Overtones and Your Tone

Overtone series based on Bb Fundamental
Overtone series based on Bb Fundamental

I spend a lot of time on a forum called Sax on the Web but I generally don’t post a ton. Part of the reason is because there’s a lot of other guys that often jump in with great, helpful stuff. Of course, it’s also the internet so there’s also a lot of hate and misinformation and I generally like to stay out of that kind of stuff. One of the questions that seems to be coming up a lot lately is related to overtones so I thought I would put a post together with my thoughts.

The question that got me thinking about this was someone asking if overtones created your tone or if your tone made overtones better. That was followed soon after by another thread asking why practicing overtones helps at all. The second one might be better left to someone else but the first one is interesting and sort of relevant but maybe also a bit misguided.  I mean of course having a better tone would probably lead to better overtones but I think that’s a little cart before the horse.

First let’s discuss what overtones are in case you’re unfamiliar with the concept. A bugle is an instrument that is played entirely with overtones. A basic bugle has no valve so there is only the tube. The bugler can make a base tone by buzzing their lips so that you are getting a wave that is based solely on the length of the tube – the fundamental. If they blow a little harder and tighten their lips they can get a perfect 5th higher than that.  Further air speed and embouchure increases will then add a perfect 4th, a major third, a minor third, and so on. Some of the partials (the intervals introduced as you go along) are not perfectly in tune but they are functional. You can get the same effect with a saxophone and even change the fundamental depending on what note you start with. We usually work with the fundamentals based on low Bb, B, and C but you can get some partials from many different notes.

So how can overtones help your tone? Well first they are the gateway to the altissimo – notes higher than the “normal” keyed notes on a saxophone. Learning to control the overtone series will really help dial in your ability to control notes in the altissimo. The possibly bigger payoff is how well you can open up your tone by matching partials to the actual fingered note (and vice versa). Try this: Play a middle Bb and then finger a low Bb and try to play the same note in the same octave. It may take a few tries but you will get it – try playing the Bb with the bis key and then quickly adding the low Bb fingering without changing your embouchure. Once you have that, try doing the same thing with a top line F. You can keep the octave key down when you finger the low Bb but later it can be optional. Once again, try to match the tones of the two notes. You can continue going up the overtone series doing the same thing and trust me it will help your tone and help set your embouchure.

So back to the original question about whether overtones lead to better chops or better chops lead to better overtones. Like I said, your advancing embouchure will lead to better, more-controlled overtones but it comes down to one of the most important aspects of practice…intention. You may have heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. If not, you should check it out because it’s a very fascinating concept. The thing is, he didn’t really do any scientific studies to come up with that number so the time to mastery could be shorter or longer and it may differ depending on the pursuit and the individual. I think that it’s possible to achieve mastery in 10,000 hours or less by just noodling around and playing a lot but I believe that the time could be cut significantly if the time you spend mastering something is filled with intention. You should have something specific to work on and a goal in mind every time you pick up the horn and something like practicing the overtone series is a great pont of intention for your sessions.

If you’re interested in spending more time with overtones and tone development you could try several books that are out there like Top Tones by Sigurd Rascher that’s been around forever. Another great alternative is a book I reviewed a little while back called: A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist by Ben Britton.

By Barry

I've been playing the saxophone professionally for over 30 years mostly in the Baltimore/Washington DC area. I've been through a lot of trials and tribulations trying to learn and play this wonderful instrument and my hope is to pass some knowledge along to others and maybe save them some of the trouble. At the very least I want to give you some things to think about even if you do something different or disregard what I say completely.

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