The Iconography of the Saxophone
Many parellels exist between music and visual design, whether it be in the area of theory, process, history, or even performance. There are, however, times when the two disciplines intersect.
After reading the book "The Devil's Horn", in which author Michael Segell chronicles the dynamic history of the saxophone, I can understand why the instrument has become a ubiquitous visual icon in print advertising and branding across Western Europe over the past 50 years.
In his book, Mr. Segell references a 40-page survey called, "The Iconography of the Saxophone" by Dr. Bernhard Habla, president of the International Society for the Promotion and Research of Wind Music at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Graz, Austria.
The September 2001 survey cites with illustrations 130 examples (still only a tiny sampling) of advertisements that use the saxophone in some way as a visual element to convey, according to Habla, "youth, fun, action, temptation, eroticism, strength, and freedom." From booz to BMWs to banks, many industries have found the saxophone to be an important sales tool.
For much of the time since its invention by Adolphe Sax around 1840, the saxophone has been the bane of the establishment and the voice of the people. Authoritarian governments, oppressive organizations, and even papal entities have attempted to ban the instrument and jail those who played it. But, like the old saying goes, you can't keep a good thing down.
Due in part to a few visionaries within the establishment and the adoption of the instrument by traveling military bands during the 19th century, the saxophone quickly infiltrated the global music scene and seduced all that heard it.
But what about the saxophone is so seductive? What gives the saxophone that universal voice?
The book contains countless saxophone testimonials from players and aficionados, but it also cites theorists who have argued that musical instruments evolve to imitate or evoke the expressive qualities of the human voice.
Whether that is true or not, Segell points to studies that measure the frequencies of both the human voice and the saxophone. Researchers have found that the two fall within the same frequency range and similarly distribute energy throughout the full range of frequencies. So, not only does the saxophone somewhat resemble the sound of the human voice, it also mirrors its complexity. This allows the player to create a very unique and personal sound. It also means that the saxophone can achieve great success in evoking in the listener "the five basic emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and love/tenderness" by delivering many of the musical cues associated with these feelings.
As for the visual appeal of the horn? With what Segell tells us about the instrument's tumultuous past, the serpentine shape seems almost prophetic. The shape also resembles the human spine. This could imply the saxophone is an extention of one's being. From an aesthetic point of view, it simply complements the natural curvature of the human form.
Every day designers rely on objects, shapes, colors, and lines to communicate a particular message and evoke a response. Sometimes it's valuable to look beyond the design world to understand and appreciate where some of these tools evolved from. More important, it's absolutely necessary in order to broaden the design horizon and spark new ideas. And because visual design and music share common goals, it's only logical that there be connections between the two.