internationally” everyplace except the US, which had adopted an old French or German standard of A=456/7 hertz (the slight difference is due to how the number’s rounded off).

In any event, in 1896, A=439hz was used as a new standard by the Royal Philharmonic Society in Britain – supposedly derived from a mathematical formula (5).

Essentially because this number was contrived, and A=440hz was easier to estimate, that became the new de facto standard. In 1939, this became a real standard.

Yeah, Great. So What?
What this all essentially means is that high pitch and low pitch horns do not play in tune with each other. Now, there is a concert standard of A=442hz – and that standard has been implemented on all Buffet professional saxophones since the S1 – but the difference between A=440hz and A=442hz is virtually indistinguishable. When you play the two together, it essentially sounds like you’re playing a bit of vibrato (6).

Now, 440hz compared to 457hz is almost a quarter step difference and that’s virtually impossible to compensate for on an instrument that’s got tone holes – and the conical bore also makes life more difficult, because the taper increases as the notes get lower.

Why? You have to make everything PROPORTIONALLY smaller to make it play in tune as high pitch on a saxophone.

In a somewhat simplified manner, what’s the difference between a low pitch Buescher True Tone and a low pitch Conn New Wonder? The Conn has a larger bore and is also a bit shorter, overall. The tone holes are also somewhat different sized and placed. This trade-off between larger bore, smaller overall size and tone hole placement means you can still play the horn (virtually) as well in tune as the Buescher with the same mouthpiece.

Another way of putting it would be, “You can’t rip the low Bb key rod off a 1925 Conn New Wonder and slap it on a 1925 Buescher True Tone and expect it to fit properly.”

Here’s a more complex example:
Say you’ve got a low pitch alto sax. Let’s say the distance between the tip of the neck and the middle of the A tone hole is 1.5”. Let’s also say that the distance between the tip of the neck and the middle of the G# tone hole is 1.75”.

Pretty good so far.

Say you’ve got a high pitch alto sax. Let’s say the distance between the tip of the neck and the middle of the A tone hole is 1.4”. Let’s also say that the distance between the tip of the neck and the middle of the G# tone hole is 1.65”.

Hmmm. The numbers are off a bit, aren’t they? Just like in real life.

Now, if you had a closed-pipe, cylindrical-bore instrument, like a bugle (i.e. a valve-less trumpet), and you wanted to switch from high pitch to low pitch, you’d just add a bit of tubing and all would be well.

Some folks have put forth the idea that you can do the same with a saxophone – that is, for example, slap a longer neck on a high pitch horn and, presto, you’ve got a low pitch horn. They then say, “Gee. I have to use ‘false fingerings’ and chromatic fingerings to get some notes to play in tune. Some notes I really have to change my embouchure to make the note sound in tune, too. Also, I’ve only got one mouthpiece that seems to work right.”

Back to the “distance” example.

When you finger an “A” on an alto saxophone, where does the sound come out? The correct answer is the G# vent and some of the tone holes around it. This is why most of the better saxophone microphones have two “heads”: one positioned about the middle of the horn’s body and one pointed at the horn’s bell (7).

Where does the sound come out on a bugle? The bell.

Say, for instance, you play an A on your sax and you’re flat. One thing you can try to do is press the G# key (i.e. try to open more tone holes). It might help. Sharp? Try pressing the F key (i.e. close some tone holes). Some people even put cork around tone holes to make notes that are persistently out off tune play in tune.

Anyhow, this is a very long way of saying: a longer neck on a high pitch horn doesn’t make it a low pitch horn. You may be able to play closer in tune, but you’ll never be exactly in tune without a lot of work.

A variation of this argument is, “If I use a very small bore, short shank mouthpiece and push it all the way in on my high pitch Eb alto, I can make it play in tune as an E alto. I have to use ‘false fingerings’ and chromatic fingerings to get some notes to play in tune. Some notes I really have to change my embouchure to make the note sound in tune, too.”

So, What’s a High Pitch Horn Good For?

In my opinion, I think high pitch instruments sound a bit sweeter, and that’s especially nice for the soprano and for the lower instruments, like the baritone.

If all you’re going to do is play solos with percussion accompaniment, you certainly can play without any problems whatsoever.

Groups are a problem.

You can tune stringed instruments – even a piano – to high pitch. There are some rumblings I’ve read that indicate this shortens the life of the strings and the instrument itself (the thinking is high pitch = higher tension). This broadens the accompaniment selection a little. Also, as mentioned, cylindrical bore instruments can have bits of tubing taken away to make them play in tune as high pitch – but these are generally very high end, fairly expensive brasswinds.

Some synthesizers and samplers can also be set to near high pitch, however A=457hz is a little too high for some.

Bottom line is that if you own a high pitch horn, you can’t just go down to your local high school band and play in tune with them.

Additionally, I, myself, wouldn’t want a new student to learn on a high pitch instrument for a variety of reasons – one of them being that it’s impossible for him to match the intonation of the saxophonist sitting next to him!

Again note that high pitch officially went out of favor in 1939. This means that there are still an awful lot of high pitch horns from the “golden age of the saxophone”, the 1920’s. You might find a beautiful Conn Virtuoso Deluxe finished horn that’s high pitch: triple gold plate, beautiful engraving, additional pearl keywork, etc. It’d be a shame to throw a work of art like this away. Yes, it has very low potential as a gig horn, but you might want to impress folks by playing a solo or two on it.

Final Comments ....

There is really only ONE early 20th century manufacturer that you never have to worry about: H.N. White, the manufacturer of the King instruments. They never manufactured high pitch instruments – although their EARLY 1900’s stencils from Kohlert may be high pitch.

Most manufacturers stamped their high pitch horns, generally on the bell or near the serial number, “High Pitch”, “HP” or “H”. Low pitch horns were stamped “Low Pitch”, “LP”, “L”, “880” or “440”. However, this was far from a universal standard and use wasn't started until probably 1896. If you’re interested in buying an earlier horn, beware (the only European manufacturer I know of to relatively consistently use these stamps was Evette & Schaeffer, Buffet-Crampon S.A.).

The vast majority of American-made stencil horns (8) are low pitch. Not all, but the majority.

In the years between 1887 and WWII (or so), quite a few European manufacturers liked to produce horns with a keyed range from low B to altissimo E, as their “introductory line”. These horns were based on the expired A. Sax patent and many are high pitch horns.

End notes:

(1)               http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae165.cfm

(2)               http://www.mozartpiano.com/pitch.html

(3)               http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/jswain/brass/pitchstan.htm

(4)               http://www.navyband.navy.mil/sq_temp1.htm

(5)               http://www.wam.hr/Arhiva/US/Cavanagh_440Hz.pdf

(6)               http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/sound/pitch.html#c1

(7)               http://www.sdsystems.com/mic80.htm

(8)               http://www.saxontheweb.net/Resources/Stencils.html


Created: July 22, 2005
Update: July 25, 2005.
© 2005, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors