A Guide to Saxophone Transposition

At some point in your learning journey, the issue of saxophone transposition is likely to pop up.

But whilst it might seem, at first, an unnecessary complication, there are plenty of reasons why it’s both a simple and important skill to master.

Have you ever wondered why you have to play in a different key on your saxophone than the rest of the band?

Well, the answer to that is because the saxophone is a so-called transposing instrument. In this article we will take a look at the hows, whys and whens of transposing.

Transposition basics

When it comes to playing written music, everything seems to start with the key of C.

Often called ‘concert c‘ or ‘concert pitch‘ this is the key the piano is in when you play only the white notes.

Other instruments that play in the key of C include the violin, guitar and double bass.

For everyone else, the notes they play sound different…

If a piano plays the note C, for example, it sounds the same as a guitar or violin playing an C.

Not the case for the saxophones, trumpets, clarinets and most other instruments, though.

If they want to make the same sound, they need to be playing a different note

They need to “transpose.”

For jazz or pop players, it’s worth noting that this need to transpose extends to all notation.

For example, if you read chord changes, these need to be transposed for the instrument as well: Ebmaj7 on a saxophone corresponds to a Cmaj7 on piano/guitar/double bass.

What is a transposing instrument?

You can usually tell a transposing instrument by looking at its full name.

The “Eb Alto Saxophone

The “Bb tenor saxophone

These are instruments whose notation is not written in the same pitch as a non-transposing concert pitch instrument like the piano.

If they want to play along, they need to transpose.

Example of saxophone transposition

To put this in a practical example, if you hear a pianist play a C and want to make the same sound on your Bb tenor or soprano saxophone, you’d have to play a Bb.

To make the same sound on an Eb alto or baritone saxophone, you’d play an Eb.

There are – as we’ll cover – a couple of different ways of approaching this, but they key is to maintain the same gap between what not the piano is playing and what note you’re playing.

It might sound silly and complicated, but there are several reasons why there are many instruments that are “transposing” and you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Let’s take a look at this well-known Charlie Parker phrase from the blues “Now’s The Time“.

The original Eb alto version is:


Play the same sounding phrase on a tenor:


And on the piano/guitar:


As you can see the three melodies start from different notes, have different alterations and also different chords.

When do I need to transpose?

If you’re playing music in an ensemble or band that has been specifically written out, it’s most like already been transposed.

If the composer wants you to play a note that sounds like a C on piano, they’ll write the transposed version on your music.

So in all these situations, simply being aware of transposition as a concept in music theory is enough.

However, if you are playing with various different instruments, all using a single piece of sheet music, for example, you’d need to put your transposition skills into action!

What’s the point of transposition?

Despite how it might seem, transposition is not just there to annoy saxophone students and provide some good exam tests!

One of the most practical benefits is the ease with which it allows you to switch between instruments.

Imagine that you are playing a big band part on your alto sax, and then there is a section where you have to play on soprano.

If saxophones weren’t transposing instruments, you’d have to learn different fingerings for each member of the saxophone family, because the different sizes have a different range.

Hence the soprano is in Bb and the alto is an Eb instrument, yet you can use the same fingerings for the same notes on both instruments.

You read a “C” on the sheet music and you put the same finger down, regardless of which sax you’re playing.

If saxophones wouldn’t be transposing instruments, you’d have to learn different fingerings for each member of the family, also because of the different sizes of the instruments you’d have ledger lines in the notation which would make sight-reading very difficult.

As saxophonist Tamás Gyurcsó advises…

There is a trick that I use if I have to transpose from concert pitch to alto. I read minor third down and then I adjust the octave if it’s necessary.

As you can see from the above example the Eb part starts from D while the piano part starts from F. F to D is a minor third down, just as Eb to C.

The same way works with the tenor/soprano transposition, if you read a step up you can play the tenor part. F to G is a whole step up, just as Bb to C.

So whilst saxophone transposition is not an essential skill in your early playing days, it’s a useful skill to have! 

You’ll also make life easier for potential bandleaders who won’t have to write out the parts for saxophone if you can read the concert score! 

Looking for more?

Check out our beginners guide to learning the saxophone or the best sax brands from around the world. 

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