Should I Learn Trumpet Or Sax?


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You’re at the beginning of two very different and two very different roads. Which one do you choose? Is one instrument easier than the other? Is one better?

Successfully choosing between trumpet or saxophone requires decisions weighing different factors, including but not limited to difficulty, expense, career viability and personal sound preference.

What does all that mean? Well, if you’ll walk with me a bit, I’ll talk about all of these different categories, and hopefully by the end you’ll have a better idea of what you want to play.

First off, you can’t go wrong with either instrument. They are both fantastic, beautiful, and have potential for a lifetime of rewarding playing. What I’m going to talk about are some of the finer details that might help align you with the instrument that better fits you.

Is Trumpet Or Saxophone Easier To Play?

This is an excellent question. Choosing an instrument is a really big decision! You are going to be playing this instrument for days, months, and potentially years! There are dozens of instruments out there and so it’s worth deciding which one will work for you.

If you choose saxophone, does it mean that it’s going to be super hard and it will be years before you sound any good?

Many people believe that the saxophone is easier for beginner musicians because it’s easier to start making sound and play different notes. (some argue that it takes a very long time to sound good but I feel it depends on your goals)

It turns out that the trumpet and saxophone have their own unique difficulties. Let’s talk about them:

Why Is Trumpet Hard?

The trumpet is played by a player buzzing their lips extremely rapidly and applying the trumpet mouthpiece to the lips. The vibration energy is transferred through the horn and produces the sound.

Although the trumpet has less keys, it is considered a very difficult instrument by many because instead of relying on the instrument itself, the player has to produce the vibrations themselves with their lips. With a guitar you pluck a string which produces the vibration, while with a trumpet you make the vibration yourself.

High Notes

Trumpet players have to practice for hours upon hours to play higher notes. In fact, playing high becomes an obsession for many players.. Expert trumpet players occasionally show off their abilities by playing extremely high, which sounds like a air being let out of a stretched balloon. It’s completely non-musical, but it’s definitely a result of a ton of practice and is very impressive nonetheless.

I’m not sure if I’ve really communicated how big a deal it is for trumpet players to be able to play high. Trumpeters practice for hours, buy mouthpieces in hopes to achieve higher notes, and even higher private tutors in hopes they’ll extend their range. It’s very, very difficult and takes a lot of practice.

Saxophone has an advantage of an octave key that can help beginner players play the next octave without much additional effort. (Although some argue this makes bad habits)

Embouchure

Perhaps core to the difficulty of the trumpet is the embouchure. The embouchure is a fancy term for the player’s lips, jaw, face and all other associated muscles that make the buzz of the trumpet.

The embouchure is extremely fine-tuned coordination. This coordination has to constantly be maintained in order to be able to maintain the playing range and endurance. In fact, professional trumpet players notice their skills going away if they stop playing for even a couple days.

In fact, I talk more about the difficulty of the embouchure for the trumpet in more detail here.

If you’re committed to trumpet, you have to play consistently to keep your “chops” (which is horn slang for the capacity to play your instrument).

Braces

Another interesting problem that especially young players face is having to deal with braces.

Many trumpeters feel like they have to relearn their embouchure after getting braces and once again after getting them removed. Furthermore, it’s super painful because it’s a common bad habit to apply pressure from the mouthpiece to your lips. Some trumpet players use wax on their braces to overcome this. That’s what I did at least.

Braces have come a long way, though. There are more comfortable non-metal braces that would be much easier to play with. But, if your teeth are very crooked, there’s not much you can do. If you are planning on getting braces soon, seriously… get them sooner than later so that you don’t have to unlearn and relearn as much.

Endurance

In addition to this, because trumpet players are making the sound, themselves, it’s extremely difficult for new players to play for an extended period of time.

In fact, playing beyond exhaustion leads to very bad habits that can actually damage your embouchure or at the very least cause a lot of future difficulty in unlearning bad habits.

An hour-long concert (where the trumpets are probably not playing the whole time) is pushing the limits of a beginner-intermediate player.

Every instrument can’t be played forever, but brass players and particularly trumpet players often struggle with endurance in playing due to the tricky embouchure.

Why Is Saxophone Hard?

