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Saxophone Transposition

Why am I in a different key to the rest of the band?

This is a very common question, especially from anyone who has just bought a saxophone, taught themself a little bit and then decides to play along with some other musicians. It can be a big shock to discover that the piano player, guitarist, bass player are all playing in the key of C, but when you join in on your alto or tenor, YOU ARE IN A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT KEY AND EVERYONE IS GIVING YOU DIRTY LOOKS.

So you discover that your saxophone is in a different key. Yes an alto is in Eb and a tenor is in Bb. This is because they are what is commonly called a “transposing instrument”. This is a common feature of many, but not all, woodwind and brass instruments.

Saxophone Transposition: Is this just to make life awkward?

Actually it’s to make life easier, but may not seem like that at first, especially if you don’t read or arrange music. First of all imagine there is just one woodwind instrument, for the sake of argument we shall call it a flute. All the notes on the flute sound the same as the notes on the piano (well, at least that’s true for the “C” flute). We call this “concert pitch”. Over the years concert pitch has not always been exactly the same, but now it is mostly standardised and a concert pitch of A is a note that vibrates at 440 cycles per second (A=440).

We can have a saxophone that’s about the same size as the flute, and once again all the notes are the same as a piano. But this is a little high saxophone (called a C soprano) and maybe we want something a bit lower and bigger. The most popular saxophones are the alto and tenor, but in order for them to be the size they are, and so sound the way they do, the length of tube is obviously longer and the notes coming out are not the same, in fact they are in a different key.

So, supposing our flute player wants to learn the alto saxophone. He or she is going to have to learn a whole new set of fingering for the larger instruments. On the flute, 3 fingers of the left hand play a G. But on the alto saxophone 3 fingers play a Bb, and on the tenor they play an F. This means you need to learn a whole new set of fingerings every time you learn a different size instrument. To get round this, it was decided to standardise the names of the fingering, so that on whatever woodwind instrument you learnt, the note played by 3 fingers would be called a G, (whether or not it really was a G in concert pitch). In order for everyone to play together with no problems, it became the task of the composer or arranger to write music for these different sized instruments in a different key, ie “transposed”. So the music for alto saxophone is written in a key 6 steps higher than concert pitch. If the music is in the key of Eb concert pitch, it is written in the key of C for the alto saxophone. (AKA the Eb alto saxophone).

The four most common saxophones are Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor saxophones and Eb baritone. There are saxophones in concert pitch, the most common being the C melody, which is between the tenor and alto in size and pitch

These charts will help you understand the transposition of the different size saxophones:

Instrument

Concert pitch

Transposed pitch

Transposition

Soprano sax Bb C Up a whole tone
Alto sax Eb C Up a major 6
Tenor sax Bb C Up a major 9
Baritone sax Eb C Up a major 13

“Transposition” here shows the number of actual steps as an interval. Note that both the tenor and baritone have a natural range most of which is in the bass clef. To make life easier for the player these are transposed an extra octave – a major 9th interval is one octave plus one whole tone, and a major 13 is one octave plus a major 6. For more information on intervals etc. see the beginners’ theory pages.

C instruments

Bb Instruments

Eb instruments

C D A
C#/Db D#/Eb A#/Bb
D E B
D#/Eb F C
E F#/Gb C#/Db
F G D
F#/Gb G#/Ab D#/Eb
G A E
G#/Ab A#/Bb F
A B F#/Gb
A#/BB C G
B C#/Db G#/Ab
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