Shaping and visualising your sound: Bright or Dark

Bright Or Dark

How do we define those words

There seems to be a lot of confusion about how we describe sound. It seems many people these days want what they call a dark sound, but when I delve deeper into what they mean, I realise it may not be the same as what I call a dark sound.

Dark or Bright?

I write a lot about saxophone sound, but there seems to be some confusion over terminology, which got me thinking…Dark can be used to mean the same as warm, which some people think of as the opposite of bright.

But when I say dark I mean the opposite of light rather than bright (but you might think the opposite of light is heavy). As far as I’m concerned the opposite of a bright sound is a warm sound, but you might well think of a warm sound as the opposite of a cold sound. But then I call a cold tone what some people call a clear tone .

On the other hand some people might call that a focussed tone (or a tone that projects). But to some a focussed tone could be an edgy tone, a compact tone, or maybe even a centred tone, (which are surely two different things) and then again to others it might be thin, the opposite of which you might say is fat, however it could be argued that this is unfocussed, which is the opposite of what some people call bright. Or you might like a big fat warm dark round sound, the opposite of which is…

  • Taming The Saxophone vol 1 - tone without tears
    Taming The Saxophone Vol I - Tone Without Tears. All the tone exercises on the site and lots more Buy Now

So how do you find a bright sounding saxophone or a dark sounding mouthpiece?

While it’s true some saxophones may have an inherently brighter or darker sound, the biggest influencer of the tone (after the player) is the mouthpiece. So the good news is that if, for example, you want a brighter sound, then it’s much simpler and cheaper to just try a different mouthpiece

Add to the dictionary!


Since writing this I have recently heard a few more descriptions of saxophone sounds, please everyone feel free to add to the list using the comments box below.

  • Creamy 
  • Smooth 
  • Buzzy 
  • Smoky

Practising tone: Bored practice is wasted practice

There’s no doubt about it. Practising long notes can be boring.

Make it interesting, visualisation of  your sound!

…so if you find that your mind is wandering then that is a good time to either take a break from practising or move onto some other exercises that you find you can concentrate on more easily. Ultimately though you should try to train yourself to be able to practise long notes without getting bored. You should learn to really focus on the sound and “get inside” it. One way to do this is by visualising the sound as a colour. Not only will this help you concentrate on when doing your tone study, it will actually give you a much better understanding of your saxophone sound and how to expand its possibilities.

What do sounds look like?

What kind of tone do you imagine when you think about these images:

Fluffy tone
Spread, unfocussed, warm & fuzzy, fluffy?
Focussed, compact, bright?

In the following exercises you will need to experiment with altering the shape of the inside of your mouth and/or tongue position……Continued in Taming the Saxophone vol I

Visualising: step 1

Using diaphragm breathing, blow a long note. You must make sure that there are no wobbles or hiccups, imagine it as a straight line. It shouldn’t dip or rise in pitch: imagine it as horizontal. As you near the end of the note (ie you are running out of breath) make sure that you are still supporting the air in your lungs and air column from your diaphragm, and now, more than ever, you must keep that line straight – no wobbles – and hold it like that right until your lungs are empty. Breathe in slowly and relax.

NB: It may take you a while to get to this stage. I would recommend that you make sure you can maintain a wobble free note that sustains well through to the end before continuing, but if not it probably won’t do any harm to have a go at the next bit – it just may not be quite as rewarding.

Visualising: step 2

Once you are confident about your “straight line ” tone, try it again, this time imagine that line as being a bit broader. I don’t mean your sound needs to be broader or wider, this is just another way of visualising the tone. Aim for a nice soft, warm, dark and wide tone. (These are descriptions which may mean different things to different people – that does not matter). Again you must imagine the line as being horizontal and wobble free. No change in dynamics and hold for a full breath again.

This time do the same thing, but imagine the note as a colour. It doesn’t matter which colour because once again, different people imaging different colours to go with certain sounds. For now let’s assume it’s purple,Visualising the sound just because I’ve chosen that in my illustration). The important thing is that you see in your mind the colour of this sound and that it is as straight as possible.

Visualising: step 3

Now try again, and as you blow, make it get louder. As it gets louder the line expands, and you can imagine the top edge gradually taking on a bright gold against the original colour.Visualising the sound This is your warm dark tone gradually getting a bit of edge or brightness to it. It is common for the higher frequencies in the tone to be amplified more relative to the fundamental” sound. This is because the loudness increases so you are probably just visualising the changes that are actually happening to the sound. However this process is going to be very useful when it comes to you actually controlling the sound. You will be able to make the higher (brighter) overtones come and go as you play that tone. But all the time you must be aware that you are supporting the breath with your diaphragm and there are no wobbles.

Taking this a stage further

Once you get used to this you can experiment with visualising different colours to adjust your tone. The important thing is to try to note what you do with your saxophone embouchure or oral cavity to do this. It may be that it’s impossible to analyse. Don’t worry, the most important thing is to be able to gain control over it. Even if you can do this without knowing exactly how, you have achieved a great deal.

After a while you may be able to identify a lot more in your sound than you at first realised, and this is a very big step towards controlling it. Listen out for a “core”. Imagine this like an electrical cable with a copper middle surrounded by the insulation.

You may also identify a part of the sound that is the sound of your breath. This is especially noticeable when playing softly or subtone as it is a quiet part of the sound. The sound of real human breath is something almost impossible to synthesise so it can often but can be a useful part of the expression. (e.g. Listen to Ben Webster)

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