Saxophone is somewhat more approachable for new players–it’s not as difficult to make the first notes for a beginner as other instruments. However, creating good tone and being able to transition between the low and high range smoothly, as well as making smooth note transitions takes a long time to master.

Good Tone

You can learn to make a sound on the saxophone relatively quickly–and in fact, because there are many different keys on the saxophone that have rubber grommets, it’s actually easy to learn to play several notes because the keys do some of the work.

However, if you ask a pro-saxophonist, they will say that it takes a very long time with a lot of practice to get a great sound.

The saxophone has its own embouchure requirements and it takes a long time to coordinate those embouchure muscles to create that smooth buttery sound of the saxophone. Saxophone shares that same difficulty with the trumpet.

In short, it may not take very long to make some of the first few notes, it takes a long time to make them sound good.

High Musical Aptitude

One thing that’s particularly difficult for intermediate and expert players is that saxophonists are often required to “double“, which means that they play multiple instruments, including clarinet or flute, not to mention moving between soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, and baritone sax. switch instruments.

This is a strange expectation since these instruments, while they have similarities have a lot of differences. One key thing is that many of these instruments are in different keys! This requires being able to jump between keys and fingerings and embouchure, sometimes within the same set of music!

So, Which Is More Difficult? Trumpet? Or Saxophone?

Since this is a virtually impossible instrument to answer straight out (since there are so many facets and factors), I’ll try and break down different aspects to give a more full answer.

CategoryWhich Is More Difficult?Reason
To Produce The First NotesTrumpetAlthough making a buzz comes natural to some people, this can take some time for some.
To Learn The NotesTrumpetSaxophones have many more keys then the trumpet and these help a lot in creating the sound, although the saxophonist has to provide proper air support–trumpet players have to get the right fingering and produce the right buzz frequency at the same time.
Double Expectations (playing multiple instruments)SaxophoneBecause of some similarities, saxophonists are often expected to play multiple instruments, which requires learning to play in multiple keys
To Play HighTrumpetSaxophonists are super lucky in that they have a magical octave button that transports them up 8 notes. Beginner trumpet players would give up many Pokemon cards for that.
To Play MidrangeSaxophoneThere is actually a gap that’s common for saxophone players in between the high and the low register that takes more breath and embouchure control to get the hang of.
Breath ControlSaxophoneTrumpet players have tiny aperture that they are playing through while saxophonists are pushing through a lot more air. While breath control is crucial for both instruments, saxophonists will need to move more air at a time. Flute and tuba players take the cake as far as needing the most air.
Embouchure and ToneTie!Long-term, both instruments require a sensational amount of control to produce beautiful music. In some aspects the trumpet requires more conditioning, and the saxophone in others. Short-term the saxophone is probably easier for most.
Playing With BracesTrumpetTrumpet is definitely more painful and disrupts the embouchure more. However, it’s by no means comfortable for saxophone players either. Saxophonists will have to curl their lips around the braces, but at least the pressure of the instrument won’t be pressing against the teeth.

So, there you have it, the saxophone is easier in some ways and harder in others. The same as the trumpet.

Cost Comparison Of Trumpet and Saxophone

This is an important thing to consider. Instruments don’t grow on trees. Not even woodwinds.

Ba doom psh!

There are a lot of things to think about when talking about the price of the instrument. Not only is there an initial cost to the instrument, but there are accessories, necessary supplies (I’m looking at you Saxophone reeds!), and even repair costs should be considered. You can check out examples of repair/servicing prices for Brass and Woodwind instruments at hickeys.com

Overall, the trumpet is a much cheaper instrument to buy, supply, maintain, and accessorize.

Trumpet

I did some calculations and found that the average price to purchase a trumpet at a particular music store was $2450.38.

This average includes high-end and low-end trumpets.

Some interesting data from this:

  • 5% of the trumpets cost around $150
  • 6% of the trumpets cost around $400
  • 10% of trumpets cost around $1750
  • 31% of the trumpets cost around $4000

Anything under $1750 could be considered a student or entry-level trumpet.

You can definitely get a trumpet for around $400 that’s not going to be terrible quality that will do okay for a beginner.

When in doubt, you can always do a pTrumpet (GuitarCenter). They are extremely affordable and they sound way better than you’d think they should.

That’s not all the cost of a trumpet, though. Let’s talk about mouthpieces.

