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.
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 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).
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 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.
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 or guitar.
We know 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 be 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.
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 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|
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