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Saxophone Keys Explained

By January 12, 2016 January 7th, 2018 saxophone lessons

question-mark-175Confused About The Relationship Between Your Saxophone Key (notes) in Relationship to Other Instruments?

If you play certain notes on your alto, how do they match up with the same notes on the tenor, or piano?

Here’s the lowdown on how it all works…

The Different Types of Saxophones and Their Keys:

  • Sopranino is in Eb
  • Soprano is in Bb
  • Alto is in Eb
  • Tenor is in Bb
  • Baritone is in Eb
  • Bass is in Bb
  • Contrabass is in Eb

There are others of course but I didn’t include them on the list because they are very rare and not made or used anymore. These are the C soprano, C melody, the C bass, and the Sub-contrabass. The ones with the letter C in their name means they were made to be in the concert key, just like the piano.

Knowing which key your saxophone is in relative to other instruments is a must!

When we sax players play along with concert pitch instruments such as piano, guitar, violin etc, we must play a different note on our horns for it to come out sounding like the same note the concert pitch instruments play. Saxophone keys explained…

Why do they call it a Bb saxophone?

Because when a Bb saxophone plays it’s written C (the note on your Bb saxophone music sheet) it sounds Bb on the piano (concert pitch). So Bb is the actual pitch it is playing. So as a tenor or soprano sax player just think one whole tone interval above the piano concert pitch.

What is a Whole Tone?

One whole tone means going up two semi-tones which are the smallest increments we have: C, C#, D, D#, E etc. This is referred to as the chromatic scale, where we play every note consecutively leaving nothing out.

Why do they call it an Eb saxophone?

Because when an Eb saxophone plays it’s written C it sounds Eb on the piano. This interval is a minor 3rd. We arrive at a minor 3rd by going up (or down) three semi-tones. C is three semi-tones away from Eb: C, C#, D, Eb.

So, to Recap…

All saxophones are transposing instruments. This means that they are not in concert pitch like a piano or guitar. So when a Bb tenor sax plays it’s written C it sounds Bb on a piano. Think about that for a minute. The note C is exactly one whole step up from the note Bb so whatever concert key your piano or guitar player friends are playing in you need to be one whole tone higher – they’re in A so you need to play in B. If they’re in E you need to play in F#.

If an Eb saxophone such as the alto or bari, plays it’s written C it sounds Eb on the piano. If you study the relationship between these two notes you can see they are a minor third apart – C, C#, D, Eb. So whatever the concert pitch instruments such as the piano and guitars are playing in, the Eb alto needs to be a minor third (3 semi-tones) below – Concert E will therefor be C# for the alto, concert G will be E etc.

If you are experienced on the sax and know all your scales inside out this is easy to do. If not, looking at a piano keyboard may be helpful. This works well for me because my first instrument was a keyboard. Look at an F, you can easily see that the G is one whole tone above it. look at an Ab and you can easily see that the Bb is one whole tone above it.

Why Do Saxophones Need To Be Transposing Instruments Anyway?

You’re not the first person to wonder about this question that’s for sure! It’s not just saxophones. some brass instruments, clarinets, and some flutes are transposing instruments as well. I can’t give you the perfect answer but the scientific reason has something to do with the length or size of the instrument. So, yes it is possible to make a non-transposing saxophone, one that would be in concert pitch like most other instruments.

They Used to Make a Non-Transposing Sax – the C Melody Saxophone!

Imagine, a saxophone that was already in the same key as the piano and all the other concert pitched instruments…no more transposing headaches! The C Melody sax was conceived of in the earlier part of the 20th century, long after the invention of the original alto saxophone back in the 1840’s.

Now whether you realize this or not, the C Melody is not in production anymore and has not been for many decades. Why? Because it just didn’t sound as good as the other transposing saxes. It enjoyed a short-lived popularity then not. Just didn’t work as well. I’m not totally sure about the scientific reason but you’d have to think that the instrument’s actual size is important and related to this. The size of the C Melody sax was in between that of an alto and a tenor… a little bigger than the alto and a little smaller than the tenor. We can assume it’s for this reason it just didn’t work out as well.

I can remember seeing one or two over the years but don’t recall how they felt. We don’t see or hear any known saxophonists today (or over the last several decades) using a C melody sax as their primary instrument of choice. They are usually kept as a collectable.

