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When to Choose Between Trombone vs Saxophone?

In a battle between trombone vs saxophone, it’s always going to be a notable choice no matter what side you pick. After all, these are two of the loudest and shiniest instruments today.

When deciding between trombone vs saxophone, the trombone is suited for those with a trained ear and precise movements meanwhile, the saxophone is better for melodic tunes and those looking to improvise.

A quick scan across the music landscape shows that trombones and saxophones are everywhere in modern music. You find them scattered across decades of rock and pop tunes.

Despite what might appear to be major similarities, the two instruments are two very different beasts. And neither are easy instruments to master. So what’s the fuss about regarding the trombone vs saxophone debate?

Saxophone vs trombone: Identifying their key characteristics

In terms of key characteristics, both trombones and saxophones are very far apart in characteristics and design. They aren’t even in the same instrument family.

However, their loud nature and similar look often see them grouped as the same type. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth in several different ways. This includes in:

  • Instrument family
  • Playing style
  • Basic design

So how can these two loud behemoths have such different core characteristics?

Sound Mechanics

What clearly defines the difference between saxophones and trombones is very much in how they make sound itself. This is because they belong to different families. Trombones are brass instruments whilst saxophones are woodwind instruments. What do we mean by this exactly?

Well, it’s how the two instruments generate sound. Brass instruments, like a trombone, rely solely on air. When air is blown through a mouthpiece, it directly travels into the instrument. By the player manipulating air directly through the mouthpiece, the vibrations generated from air hitting the metal is what generate the sound. These sounds can then be manipulated by the instrument’s design to change what notes are made.

It’s a different process with the saxophone. Despite many saxophones having a brass body, they do not generate notes this way. Instead, the saxophone has a reed that vibrates when air hits it. Reeds are small piece of wood that sits at the end of the mouthpiece which causes vibrations – giving birth to the woodwind name. All saxophones are single-reed instruments that then manipulate sounds through the pressing of keys.

Body Design

It’s not hard to see just how the two instruments differ in terms of how they look. Trombones are defined by their simple look. Meanwhile, saxophones look much more technical in how they are put together. This is true to some extent.

A trombone only has three main features:

  • The body
  • The bell
  • The slide

The small body of a trombone is where the mouthpiece sits. At the end of it is a long slide. The slide is movable into seven main positions to generate the different styles of notes. The air within the instrument travels through the slide and out through the large end, known as a bell. This loud conical opening amplifies sound in a big way, no matter what music you are playing.

It’s a bit more of a complicated setup regarding the saxophone itself. Saxophones have several different layers within them. The mouthpiece and reed sit at the top of the instrument, allowing for vibrations to be generated and travel. They head through the body, where numerous keys and valves manipulate the sounds. These buttons represent different notes and how they can be accented. As these are pressed, it manipulates the air inside to produce loud sounds from the curved bell. Just as loud as the trombone, just much more technical.

Trombone vs saxophone: playing the instruments

When it comes to playing both trombones and saxophones, it takes a lot of skill to become a master. It’s a deceptive jaunt that surprises many. The trombone vs saxophone playing battle is a lot closer than you think. So how can this be?

Precision makes perfect

Playing the trombone is a lot harder than you look. It’s not a case of moving the slide and blowing hard into the mouthpiece. That’s because the player has to move the slide into just 7 key positions to hit the right notes. Getting the position even just a millimeter out can mean a new note is being played.

Trombonists must train their eyes and ears to know where to place the slide. When first learning, new trombonists must spend weeks finding the sweet spot to hear when the slide is in the right position. At the same time, they also need to train their ears to recognize when each note is struck. The job is made all the harder because there are no markers on the slide to say when each position is spot on. It’s all done via ear and eye. Technical playing at its very best.

Becoming a key wizard

Mastering the saxophone may look daunting, but it is much simpler than it looks. This is down to the fact that most keys are automatically assigned to a note or accent. This makes playing notes that much simpler. The keys themselves are split into two key categories – pearl keys and pinky keys.