Mouthpieces

You can’t play a trumpet without a mouthpiece. And just like how electric guitar players collect pedals (and guitars), trumpet players seem to accumulate mouthpieces.

Many trumpeters like to have a few mouthpieces to choose from as they fit different styles of music. Obviously you can go overboard and buy a ton of them or you can go … underboard? … and just have one.

They can be purchased as cheaply as $25, but the average mouthpiece cost is around $100, although most are from $50 to $100.

Mutes

There are a number of mutes that you can use with the trumpet. There are cheap mutes and there are expensive mutes. All in all if you go with budget mutes you can get by spending around $75-$100 to get all the mutes including a wow-wow mute, a straight mute, a cup mute, and a plunger mute… which can literally be a plunger.

Other Supplies

Every trumpet needs valve oil to function properly, and it is always a good idea to do apply some slide grease now and again. These are trivial items and they can be purchased in bulk and they last a long time.

It’s always good to have cleaning supplies, but again, these items don’t cost. You could probably have all you need for $50 that will last you a year in other accessories.

Saxophone

Using similar calculations as the trumpet I found that the average price to purchase a saxophone at a particular music store was $5410.24

This average includes high-end and low-end saxophones.

Some interesting data from this:

  • 4.8% of the saxophones cost around $400
  • 5.3% of the saxophones cost around $625
  • 17% of saxophones cost around $2500
  • 27% of the saxophones cost around $4000

The saxophone is, mechanically, a much more complex instrument than the trumpet. It has many keys (~20) that are operated with a sophisticated combination of levers. All of these keys have pads that wear out over time and will need servicing eventually.

You can spend around $400 and find an okay saxophone for a beginner.

Reeds

Oh man… reeds! This is one of those maintenance items that accompanies playing the saxophone that you can’t do without.

The reed is actually what is vibrating when you play the saxophone. It’s typically made of wood (although synthetic reeds exist) and they break all the time.

They break especially with new saxophone players since they are often playing cheap reeds and forget to care for them properly. Reeds need to be moistened before playing.

You can get a pack of 25 reeds for $50 or less.

This is a constant expense that lives with you as you play the saxophone. Reeds *can* last a long time (even upwards of 8 months) if you take care of them, and unfortunately some of them will sound bad immediately out of the box.

Saxophone Mouthpieces

The average saxophone mouthpiece costs around $227, although most available cost in the $150 range.

Saxophone players use different mouthpieces for different styles of music, for example, they may use a mouthpiece for classical music and another mouthpiece for jazz music–this is a similar concept to the trumpet. They are more than 2x the price in a lot of cases, though.

Career Potential

Both of these instruments are considered essentials to orchestral style music as well as jazz band.

As far as popularity, they are about equal (in the U.S. at least)! So as far as picking an instrument that has the most relevance, both of them are equal for these styles of playing.

The trumpet is probably more common in bands outside of orchestra and jazz band, at least from personal listening experience.

I did a bit of digging on Comparably.com

  • The average salary for a saxophonist is $61459 in the U.S.
  • The average salary for a trumpet player is $60782 in the U.S.

In other words, both are about the same as far as pay as a career. This is a little misleading because often a musician isn’t a full-time employee of an organization, but instead does multiple things and picks up jobs on the side (called paid gigs).

The experience might be slightly different though between trumpet and saxophone. I thought this video was very insightful that explained a little bit how the expectations of saxophone players can be very different from a career standpoint:

Which One Do You Think Sounds Better?

This is perhaps the most important reason when it comes down to it. Eventually, whether it’s easy in the beginning or hard–if you are going to get serious about an instrument, you want to choose the sound you love. If you don’t love either, this isn’t the end, I’d have to guess that many people start without a real love for their instrument but they gain that love after hundreds of hours of practice.

However, you might be able to find out now resonates with your soul a bit better. Go for the instrument that seems to fit you!

Trumpet

The trumpet is absolutely gorgeous. It has an incredible range and an incredible dynamic of possible sound.

A sound, such as in the song “So What” is soft and smooth and just melts into your ears.

