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Mark Pipes

Lecture: A Comparison of Saxophone Mouthpieces Using Fourier Analysis to Quantify Perceived Timbre

The saxophone mouthpiece significantly contributes to the overall timbre of the instrument. Specialized mouthpiece designs employ combinations of chamber shape, facing dimensions, and material to create a potential sound and response for the performer. Also, manufacturers claim that ligatures affect tonal brightness. However, there is a lack of scientific data reflecting the impact of the claimed tonal characteristics of the specified designs on timbre. 


With the advent of the smartphone application, the spectrum analysis (also known as impedance spectra) resulting from a Fourier Transform has recently become available to a mass audience. This technology is being investigated to quantify timbre color. Thus, the primary focus of this thesis was to investigate the use of acoustic measurement technology available on a smartphone to benefit the performance of the musician.


Frequency spectra of 12 different alto saxophone mouthpieces with six different ligature combinations and three tenor mouthpiece clones made of different materials were recorded. Four notes were recorded from each mouthpiece based on the fundamentals of the saxophone. The timbres were compared for brightness by measuring the spectral centroid (SC) and normalized spectral centroid (NSC). 


Specific mouthpiece characteristics were explained and characterized for their contribution to timbre brightness. This explanation was compared against past research. The physical characteristics of several mouthpieces were measured using X-ray tomography, and the frequency spectra of each were recorded. Resulting spectra were analyzed, compared, and charted to isolate and evaluate the influence of mouthpiece characteristics and ligature characteristics on timbre.

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