Saxophone Quarter-Tone Charts


The saxophone, invented and patented in Belgium in the mid-1800s, was not designed with anything more than a semi-tone in mind, measured against the Western chromatic scale: C, C#, D, E♭, etc. As such it is not designed to play tones smaller than a semi-tone (the note between C and C# for example). As notes of this size (quarter-tones) sound “out-of-tune” when compared to what we are used to, music from places like Turkey, Lebanon, or traditional music from Japan for example sounds exotic. 

To make a long story short, during my M.A. studies (2003 – 2005) I developed the quarter-tone charts pictured below (for my Yamaha YSS – 62S soprano saxophone) in order to study and perform traditional Arab and Persian classical music. Since then dozens of professional musicians have used them, including the World Music Ensemble at Berklee College in Boston. The fingerings and exact pitches take some getting used when working them into one’s scale practice, but my charts at least make such study possible. A lot of people ask me for these charts, so I am (once again) putting them up for you all to download and use. 

I am also including a sample of one of my quarter tone scale exercises, in this case a basic ascending and descending pattern that helps one get a feel for moving from note to note. Starting the note encased in a square, one moves two quarter-tones up then back, then proceeds to move two quarter-tones down and back, essentially pivoting around a central point. As you are learning new fingerings that will now be “interrupting” how you regularly move from semi-tone to semi-tone, this kind of exercise retrains your fingers and mind on a fundamental level. 

Note: if you are using these charts to play traditional Arabo-Persian music, make sure you remember to use them judiciously. Such quarter-tones are particularly powerful when nuanced and reticent, so use them wisely.





5 thoughts on “Saxophone Quarter-Tone Charts

    1. These charts are 100% exclusive to the saxophone. To play quarter tones on your guitar you will have to have a good luthier remove the frets from your guitar and have them inlaid.

      But you can easily play q-tones on a fretless bass, violin, oud, and other un-fretted instruments. The sitar also has adjustable frets, so you could go that route as well. The sarangi is another great fretless instrument, though I am not sure you could find a good quality sarangi in S. Korea.

      I would buy a good quality gayageum (가야금) and play around with tonality through it. Even better, buy a good omni directional mic to place over it and run it through some digital effects (reverb, delay, etc) and make some cool micro-tonal ambient music. I run my soprano sax through an old Boss VE-20 Vocal Processor + a wah-wah pedal… while playing closely linked quarter-tones (and multi-phonics)… and make it all sound like a banshee or a whispering ghost or some sort of space cricket, etc. Hours of sonic fun!

      1. i had a look & i’d need an 8 stringed guitar or something daft. i have got some pretty odd dischords just messin around with open tunings & weird chord shapes. Gayageums are expensive, i’ve never had an opportunity to play one, but i’d really like to. i played a sitar once & it was a joy, i had a great time. i hope in the future, when i made a bit of money i can buy myself loads of daft instruments & some recording equipment. i want to make space cricket sounds that sounds amazing.

        1. You just need the right digital effect rack/module which contains at least envelope filter (or manual wah-wah), delay, looper, canyon reverb, harmonizer, and chorus features.

          There are also lot of boutique pedals now, so you don’t even have to buy an effects unit, and you can even build your own effects pedals that will help you create a guitar sound that is literally 100% yours alone.

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