31 Comments

  • Hey Johnny,
    I do have a question about transposing a song from one key to another key. Looking at any note in relation to it’s scale is a quick/easy way to transpose from one key to another, right? Let’s say we’re playing a song in C Major and we want to transpose that to A Major, just as examples. I know the a G note in the key of C is the 5th note of the scale, so in A Major I would transpose that note and play it as E, because E is a Fifth/Dominant of A Major. If I see a Bb in C Major, which tells me right away I’m dealing with a flat 7, I would play that note as G natural in A Major because it’s the flat 7 in the key of A..so, it’s perfectly acceptable to transpose from 1 key to another like this, right? In working with real live players with the Blues Society, they communicate all the time about the degrees of the scale we’re playing, etc.. and in playing with these guys I have found by looking at my scales and using our system of the degree of the scale (ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii) it’s much quicker to transpose something in my mind from 1 key to the next v.s. sitting down at the table with pencil/sheet music, accounting for the difference of one key to the next on the keyboard, counting those steps on the key board, etc.. I used to transpose like that and it woks okay, but it’s pretty time consuming! LOL I’ve also found the difference on Alto and Tenor to be 5 semi-tones, so if we hear something on the Alto that we wanna play on Tenor, we just account for those 5 semi tones in our minds and we know instantly what key to play in, right?

    • Johnny Johnny says:

      yes Michael, you got it right. so important to know all the scales and chords, when you do this stuff becomes pretty easy.
      at least know what the 1, 4, and 5 is in every key this way you’re ready to blow no matter which key the band is playing in.

  • Hi all,

    as far as I learned, Adolphe Sax build his first instruments in C-tune, because he first wanted his instrument played in an orchestra, so concert tune was the natural choice. But after the saxophone was not accepted for orchestras, he changed to be compatible with marching music and the trumpets and trombones etc. played there.

    I found the transposing first very confusing, but I found a simple explanation:

    the tenor sax (Bb) sounds one full tone deeper (Bb) than noted. To compensate, you have to play one tone higher than concert. Using C major as example, you have to play D major. So here is my simple rule: from concert, you play one tone higher and add two sharps (#) or leave out two flats (b).

    For alto (Eb): it sounds 3 semitones higher, to compensate, you hav to play one and a half tone deeper. Again with C major (concert) as starting, you have to play 3 semitones deeper, resulting in A major. The rule is: Play two tones deeper and add three sharps (#) or leave out three flats (b).

    This is a simple application of the cricle of fifths.

  • Jeff says:

    Hi Rainer, you should take into account the octave too. The Alto Sax plays 9 notes lower and the Tenor 14 notes lower than concert. As there are 12 notes to an octave that is Bb below C, plus and octave for the Tenor.

  • Jeff says:

    Sorry, I should add. That’s if you want to play with another instrument at exactly the same pitch.
    When you want to tune the two instruments together, for example.

  • I have found it the easiest to think of my key is a minor 3’rd from concert, whats easier to play Tenor or Alto?? meaning from a emboucher standpoint I would think a tenor would be easier because it;s a larger mouthpiece YES ?? or NO ??Meaning the high end of a tenor is not the high end of a alto right??

  • sxpoet says:

    Johnny – an excellent explanation of the relationship between the alto/tenor sax and other instruments playing in concert C.
    When i started out 2 years ago i found your simple basic explanation back then easy to grasp as my knowledge of music theory was very poor at the time.

    The only problem i still have on the alto is remembering if i’m 3 semitones below or above the piano note. So the Alto’s play under the piano & the Tenors play on top of the piano.

    Every time i meet a piano player they play an “A” and ask me to blow an “F#” to check i’m in tune with them. I find if you can remember the sound of 6’th note on the piano it gives me a feel for the F# sound. Not that that’s of any relevance to the topic started

    • Johnny Johnny says:

      Yes, Like I said in the video, it’s called an Eb saxophone because when we play a C it’s actually an Eb concert pitch on the piano, so always think 3 semi-tones below. your A example is the same because F# is 3 semi-tones below A. BTW, 3 semi-tones is the same as saying a minor 3rd. For those who know all their minor 3rds this is easy but when you’re not sure if it’s a major or minor 3rd you can just count 3 semi-tones.

  • Jeff says:

    I like Johnny’s quick way of remembering which note to play on your Alto sax.
    Cool, if I want to play a note – just subtract three.

    When I was transpose music for my Alto, I have a choice to raise all the notes by nine notes for the exactly the pitch, or lower them by three which will still sound good, but those notes will be an octave lower than the piano’s. So most of the time I just move them up by nine.

    I thought about an easy way to remember this pitch issue for when transposing music – just ask the question.
    Question : What is the pitch of our Tenor, an Alto take five. (Remember the tune Take Five?)

