A good number of saxophone players who are relatively new to the instrument may have heard the phrase “overtones saxophone” without really understanding what it means or why they should know anything about it.
To become a great saxophone player, sax lessons are not enough. You have to familiarise yourself with overtones and put in the effort to practice on your instrument.
Everything you should know about overtones is in this article! So if you’re interested, read on.
Part 1: What are Overtones?
Any frequency higher than a sound’s fundamental frequency is referred to as an overtone. While playing a low Bb on the piano, there are extra notes that softly sound in the background at the same time.
A low Bb note makes other notes sound softly at the same time. And even though these other pitches aren’t as loud as that low Bb, like high bb, they have a huge effect on the sound of the saxophone.
Try these simple overtone exercises in practising overtones:
- Play a Bb in the middle of your horn.
- Next, put your fingers in the right place to play a low Bb.
- Play the middle Bb while keeping your embouchure the same as it would be for the middle Bb. However, please keep your fingers in the position they would be in for the low Bb. You should still hear that middle Bb, but it should sound harsher and more abrasive. This is the same sound you’d get if you tried to play a low Bb but missed it because your diaphragm wasn’t strong enough.
We are trying to show that the low Bb’s initial overtone is the middle Bb. “First Partial” or “First Harmonic” are other names for the sound of a middle Bb played with the low Bb fingering.
Part 2: What effect do they have on aspiring saxophone players?
Improves Tone Quality
Overtones will become increasingly common in our sound as our hearing improves and we learn to distinguish between them. Overtones give your sound richness of “colour” and make your tone seem “bigger” since they occupy a larger percentage of the frequency spectrum than they would if they were absent.
Your ears and embouchure may alter the balance of upper and lower overtones in your saxophone sound, allowing you to get a brighter or darker tone quality, depending on your preference.
Overtone practice builds muscle in your embouchure that you probably wouldn’t have built any other way. The stronger these muscles are, the more you’ll be able to control your tone, pitch, and volume.
Adding and removing harmonics from your sound is a lot like tonal microsurgery. This new awareness of small changes in your embouchure will give you much more control over your saxophone, so you can make it sound the way you want it to. If you don’t, you’re pretty much stuck with the sound that comes out when you put the horn to your lips. It’s better to have a choice.
You may also need to increase reed strength since you’ll be making the reed vibrate more than usual. But practising harmonics will help you play longer without getting tired because it builds up the muscles in your face.
You must listen for lower pitches’ overtones to hear a saxophonist play notes outside of the instrument’s regular range. Your fingers and embouchure are “hacking” the horn to behave in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise if you were playing within its natural range.
To play a high G above the palm key F, for example, you would most likely hear a G above the treble clef’s highest note if you supported it with the same throat and inner-mouth posture. You need to practise playing and hearing the higher partials to naturally glide into the precise fingering and inner-embouchure for the altissimo note you’re trying to get.
Part 3: Exercises
After learning about overtones and why they’re important, it’s time to put what we’ve learned into practice. Here are some useful exercises that will help you in practising overtones.
Exercise 1: Octave Key Drops
- Make a low F using your fingers (the one at the bottom of the staff with no octave key).
- Start playing, but with your thumb remaining off the octave key so that you hear the same pitch as if you were playing the middle F on the piano (the one with the octave key).
- For a few seconds, hold the middle F and then return to the low F.
- Repeat the same technique to get to the low Bb, descending in half steps.
Exercise 2: Voicing the First Overtone for Tone Matching
- Use the bis key, the small key between the B and A keys, to finger a middle Bb.
- Keep the pitch of the middle Bb while you play the low Bb below it. The only difference you should hear is a change in the tone, but the pitch should stay the same no matter which octave Bb you’re playing.
- Switch back and forth between the middle and low Bb, but keep the middle Bb going the whole time. As you make the octave jumps faster, you’ll hear a sound effect that people like Michael Brecker and Lester Young often use.
- Repeat the exercise up the horn until you reach F.
Important Note: When you get to the middle D, you can’t play it like you normally would. Instead, you must play it with the palm key D and no octave key. The finger keys for Eb, E, and F, but not the octave key, are also used.
Exercise 3: Voicing the Second Overtone for Tone Matching
- This time, we’ll start with the fifth above the first octave, the second overtone. So, for the Bb overtone series, that would be the middle F, which is an octave above the middle Bb. What you should do is:
- Don’t use the octave key to play the middle F., So you’re playing the low F, but the octave that’s being played in the middle F.
- Next, finger a low Bb while keeping the middle F held out.
- Repeat the exercise up the horn until you switch between the palm key F (which is not an octave key) and the bis middle Bb.
IMPORTANT: You should never use the octave key in this exercise.
Exercise 4: Voicing
We change the sound of the horn by changing the shape of our oral cavity, where our tongue is, and where our throat is. This is called “voicing.” For example, try playing anything on your horn with your mouth and throat in the same position as when you say “eeeee” with your voice.
Now, try playing your horn with the same mouth and throat position you’d use to say “oh” without moving your jaw. We can control the tone of our sax playing by trying out different vocal sounds while we play. Whether you know it or not, the voicing has to change for the overtones to happen.
Different saxophone exercises were mentioned above to help you learn how to play overtones. Remember to do each of these exercises often, and you’ll be able to play beautiful tones easily in no time.
Have you already begun to practise? Share your experience below.