Saxophone with two octave keys

Last year I wrote a post about saxophone octave keys. I was surprised to discover, after playing saxophone for most of my life, that a saxophone has not one but two octave holes. Modern saxophones have one octave key, but two octave holes. Originally saxophones had a separate octave key for each octave hole; you had to use different octave keys for different notes.

I had not seen one of these old saxophones until Carlo Burkhardt sent me photos today of a Pierret Modele 5 Tenor Sax from around 1912.

Here’s a closeup of the octave keys.

two octave keys on 1912 tenor saxophone

And here’s a closeup of the bell where you can see the branding.

Pierret Modele 5 Tenor Sax circa 1912

Update (2019-01-22): A reader, Paul A., sent me photos of a silver alto sax with two octave keys. More on this saxophone here.

Silver alto sax with two octave keys

Octave holes on a saxophone

I’ve played saxophone since I was in high school, and I thought I knew how saxophones work, but I learned something new this evening. I was listening to a podcast [1] on musical acoustics and much of it was old hat. Then the host said that a saxophone has two octave holes.  Really?! I only thought there was only one.

When you press the octave key on the back of a saxophone with your left thumb, the pitch goes up an octave. Sometimes this causes a key on the neck to open up and sometimes it doesn’t [2]. I knew that much.

Saxophone with octave key not open on a high note

Saxophone with octave key open on a high note


I thought that when this key didn’t open, the octaves work like they do on a flute: no mechanical change to the instrument, but a change in the way you play. And to some extent this is right: You can make the pitch go up an octave without using the octave key. However, when the octave key is pressed there is a second hole that opens up when the more visible one on the neck closes.

Octave hole for low notes on a saxophone

According to the podcast, the first saxophones had two octave keys to operate with your thumb. You had to choose the correct octave key for the note you’re playing. Modern saxophones work the same as early saxophones except there is only one octave key controlling two octave holes.

* * *

[1] Musical Acoustics from The University of Edinburgh, iTunes U.

[2] On the notes written middle C up to A flat, the octave key raises the little hole I wasn’t aware of. For higher notes the octave key raises the octave hole on the neck.


Nunc dimittis

In his book The Call, Os Guinness tells the following story of John Coltrane.

After one utterly extraordinary rendition of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane stepped off the stage, put down his saxophone, and said simply “Nunc dimittis.” … Coltrane felt he could never play the piece more perfectly. If his whole life had been lived for that passionate thirty-two minute jazz prayer, it would have been worth it. He was ready to go.

Nunc dimittis is Latin for “Now dismiss.” These are the opening words of the Vulgate translation of the Song of Simeon, Luke 2:29–32. Simeon says he is ready to die because he has seen what he was waiting for, the promised Messiah.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Coltrane’s story brings several things to mind. First, it is awe-inspiring to imagine an accomplishment so fulfilling that you would say “That was it. I’m ready to die.”

Next, it’s interesting to ponder Coltrane’s eclectic spirituality. I knew Christianity was part of his spiritual gumbo, but I was surprised to hear that he made a spontaneous reference to Latin liturgy.

Coltrane was canonized by the African Orthodox Church in 1982. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Finally, I was interested in the name Nunc dimittis itself. I hadn’t heard it before. (I’ve only been part of non-liturgical churches.) I thought the name might only be familiar to Catholics, being a Latin term. But an Episcopalian friend informed me that the Anglican mass preserves many Latin titles even though the liturgy itself is in English. I suppose Coltrane encountered this Anglican name via the Episcopalian influence on the African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Church.

Related posts

Michael Brecker

When I was in college, my saxophone teacher recommended I study Michael Brecker. I enjoyed his music, especially his recordings with Steps Ahead, but for some reason I quit listening to Brecker sometime after college. Then earlier this year I bought Brecker’s last album Pilgrimage after reading a glowing review.

Brecker recorded Pilgrimage as he was dying of leukemia, but there’s nothing morbid about the album. It’s upbeat, complex, and beautiful. Brecker spent his final days pursuing his art surrounded by friends.