REVIEWED BY:  James Romain

Dr. James Romain serves as Professor of Saxophone and Associate Director of Jazz Studies at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. Active regionally, nationally, and internationally as a soloist, chamber musician, recitalist, clinician, and jazz/commercial performer, he embraces diverse genres of music. Dr. Romain actively contributes to the growing body of compositions and pedagogical literature for the instrument through his pursuit of commissions, recording projects, and published articles.

Quarter-tone Technique for Saxophone

Review by James Romain

Since Edison Denisov composed his landmark Sonate of 1970 for Jean-Marie Londeix, quarter tones have been an integral part of the language of modern saxophone writing and, consequently, a required element of saxophone technique and pedagogy.  According to Denisov, “In the vast majority of my works, quarter tones give an impression of a very intimate expression…I use them mostly during moments of greatest intimate expression. The half step is already expressive, but if it is divided by two, it becomes twice as expressive and therefore more intimate.”[1]  As with altissimo, multiphonics, slap-tongue, circular breathing, and a host of other extended techniques, facility with quarter tones is no longer optional, if one wishes to perform the music of our time, or at least of the last half-century. In addition to Denisov, composers such as Ryo Noda, Fuminori Tanada, Iannis Xenakis, and Mark Engebretson have utilized the division of the octave into twenty-four equal (50-cent) intervals as the foundation for expanded melodic, harmonic, and timbral possibilities in their writing for our instrument.


The altissimo register has received relatively extensive pedagogical attention (Rascher, Lang, Sinta/Dabney, Rousseau)[2], as has the subject of multiphonics (Dorn,  Kientzy, Londeix, Hall)[3]. However, other than a brief seven pages devoted to the subject by Londeix[4], and tangential to Ronald Caravan’s Paradigms I[5], the topic of quarter tones has seen a dearth of serious pedagogical attention.  Brandon Dixon, in his excellent new Quarter Tone Technique for Saxophone[6], remedies this long-standing oversight in a very credible way.  Dixon prefaces the work, “The goal of this book is to encourage saxophonists to learn this technique and to encourage saxophone composers to write for it. Quarter tonality presents new melodic and harmonic possibilities that can bring about previously unexplored textures, colors, and atmospheres to music.”[7]  Dixon presents the material in a logically-ordered and clearly-stated manner.  After some introductory remarks, the bulk of the material is devoted to four broad sections: Fingerings for the Continuous Range, Scale Studies, Chord Studies, and Etudes.  The methodical introduction of the fingerings is effectively presented, including at least four different fingerings for each note, providing options to accommodate different horns, players, and technical contexts.  Importantly, each new note is accompanied by six different one-line exercises, presenting the note in the context of quarter-tone chromatic melodies, various scales, and chords.  With each new exercise, the player is increasingly challenged from both technical and aural perspectives to successfully integrate these new sounds into the flow of music.

Moving past the introduction of fingerings, Dixon has written Scale and Chord Studies that recall Olivier Messian’s Modes of Limited Transposition, newly expanded to utilize the 24-Tone Equal Temperament system (24-TET).  The Scale Studies include, for example, ¾ Tone Symmetric Octatonic Scale, Semiflat Pentatonic Scale, and the Octatonic Major Scale.  The Chord Studies include, among others, Neutral Third Triad, Semisharp Major Triad, and Semiflat Minor Seventh Chord. After these, Dixon has included ten extensive etudes that may be likened to Guy Lacour’s application of Messian’s modes in his popular 28 Etudes. They are full-blown compositions that stand alone as performance pieces, similar in that regard to Christian Lauba’s Etudes. Dixon has provided, through, a dynamic companion resource that greatly increases the utility of the printed book.  All of the etudes can be found there for ready reference as players work through the many challenges posed. The recordings illustrate both the unique tonal relationships made available via quarter tones, and the unique timbre changes

inherent to the cross-fingerings frequently involved in their production, and provide a ready model for saxophonists wishing to develop their facility with quarter tones. 

The single quibble that I have with the author is one of nomenclature. Dixon, not British, has opted to apply the nomenclature adopted by Myles Skinner in his quarter tone doctoral dissertation work

The use of the terms semiflat, sesquiflat, semisharp, and sesquisharp strikes me as counter to the notion of applying the concepts and technique as quickly as possible. It requires, like the use of hemidemisemiquaver, a momentary mental trip to Britain. While the internal logic is certainly sound, I anticipate that the adoption of these terms will be as hasty as that of the metric system in the United States. Having encountered quarter tone music for the past thirty years, this is my first exposure to these terms. Those pitches have always, in my performance and pedagogical experience, been described as “¼-tone flat,” “¾-tone flat,” “¼-tone sharp,” and “¾-tone sharp.” I’m not sure that particular wheel was in need of reinvention.  That said, the notation itself does reflect the emerging standard among present-day composers and, nomenclature notwithstanding, makes the music clear and readily interpreted by the performer.


Brandon Dixon has presented an important work that will be of great interest to performers and pedagogues worldwide, and will move us toward the goal of included techniques that we once considered “extended” into the realm of standard saxophone technique.

[1] James Umble, Jean-Marie Londeix: Master of the Modern Saxophone (Roncorp, 2000), 224.

[2] Sigurd M. Rascher, Top-Tones for Saxophone (Carl Fischer, 1941 - 3rd Ed. 1977); Rosemary Lang, Beginning Studies in the Altissimo Register (Lang Music Publications, 1979 - Revised Ed., 1978), Eugene Rousseau, Saxophone High Tones (MMB Music, 1978, 2nd Ed. 2002); Sinta, Voicing (Blaris Publicaitons, 1992, Republished 2008).

[3] Ken Dorn, Saxophone Technique Vol. I - Multiphonics (Dorn Pub, 1975); Daniel Kientzy, Les Sons Multiples aux Saxophones (Salabert, 1982); Jean-Marie Londeix, Hello Mr. Sax! Or Parameters of the Saxophone (Alphonse Leduc, 1989); Randall Hall, Multiphonic Etudes (ReedMusic, 2009)

[4] Jean-Marie Londeix, ibid.

[5] Ronald Caravan, Paradigms I (The Saxophone Service, 1975).

[6] Brandon Dixon, Quarter Tone Technique for Saxophone (Brandon Dixon, 2017).

[7] Dixon, 1.