Intro to Saxophone Overtones Part 1 – What are They?

This article is the first in a three-part series. Once you’re done with this article, I strongly suggest you continue forwards with part part 2 and part 3.

Many sax players new to the instrument may have heard the term “overtones” thrown about without really knowing what the term means and why they should know anything about it. The fact is, knowledge of overtones as well as the practice of overtone exercises on your horn is simply a must if you’re planning on becoming a great saxophone player.

What in the World Are These Overtone Thingies?

To quote from WikiPedia:

An overtone is any frequency higher than the fundamental frequency of a sound.

In other words, if you’re playing a low Bb, there are actually other notes quietly sounding at the same time as that low Bb. And while these other pitches are sounding relatively quietly in comparison to that low Bb, they affect the sound of the saxophone massively.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, try this as a simple exercise:

  1. Play a middle Bb on your horn.
  2. Next, position your fingers to play a low Bb.
  3. Keeping your embouchure the same as it would be for that middle Bb, play that middle Bb BUT keep your fingers in position to play the low Bb. What you should be hearing is still that middle Bb, but with a harsher and more abrasive tone quality. This is basically the same sound you’d get if you attempted to play the low Bb but missed the note due to not enough diaphragm support.

The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the middle Bb is the first overtone of that low Bb. Other terminology for the sound of a middle Bb played with the low Bb fingering is the “First Partial” or “First Harmonic.”

See for Yourself

Below is the entire series of overtones (aka “partials” or “harmonics”) that we can play while fingering that low Bb. Of course, towards the end of the series you get to notes that are not possible for 99.9, if not 100% of all saxophone players to play.

Saxophone Overtones

Again, when you play that low Bb, you’re simultaneously hearing the entire series of notes shown above, but they’re actually more felt than heard, since the majority of the sound you hear is from the fundamental, or bottom note in the series, whichever note that might be.  Every single note in the playable range of the saxophone has this series of overtones above it, whether you’re playing a low Bb or a high E with the palm keys.

So in the example above, the low Bb is what’s known as the “fundamental” – as that’s the note we’re actually fingering. From there, the middle Bb is what’s known as the “first overtone” or the “first partial.” The second overtone with be the F on the top line of the staff, the high Bb would be the second overtone, and so on and so forth up the entire series as illustrated above.

So what do these overtones have to do with me?

To start with, no two sounds have the same exact balance of individual overtones. 

The effect of having more pronounced upper overtones in a sax player’s sound is an overall “brightness” in tone. For example, at the extreme end of the overtone spectrum, you have the tone of Fusion/R & B saxophonist David Sanborn. Since the music he plays involves cutting through other instruments with loud overtones such as drums and electric guitar, his sound is jam-packed with upper overtones. The result is a loud and piercing sound that can penetrate the other loud sounds in a band with electric instruments.

Here is a sample of David Sanborn playing – note that this is what it sounds like when a saxophonist has a lot of upper overtones audible in their sound:

On the other extreme side of the spectrum you have the tone of jazz altoist Lee Konitz. Due to the emphasis of lower overtones in his tone, Lee’s sound is “dark” and “piping” in nature, perfect for melding into mellower sounds such as jazz piano, acoustic bass, and subtle jazz drumming. While there are no hard-and-fast rules in music, generally speaking, in a quiet acoustic jazz setting, a loud and massive laser-like tone such as that of David Sanborn would sound out of place with the rest of the instruments.

Here is a sample of Lee Konitz playing – note that this is what it sounds like when a saxophonist has a sound which emphasizes the lower overtones:

Of course, whether you go for an upper-overtone-heavy sound like players such as Sanborn, Michael Brecker, or John Coltrane, or an lower-overtone-heavy sound such as Konitz, Paul Desmond, or Zoot Sims, in the end it’s nothing more than a simple matter of taste.

The Wrap Up

Well, I’ve probably crammed enough info into your brain for one sitting, so I should stop here before you start drooling on your keyboard.

In Part 2 of the series, we’ll get into the reasons why you should practice these overtones/harmonics/partials and how they can help you improve. Cheers for now!