Miles Davis is one of the de facto greats of the jazz trumpet world. His song So What is iconic:

One of my favorite brass bands is Herb Alpert and the Tijuana brass and heavily features the trumpet (Herb Alpert plays the trumpet). Another demonstration of a different sound and timbre of trumpet that is more playful… and just awesome. If you haven’t heard this song, it deserves hundreds of listenings.

The sound doesn’t stop there! The trumpet was heavily featured in ska bands in the 2000’s and you’ll hear it in many random indie bands. Beirut is one such band and they feature the trumpet prominently.

There’s also jazz where the trumpet is SCREAMING and growling and nothing short of aggressive. It’s a powerful instrument with a lot of dynamic capability.

Anyway, you can’t go wrong with the trumpet as far as sound. It’s diverse, it’s amazing, and it’s challenging.

Saxophone

The saxophone is featured in many varieties of music, and it has a special part in orchestral music and a particularly important role in jazz.

The saxophone has a pleasant timbre that is near the human voice in range. Singing through your instrument has a big part in jazz music, and the fluid nature of the saxophone lends itself to extremely smooth music. This is a fantastic video because you get to hear two different playing styles on the same instrument (the tenor sax).

This speaks to one of the amazing parts of the saxophone, that everyone has their own unique sound to contribute to the world.

Of course, not all saxophone is played smooth, sometimes in some jazz the saxophone can incorporate what are are called growls, screams, and tongue slaps and many other techniques that bring a totally different sound to playing.

I’ll share with you a TinyDesk concert video to give you an idea of what the Saxophone is capable of:

I love this video SO much for so many reasons. It’s just inspiring how these guys took this instrument we all thought had a place only in jazz and classical music and applied their own interpretation.

As a side note, I in no means would compare John Coltrane to these guys–they are only having fun with their own sound and are truly incomparable.

If you feel like you need a jarring transition, here’s one for you.

As I mentioned, the saxophone has an important part in classical music. This slow but beautiful piece performed by Amy Dickson is an excellent example of the beautiful singing quality of the saxophone:

From brash and in your face to smooth to peaceful–that’s the amazing dynamic capability of the saxophone.

Which Is Better? Trumpet Or Saxophone?

If you’ve stuck with me this far, then perhaps you’ll realize how difficult a question this is. They are amazing in different ways! I’ll try and summarize in my own subjective opinion which one is best in different categories:

  • Best Sound: If you were to corner me I’d admit that I think the trumpet has the best sound. I’m biased, though. I played the trumpet in high school and I think it’s just beautiful.
  • Easiest To Learn: Funny fact of life–ask a trumpet player which instrument is harder, saxophone or trumpet, and they will say trumpet. Ask a saxophonist and they will say saxophone. True to this trope, in my opinion saxophone is easier in the beginning to learn the notes and play simple songs. In my opinion, once you’ve gotten past the 1st phase of learning in the trumpet and saxophone, the difficulty is equalized.
  • Most Cost Effective: Trumpet. Not much to argue here–the saxophone is a more expensive instrument to buy, accessorize and maintain.
  • Best For Career: Tie. There’s just as many opportunities in the U.S. for both types of players.
  • Which Instrument Is Louder: If a trumpet and saxophone got in a shouting match, the trumpet would probably win. Not that this benefits anybody.
  • Which Instrument Has a Greater Range: The trumpet I’d say technically has a higher range coming in at 3 octaves (or more depending on the skill of the player), while the saxophone has a range of about 2 and a half octaves. Two caveats. The average saxophonist probably can play with a better range than an average trumpet player. Also, trumpets super high notes don’t really sound that great in my opinion.
  • Which Instrument Translates To Other Instruments Better: Definitely the Saxophone. The trumpet is a specific high-pitched embouchure that translates most easily to the baritone, but it’s very difficult to translate the finicky embouchure to play trombone and trumpet or other low brass. The saxophone player shares similar fingerings with the clarinet and thus often saxophone players double with these two instruments.
  • Which Instrument is better for longer play: Saxophone players’ embouchure will last longer because of the conditioning requirements of the trumpet embouchure.
  • Which Instrument Is Better for Intermittent Play: The saxophone is better because muscle memory can bring back the embouchure technique much more quickly than the conditioning required for a brass embouchure.

So which is better? Well, it’s impossible to sum it up because they have so many advantages and disadvantages. But! Hopefully the list above will give you an idea of which instrument will work better for you!

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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