Pearl keys are what generate the key note forms. These cover D, E, F, G, A & B and are usually in that order. After that, all other note forms, such as flat and sharp variations and the C note, are accessed by pressing the main keys with any combination of the pinky or side keys. It takes some time to learn and practice the functions of each key. However, once these combinations are learned, it makes it easier to become freer and more fluid as you play.

Roles in modern music from trombones and saxophones

The trombone vs saxophone debate has also spilled into modern music quite dramatically. Despite both instruments being used in major songs, it seems that saxophones have a greater profile.

Soloing to stardom

What has cemented the saxophone’s status as a star attraction is how it generates rich melodies. With the vast array of keys in its design, sax players can hit big solos when they can. It’s something that emerged throughout recent history. The rise of several genres, such as jazz and blues, in the early and mid-20th century saw the instrument become an iconic hit across America. The sax solo phenomenon was born as this influence reached the mainstream industry.

This led to sax solos becoming a key tool for music execs to unleash in mega-hits over the past few decades. A quick listen to iconic solo riffs on songs such as George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” or Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” will showcase why it is popular. It’s something seen even today with Lady GaGa or The 1975 using saxophone solos to generate modern hits. The smooth nature and emotive feel of these solos give it a tone that no other instrument can hit.

Finding the groove

While trombones may lack a sax solo’s fluid tones, it doesn’t mean the music industry forgets them. They have provided a different vibe to mainstream music. This comes when used in group performances to give an uplifting jolt whenever a song needs it. Most of this comes thanks to their use in Motown and disco. Influenced by early Rn’B groups, the trombone became a big part of the swing and Latin movements enjoyed worldwide. As this was popularised in movements such as rockabilly and Motown, the 1970s disco boom launched trombones to global fanfare.

Instead of solo melodies, trombones often led call-and-response interactions between singers and bands to create warm, catchy tunes. Just putting on any Earth, Wind & Fire song will show off this style at its best. Moving on to modern times, several ska and funk movements brought the loud chorus of brass back into the mainstream. Whether it was any late 1990s ska-punk jaunt or a bouncy Bruno Mars song in the 2010s, trombones were leading fanfare across the radio.

Working together

Of course, you will find that the trombone vs saxophone debate isn’t complete when looking at how they can be used in tandem by ensembles. They have been used together in music than they have on their merit.

Most classical orchestras will use both of these within the horn section of an orchestra. From playing in full symphonies to even some orchestras, the loud nature of both instruments makes them a perfect pairing. Any moment of sheer drama or suddenness in a piece uses both instruments to grab the audience’s attention.

Outside of orchestral realms, they are two key components used in many big band quartets. It’s here where you see the true purpose of both instruments shines at their very best. With big band groups also using trumpets, French horns, or even tubas, you can see how a trombone and saxophone fit in their natural realm. Trombones sit and provide a natural bassline that other instruments struggle to produce. Meanwhile, the saxophone will provide the main harmonies and melodies, giving a song a unique character. It’s a great way to showcase how both instruments shine naturally.

Debunking the trombone vs saxophone debate

At the end of the day, there’s a joy to be had, whether you pick up a saxophone or a trombone. Both are great-sounding instruments designed to give songs a massive lift and a unique sense of character.

Even if they share similar initial looks, both instruments have several key differences. This comes down to the saxophone and trombone belonging to two music families. Thanks to the inclusion of a reed, the saxophone is defined as a woodwind instrument despite looking like a brass instrument like a trombone.

Regarding overall playing style, trombones require much more technical prowess than saxophones. This comes down to using your ears and eyes to correctly judge slide positions to hit each note. It’s a much harder skill to master than a saxophone, where each key is designed to be assigned to a note or particular accent.

By having different playing styles, it has evolved into each instrument enjoying different roles in pop music. It’s why you will find memorable sax solos in many successful pop hits. However, it won’t take much searching to discover trombones providing great instrumentation in many big hits with a good groove or beat behind them. This comes despite both instruments used in group ensembles to provide natural synchronization in some genres.

With that in mind, you can enjoy playing each instrument and find ways to enjoy a big moment no matter which side of the trombone vs saxophone debate you’ve chosen.

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