Saxophone in Orchestral Music Compositions - Forbidden?

While saxophones are the “spotlight” in many jazz and big band compositions, they are basically a “no-go zone” in orchestral and cinematic music. It’s almost like it is forbidden, why is that?

And more importantly, have you personally managed to incorporate saxophones in orchestral/cinematic music? If you have, please share your tips and thoughts, and perhaps a SoundCloud example of the final result? :slight_smile:


Had a whole week of explaination regarding this on university. Here’s the wh, but there are lots of orchestral pieces with saxophones.

  • They’re an in between instrument, not quite a woodwind and not quite a brass instrument. They basically have characteristics of both.
  • they were invented for Big Band music and adapted from the clarinet and trumpet families.
  • they don’t possess the natural attack that other instruments have, there’s actually a slight lul at the start of the note which throws timing off considerably. This limits genre and style. Though this point doesn’t hold up for straight saxophones which are actually sneakily used in some orchestras. An example of this would be Old Castle by Mussorgsky
  • here is a great example of an orchestral sax piece Saxophone Quartet, Op. 109, by Alexander Glazunov

Other theories which I don’t agree with include

  • it came along too late… though the tuba cane around at a similar time so that doesn’t stack up… plus we’ve used other much later instruments such as the theremin and hybrid sounds in our live orchestral works now so it’s not as simple as that. I think a big part of the sax stigma lies with it being adopted by jazz and most saxophones have the same fingering and break point (this is where the finger position changes to reach the higher register, usually around D/F on a treble staff) as a clarinet so maybe there’s a bit of clarinet snobbery too?

I personally haven’t used it in an orchestral composition but as you can see it is used, just not that often. I think the stigma is slowly being eroded though. I think Stravinsky spoke highly of the Saxophone too, but I don’t think he got around to using it??

1 Like

Ah nice insights! :slight_smile:
I also think there was a kind of “peak saxophone” era in pop music terms, in the 80s. Where the sax was used heavily in just about everything, including movies and TV series! :stuck_out_tongue:

It does have a very “singing-like” tonal character and expression for leading melodies. I wonder what I could layer it with though, I mean in an orchestra? It seems to stick out a lot, which I guess is another reason it has not been adopted.


Yeah they did use it a lot but I think that was a budget thing. They used to be considerably cheaper to record as there were tonnes of sax players around, much like guitarists :joy:

They layer very well with French horns and bass clarinets. Though I’ve known them to be layers with trumpets and flutes… though I think that’s very very similar to their jazz roots!

1 Like

Apart from timing, and the general dynamics of the “popularity” phenomenon, It has also been suggested that politics had a part in it as well; more specifically, that influential people “strongly suggested” that the saxophone had no place in the classical orchestra. Makers of more traditional woodwinds, IIRC…? Don’t know how much truth there is in that, though.

There are similar theories about why the violoncello da spalla was abandoned and practically forgotten, despite having clear “agility” advantages over the modern 'cello, due to being able to use violin/viola style fingering. Some claim that composers were not allowed to write specifically for what was supposedly the 'cello of the time - the violoncello da spalla - so, much how you avoid legal issues by making vague references these days, they just wrote “cello” or something - and a few hundred years later, cellists are still having a really hard time with certain passages. :smiley: I don’t know how much law/politics was actually involved, but it all seems to make some logical sense. And either way, the now revived violoncello da spalla is a pretty interesting instrument!


Just a note. Native instruments have saxophones in there woodwinds library I think.

1 Like