Ligature : myth or reality?
From the shoelace to the gold-plated ligature, opinions are split concerning fixing the reed on the mouthpiece and its effects. This article presents a retrospective, as unbiased as possible, on the influence of the ligature (if there is one) on the vibration of the reed and more generally on the sound of the saxophone.
The ligature, why?
The ligature is used in order to maintain the reed on the table of the mouthpiece table but still allowing a part of the reed free to vibrate. It doesn’t really matter what object is used, it is essential to the sound emission. The influence of the ligature on the sound and ease of the musician is linked to compression points of the reed, its fixation height and the pressure applied by the ligature and by its material. Dive into your pupil memories, the system of reed-ligature is quite similar to the one of the ruler on the edge of your desk.
The compression points
Several configurations exist to allow a better tightness between the table and the reed. If we want the reed, often slightly concave or convex, to adapt perfectly to the table of the flat mouthpiece, the ligature must respectively push (red arrows) on the middle or on the edges of the reed. It is difficult to say this parameter has the most influence because the reed is quite soft. The tightening is generally enough in order to keep the tightness.
The height of the ligature
The position of the ligature in comparison with the tip of the reed is a parameter which influence is easier perceptible. The height of the ligature can have influence on the timbre of the sound and its accuracy. The more the ligature tightens the reed close to its tip, the more the lowest harmonic notes are harder to obtain, and the sound is perceived as brightered and more focused. Also, the chord can be heard slightly higher and the playing range can be weakened. On the contrary, if the ligature tightens the reed close to the bottom, the playing range can be more important and the timbre slightly darker.
The pressure of the ligature on the reed
The pressure on the reed of the mouthpiece has influence on the timbre of the sound. The more pressure the ligature exerts, the more the sound will be bright and round. On the contrary, a less tight ligature can make a darker sound. Tighten the ligature more or less the reed allows to modify the opening of the mouthpiece (on a lesser scale).
The material of the ligature?
The gold or silver-plated metal, leather, cloth, wood, polymeric materials… As much materials as ligature references. Usually, the manufacturers agree on the fact the material used for the ligature vibrates only slightly with the reed but that it has influence on the general sound of the saxophone. It is likely that the metal offers a brighter and more powerful sound than the one with a leather or cloth ligature. But it is also linked with the tightening of the reed, which is often less tight with soft ligatures. Also, gold would allow a warmer sound… Concerning polymeric materials, no studies have been conducted so far, but some ligatures definitely work. Anyway, directly link the sound of your saxophone with the material of your ligature is very delicate, it is here a matter of very small details, often imperceptible for most sax players.
The ligature inspires musicians and inventors
Whatever we say about the saxophone ligature, the research around this technology is real. In 2013, a ligature maker won the Lépine competition, with a ligature allowing adjustments seen above. Also, lots of musician-craftmen make their own ligature and sometimes sell them. Some others laugh at this parameters and ensure that simplicity is often the answer. At Syos, the ligature also inspired us: a minimal design for an improved simplicity and efficiency (see our choice of ligatures on our online shop). Anyway, the ligature inspires: from prettier technologies to the most unusual objects…
Let’s conclude with the ligature
Although the ligature is an essential tool for the creation of the sound, it is not a piece that needs an outstanding conception to work well. On the other hand, the works made on the saxophone ligature have allowed to find optimal situations, where simplicity of sound emission and custom timbre have been improved. However, in order to hear and feel these improvements, one must have a good hearing and a good experience of the saxophone. The quality of ligature is: a little material, a lot of work, and a lot of psychology !
- The ligature is essential to the creation of sound.
- The most rudimentary ligature can work.
- The ligatures influence several parameters (tightening, material ...) at the level of the reed which are more or less perceptible according to the habits of the saxophonist.