The tenor saxophone is a medium-sized member of the saxophone family, a group of instruments invented by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s. It is the most common size of saxophone and is a transposing instrument, pitched in the key of B, and written as a transposing instrument in the treble clef, sounding a major ninth lower than the written pitch.
The tenor saxophone uses a slightly larger mouthpiece, reed, and ligature than the alto saxophone, and is easily distinguished from that instrument by the crook in its neck just ahead of the mouthpiece.
The tenor saxophone is used in many different types of ensembles, including concert bands, big band jazz ensembles, small jazz ensembles, and marching bands. It is occasionally included in pieces written for symphony orchestra and for chamber ensembles; three examples of this are Ravel's Boléro, Prokofiev's suite from Lieutenant Kije,and Webern's Quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano. In concert bands, the tenor plays mostly a supporting role, sometimes sharing parts with the euphonium, horn and trombone. In jazz ensembles, the tenor plays a more prominent role, often sharing parts or harmonies with the alto saxophone.
The tenor saxophone, like all saxes, is in essence an approximately conical tube of thin metal, usually brass. The wider end of the tube is flared slightly to form a bell, while the narrower end is connected to a mouthpiece similar to that of a clarinet. At intervals down the bore are placed between 20 and 23 tone holes; these are covered by pads which can be pressed onto the holes to form an airtight seal. There are also two small speaker holes which, when opened, disrupt the lower harmonics of the instrument and cause it to overblow into an upper register. The pads are controlled by pressing a number of keys with the fingers of the left and right hands; the left thumb controls an octave key which opens one or other of the speaker holes. The original design of tenor saxophone had a separate octave key for each speaker hole, in the manner of the bassoon; the mechanism by which the correct speaker hole is selected based on the fingering of the left hand (specifically the left ring finger) was developed soon after Sax's patent expired in 1866.
Although a handful of novelty tenors have been constructed 'straight', like the smaller members of the saxophone family, the unwieldy length of the straight configuration means that almost all tenor saxophones feature a 'U-bend' above the third-lowest tone hole which is characteristic of the saxophone family. The tenor saxophone is also curved at the top, above the highest tone-hole but below the highest speaker hole. While the alto is usually bent only through 80–90° to make the mouthpiece fit more easily in the mouth, the tenor is usually bent a little more in this section, incorporating a slight S-bend.
The mouthpiece of the tenor saxophone is very similar to that of the clarinet, an approximately wedge-shaped tube, open along one face and covered in use by a thin strip of material prepared from the stem of the giant cane (arundo donax) commonly known as a reed. The reed is shaved to come to an extremely thin point, and is clamped over the mouthpiece by the use of a ligature. When air is blown through the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates and generates the acoustic resonances required to produce a sound from the instrument. The mouthpiece is the area of the saxophone with the greatest flexibility in shape and style, so the timbre of the instrument is primarily determined by the material and dimensions of its mouthpiece. Materials used in mouthpiece construction include plastic, ebonite and various metals e.g. bronze, brass and stainless steel.
The mouthpiece of the tenor saxophone is proportionally larger than that of the alto, necessitating a similarly larger reed. The increased stiffness of the reed and the greater airflow required to establish resonance in the larger body means the tenor sax requires greater lung power but a looser embouchure than the higher-pitched members of the saxophone family. The tenor sax reed is similar in size to that used in the bass clarinet, although the two cannot be easily substituted.
Much of the popularity of saxophones in the United States derives from the large number of military bands that were around at the time of the American Civil War. After the war disused former military band instruments found their way into the hands of the general public, where they were often used to play Gospel music and jazz. The work of the pioneering bandleader Patrick Gilmore (1829 - 1892) was highly influential; he was one of the first arrangers to pit the brass instruments (trumpet, trombone and cornet) against the reeds (clarinet and saxophone) in the manner which has now became the norm for big-band arrangements.
The tenor saxophone became best known to the general public through its frequent use in jazz music. It was the pioneering genius of Coleman Hawkins in the 1930s which lifted the tenor saxophone from its traditional role of adding weight to the ensemble and established it as a highly-effective melody instrument in its own right.
Many prominent jazz musicians from the 1940's onwards have been tenor players. The strong resonant sound of Hawkins and his followers always in contrast with the light, almost jaunty approach of Lester Young and his school. Then during the be-bop years the most prominent tenor sounds in jazz were those of the Four Brothers in the Woody Herman orchestra, including Stan Getz who in the 1960s went on to great popular success playing the Brazilian Bossa nova sound on tenor saxophone.
As a result of its prominence in American jazz, the instrument has also featured prominently in other genres, and it's been said that many innovations in American music were pioneered by tenor saxophonists. The tenor is extremely common in rhythm and blues music and has a part to play in rock and roll and more recent rock music as well as Afro-American, Latin American, Afro-Caribbean, and African music. It has also been used on occasion by many post-punk and experimental bands throughout the UK and Europe in the 1980s, sometimes atonally.