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 themselves 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. Welcome to the world of saxophone transposition.
Download the saxophone transposition chart
This is when 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.
NB: there are saxophones whose notes do all correspond to the notes of a piano or guitar. We say they are “pitched” in the key of C because a C on the instruments sounds the same pitch as an actual C (aka concert pitch). The most common is the C melody though very few are made these days. The C melody was quite popular in the 1920s and marketed as a useful instrument for people to gather round the family piano and play together from the same piece of sheet music.
However it was the alto and tenor that became more popular in bands. The alto (pitched in Eb) is slightly smaller and higher pitched than the C melody, and the tenor (pitched in Bb) is larger and lower. These are the most common saxophones but of course there are other sizes, e.g. the soprano (in Bb one octave higher than the tenor) and the baritone (in Eb one octave lower than the alto).
Is transposition just to make life awkward?
No. In fact it’s to make life easier, but may not seem like that at first, especially if you don’t read or arrange music and you want to play in a band with guitars and keyboards. To understand the reasoning behind giving notes a different name to there actual concert pitch sound, we need think about what would happen if this wasn’t the case. The two benefits we look at in this article are these:
- Easier to switch between different size instruments (e.g. tenor and alto) without having to learn a whole different set of fingerings for each
- If you read music, there will be fewer ledger lines above or below the stave.
What would happen if saxophones weren’t transposing instruments?
In other words, if all the notes on any saxophone had the same name as on a piano. So let’s look at a couple of the problems that we might encounter:
Different fingerings for each size of instrument
We mentioned above that on a C melody saxophone, the C scale sounds the same as the C scale on a piano. So you start the scale with three fingers of your left hand and four fingers of your right.
However on a tenor, which has a slightly longer tube, the note that comes out with that fingering is a Bb, and on the alto it is an Eb.
This means if you learn alto fingerings, but then want switch to tenor, you would need to learn a whole new set of fingerings. To get round this, it was decided to standardise the names of the fingering. This meant that whatever woodwind instrument you learnt, the note played by 3 fingers of the left hand and four fingers on the right would be called a C whether or not it really was a C in concert pitch.
This also makes life easy for somebody to switch between flute (which has a very similar fingering system) and either alto or tenor. As the flute is pitched in C, then this would be yet another set of fingerings to learn were it not for the transposition method of naming the notes.
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 we write the music for alto saxophone in a key 6 steps higher than concert pitch. If the music is in the key of Eb concert pitch, we write it in the key of C for the alto saxophone.
If every note was always written exactly as it sounds, due to the range of the instrument there may be more ledger lines above or below the treble clef. The normal range of the saxophone when written as a transposed instrument has a comfortable three ledger lines above (top F) and one below (low Bb). For the same reason some instruments transpose by an octave or two. A piccolo is pitched one octave above a flute, but the written notes are actually an octave lower than the sounding notes, otherwise the top C would be above five ledger lines. Likewise guitar is written an octave higher than it sounds, so this also is technically a transposing instrument.
But what if I the music I play doesn’t have transposed sheet music?
This is the other side of the coin, and yes it is more awkward for anyone who either doesn’t use sheet music, or plays in a band that only has concert pitch sheet music. There is no quick solution, the only answer in this case is to learn the concert pitch names of the notes, and be able to transpose “in your head.” This is a skill that most saxophone players at some time in their life will probably need to learn.
As mentioned above, the most common saxophones today are Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor saxophones and Eb baritone.
Traditionally, people speak of a Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor, Eb baritone etc. These names denote which concert pitch note is actually sounded when that note is played on the saxophone. You can see this in the chart.
To understand the chart fully you will need to know a little bit about intervals (the fourth column) , ie the size of the pitch that the notes are transposed by.
|Soprano||Bb||C||Up a whole tone|
|Alto||Eb||C||Up a major 6|
|Tenor||Bb||C||Up a major 9|
|Baritone||Eb||C||Up a major 13|
In the above chart the Transposition column shows the number of actual steps transposed 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 we keep these in the treble clef. So we transpose these by an 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.
All the Notes and Their Transposed Equivalent
Can I work out the transposition without a chart?
Tenor or soprano
Ideally you need to not rely on the charts and learn how to transpose for yourself. We already know tenor/soprano transposes up a whole tone.
NB: Technically tenor is a 9th, ie a whole tone and an octave, but for the purposes of transposing sheet music, often a whole tone is best. You can always play up an octave if appropriate which is obviously an easy “extra” transposition.
So first of all we need a new key signature. Up a whole tone involves adding two sharps, or removing two flats. (Exception: In the case of F major which has only one flat we would remove that one flat and add one sharp)
The easiest way is to look at the cycle of fifths. For now beginners don’t need to worry about the significance of the fifth or fourth, apart from to maybe think that ascending by a two fifths brings you to the same key as ascending a 9th or a whole tone. If that doesn’t mean much to you don’t worry, all you need to do to transpose for tenor or soprano is look at the chart and move two keys clockwise. C becomes D, G becomes A, Eb becomes F and so on. You can then see which sharps or flats the new key signature has.
For minor keys you need to use the relative minors (more about that soon…)
Next move the actual concert pitch notes up a whole tone. For simple tunes you may be able to do this in your head (great practice!) but if you are transposing sheet music you need to move the note up one line or one space.
Using the cycle of fifths chart above, instead of moving two keys clockwise as with tenor, you move three. So Eb becomes C, G becomes E etc.
Adjusting the notes on the score is a bit trickier. From concert pitch you need to move up five lines or spaces.
Tip: for baritone transposing concert pitch music in bass clef. Just change the key signature as above, change the clef to treble and keep the notes on the same lines or spaces.