How many times has someone told you to practice overtones on your saxophone? So you try to play them, but you get stuck right away. Some pitches work great, but others can’t be done.

Then you start to wonder why you are doing them, besides because you were told to. If you play saxophone overtones properly, your tone will be fuller, your embouchure will be stronger, and your range will be wider.

If you’ve ever been intrigued by the enchanting nuances of saxophone music, understanding overtones and harmonics is like peering behind the curtain of a musical wizard’s secret spell.

So grab your metaphorical wizard hat, and let’s embark on this sonic journey together!


Why Work on Overtones?

Before discussing “why,” let’s figure out “what.” Overtones are the harmonic notes that sneakily accompany the main note you play on your sax.

You don’t just make one sound wave when you play a note. Instead, you make a whole group of sound waves, each with its frequency. These overtones resonate above the basic note, making a complex and mesmerizing soundscape that adds to the richness of your sax’s voice.

Why Is Practicing Overtones So Useful?

Practicing overtones is very helpful for musicians, especially saxophone players because it greatly affects their sound quality, technical skill, and ability to express themselves through music.

Overtones are the extra frequencies that make up the sound of a musical instrument along with the main pitch. Here’s why it’s so important to practice overtones:

1. Expanded range and control

Musicians play overtones and use their instruments to make higher pitch sounds than the basic note. This makes the instrument’s range more playable and gives players more power over the sound spectrum.

For example, the saxophone’s fundamental sound might be in the low Bb range. Still, playing overtones allows a player to explore higher registers without using octave keys or fingerings.

2. Enhanced tone quality

Overtone practice can significantly improve a musician’s tone quality. By playing overtones, players become acutely aware of their:

  • Embouchure
  • Breath support
  • Resonance within the instrument

This heightened awareness translates into a more focused and resonant sound. Regular overtone exercises can lead to a richer, more vibrant tone that stands out in various musical contexts.


3. Technical proficiency

Practicing overtones requires precise control over embouchure, breath support, and finger positioning. These foundational aspects of playing an instrument are refined through overtones and harmonics practice. 

The exercises demand attention to detail and encourage players to develop advanced control over their instruments. This technical proficiency translates to improved performance across all aspects of saxophone playing.

Simple Ways on How to Produce Overtones

Producing overtones on a saxophone is a technique that involves manipulating the harmonic series to create higher-pitched tones. This can add depth to your playing. 

Here are five simple steps to help you produce overtones on the saxophone:

  1. Control Airflow: Begin by playing a low note, such as a Bb or B on your saxophone. Maintain a steady stream of air while gradually reducing the air pressure. As the air pressure decreases, the note’s pitch should naturally rise, producing the first overtone.
  2. Tonguing Technique: Use a gentle and controlled tongue to interrupt the airflow while playing a low note. This technique is similar to articulation. By doing this, you can access different overtones without changing finger positions.
  3. Throat and Oral Cavity Shape: Experiment with the shape of your oral cavity and throat while playing. Slightly adjusting the position of your tongue and the shape of your throat can help you isolate and produce specific overtones. The overtone series is affected by the resonance of your oral cavity.
  4. Fingerings and Octave Key: While holding down a specific fingering, try using the octave key to jump to the next higher overtone. This technique can be trickier to control but yields interesting results.
  5. Practice and Patience: Producing clear and controlled overtones takes time and practice. Focus on each overtone individually and try to sustain them for as long as possible. You might need to adjust your embouchure, air support, and other factors to achieve consistent results.

Overtones or Harmonics?

Unpopular opinion: Many people don’t know the difference between harmonics and overtones, also called partials.

  • The first note you play is called the “first harmonic” or “fundamental.”
  • One octave higher, the next note is called the second harmonic but the first overtone.
  • The next note, an octave and a fifth away, is the third harmonic but the second overtone.

Note: You might find that the third note in the series, an octave and a fifth above the fundamental, is easier to get than the second note, which is an octave above the fundamental. The next practice is based on the lowest Bb, but you should try it on all lower notes.

As you go up in pitch, the notes get harder. You will probably need to change your embouchure to make the harmonics sound. Try putting more (or less) a mouthpiece in your mouth and moving your tongue around. Try to picture the note you want to play so that you can hear it in your head.

Let’s take a look at this table for you to visualize it more:

Frequency Order Name 1 Name 2 Name 3
1 × f = 440 Hz N=1 1st Partial Fundamental 1st Harmonic
2 × f = 880 Hz N=2 2nd Partial 1st Overtone 2nd Harmonic
3 × f = 1320 Hz N=3 3rd Partial 2nd Overtone 3rd Harmonic
4 × f = 1760 Hz N=4 4th Partial 3rd Overtone 4th Harmonic

Table 1. Visual Representation of Sax Overtone

Hence, harmonics and overtones are related concepts but are not the same. Both terms refer to additional frequencies produced alongside the fundamental frequency when a musical instrument is played.

Final Thoughts

As you learn more about the fascinating world of overtones and harmonics, you’ll better understand how your instrument makes sounds. It’s like putting on a wizard’s hat and figuring out how a musical trick works. So, enjoy this sonic journey and dive into the mesmerizing world of overtones, which is the key to the real magic of saxophone music.

If you want to delve deeper into the saxophone, check out Sax School Online, a valuable resource for saxophonists of all levels, where you can continue your musical journey.


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