Articulation & Tonguing

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The word articulation refers to the way wind players use their tongue (or not) as part of musical phrasing and the first thing I’m going to say about this may sound a bit odd: you don’t start the note with your tongue.

What actually starts the note is the lack of tongue, ie the removal of your tongue from the mouthpiece tip. Provided there is already air pressure inside your mouth (which there should be) this air then rushes into the gap between reed and mouthpiece which the removal of your tongue has made available.

The conventional way to play a single note consists of doing several things in the right order:

  1. Breathe in to provide a pressurised column of air
  2. Place your tongue against the reed
  3. Without losing the air pressure remove your tongue
  4. The note sounds
  5. Place your tongue back against the reed to stop the sound.

Note that the tongue is not used actively to start the note, it is the removal of the tongue which causes the air (already under pressure) to rush out and across the reed into the mouthpiece. This is the same principle as opening a tap to let water out. The water is under pressure, opening the tap removes a valve which allows the pressurised water to gush out. By using this approach there is no need to get into the bad habit of using your throat to control the air. (This is what happens when you cough). Using the tongue as a valve means that your throat can be open all the time and the air pressure can remain under constant pressure from your diaphragm muscles.

Why is tonguing so important?

The start of the note (sometimes called the attack) is what contributes the most to any instrument’s and any player’s individual sound quality. If you record a single note, then edit out the initial attack portion, it is often difficult to even tell what instrument is playing the sound.

Once you are able to tongue, then you should try the saxophone tone control exercises, which will help you use your tonguing to improve your overall sound.

How to tongue

Tonguing the saxophone is very similar to pronouncing the syllable “tu” or “du”. Instead of doing this by touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth, you place your tongue (ideally the tip) against the tip of the reed and release it backwards as if saying “tu”. You may find it difficult to use the very tip of your tongue (especially on larger mouthpieces), in which case you get as close as possible to the tip. There are other methods that involve using part of the tongue further up while keeping the tip of your tongue behind your lower teeth, but that has never worked for me. However we are all different and it’s a good idea to experiment and see what works best for you.

Staccato Tonguing

When a series of notes are played with gaps in between, that is staccato. If a note is written with a staccato dot, you can often assume should be played approximately half its normal length, but this can be open to interpretation depending on the tempo.

First of all try this without the saxophone in your mouth. Say “tu”, but at the end of the word place your tongue back on the roof of your mouth ready to say it again, but do not resound the “t” as in “toot”, nor should you stop the sound with your throat (as in Cockney pronunciation of the word). You must get a clean end to the word and feel the air pressure behind your tongue ready for the next note.

Legato (slurring)

This is when a series of notes are played without tonguing as they go from one to the next. Normally, you should still start the very first note with your tongue and stop the last note with your tongue.

Legato (Soft) Tonguing

This is where there are no gaps between a series of notes (as with legato), but each note is started with a very light articulation. This can almost sound exactly the same as legato. The aim of this exercise is to be able to tongue a series of notes so that each note flows smoothly into the next with no gap or accent. You should imagine the start of the note as du rather than tu. The visualising page will help you with this.

  1. Start on a B as with basic long notes
  2. Tongue the note repeatedly at a tempo that allows you to play an even tempo
  3. Imagine this as one long note (remember the cylinder) but with very light almost imperceptible articulation  du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-etc

Although this is a series of single notes, it’s useful to think of it as one long note that is very lightly punctuated by the tonguing:

Legato Tonguing

As mentioned above, a note is started by the removal of the tongue and stopped by placing the tongue. In the case of legato tonguing, this is all done in one action, ie the tongue stops a note and by immediately taking it off the next note is started.

Some Basic Useful Articulation

Each day set the metronome slightly faster, but never so fast that the you cannot maintain an even tempo. Apply this tonguing to scales and other exercises.

Different types of articulation and tonguing

  1. legato
  2. legato tongued, (soft tongued)
  3. staccato
  4. bebop

Articulating without the tongue.

It is possible to start a note without touching the tongue on the reed, usually for special effects. This can be particularly effective when playing a slow tune or ballad, but still requires very good diaphragm control or you will be tempted to close your throat to control the airflow, see the example Another Kind of Blue

Ending a note without your tongue can give the note a very slight tail off rather than an abrupt stop, also a useful technique which is advocated by many classical soloists.

One special effect which uses a different articulation is the saxophone laugh for which you start the note with a “ka” rather than a “tu”.

Note Endings

We mentioned above that the “conventional” way to stop a note is to place the tongue against the reed. This way you will get a clean end to the note. Clean note endings are especially useful when playing in a section in order to get a tight ensemble with all instruments ending together.

However it is also fine to just allow the note to stop by ending the air pressure (with no tongue involved). As mentioned above, your throat should not close off in order to do this, it should be your diaphragm and lung control which stops the air pressure.

Using this method you can create the effect of the note fading out, and depending on how you control your airstream  as you can have varying lengths of fade so this usually works better as part of solo expression as opposed to something you might use in a tight sounding section, unless every player has rehearsed the exact amount of fade.


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