    Answer : What is the pitch o four-ten-or, an Alto minus five.
    (Tenor) = 14 (Alto) Take Five = 9
    As both instruments are larger than a recorder, they play deeper by this many notes.
    (Remembering there are 12 notes to an octave)

  • Johnny Johnny says:

    Guys, you’re making it waaaayyy to complicated. I’m not talking about scoring music for an orchestra. I’m talking about when we’re in a room with a band and the guitar player says this songs in the key of G
    What are you gonna do? What key are you gonna play in?
    for pete’s sake… who cares about how many notes or octaves you’re going to be off of the piano? Doesn’t matter. What DOES matter is you come in playing in the right key…agreed?

    • mfdwd says:

      i understand all the above, (have many years concert band, classical , orchestral, etc) For many years now however , I have only been playing blues, rock reggae etc with bar bands. Guitarist says playing in G, I have to think F, then as song begins shouts, ” No lets do it in A ” aghhhh This whole transposing was driving me crazy!!! My simple solution is to “think” in concert pitch, I simply “relearned the fingering” so Guitarist says “G” I play “G ” ( really the “F” fingering I guess) I only play Tenor , Not sure if any downside to this as I rarely use charts of any sort and when I do just follow guitar tabs or keyboard. no more thinking on stage trying to transpose keys, I just think and play concert. Works for me.

      • Johnny Johnny says:

        It’s the other way around: if the guitarist says play in G then you play in A., just as if you’re playing in G then he’s playing in F…
        on tenor we are one whole tone above concert. and when on stage we’re not transposing, we are simply playing in the key we are in. there’s no headaches about what key the rest of the band is in, it’s just to figure out what key we will play in, from then on you just play in the right key, there’s nothing more to figure out.

      • I’m a newbie to the sax, but I’v played guitar for years tho very little music theory. I put my guitar in the closet and learned to make some nice tones on this old alto sax. I found a finger chart for “G Blues scale” I learned the notes of the scale and mess around with different riffs a bit. So I’m thinking I’ll record some blues progression on my guitar in the key of G and then use as a backing track for my sax exploration / experimentation / improvisation fun. I had a hunch there was something up when I kept hearing people talk about playing such and such note immediately followed by “concert different note”. I just had a feeling…. SO, YA, I just learned of the whole transposed instrument thing, very very confusing when I don’t know the theory. I basically get the transposition thing now but I’m thinking this is gonna suck the fun out of everything. To much thinking, the music’s supposed to enter the brain thru the ears not thru the eyes, right? I had this crazy idea, told the wife this is crazy and no doubt wrong for several reasons but why not simply re-name my finger chart with the concert transposed equivalent note “labels” and since I havn’t really learned anything yet, I’ll just learn and remember the fingering as being called the equivalent note on guitar…. told you it was crazy….
        Then about 10 minutes later I read mfdwd’s previous comment. Seems I’m not the only one thinkin outside the box.

        I think what Johnny has been saying on here is exactly what I’m looking for. When I’m jammin with my buddies and they jump into something “Lets do it in B”, or E, or A, or G, or whatever….I just need to know where the 1, 4, 5’s are. Then just let it take me wherever as long as I can find my way back to the 1, 4, 5’s , I’ll figure it out by ear maybe from there..maybe. This makes alot more sense to me.

      • I’ve done the same. Most musicians I’ve played with are guitar or keyboarders so as a teenager who had forgotten grade school theory, I just learned the fingerings on my alto, then my soprano, then my tenor and finally on my baritone – as concert tones. I just never understood why a C diesn’t always sound the same on every instrument – I mean, they can play those sounds. Why not call them by the same name? I’ve been writing arrangements for acts who play big venues, tour and record, and I have my own casual horn section that plays with as many as 4 or 5 groups. I’ve had the pleasure and good luck to play with great artists and now with my own sons. My dumbed-down concert pitch notation works well for most everyone I play with. One of my horn section players, a masters educated trumpet player recently described my arrangements as “amazing” and “once you get used to his style of notation you become a convert.” I am extremely comfortable talking to string players about keys, ones, thirds, fifths, etc, but am also reluctant when I’m introduced to a horn player who needs to read my notation, because I know it’s not the accepted style and might look childlike to an educated musician. But it works, and I’m too old to try and relearn the theory they tried to teach me 50 years ago.

    • So this is easy: if you have a tenor, add two semitones (and #s) in you example leading to A. For alto, you have to subtract 3 semitones (add 3 #s) resulting in E.

      If you look at the circle of fiths – here in a flat notation: (the circle closes as Db = C#, Gb = F# )
      Cb – Gb – Db – Ab – Eb – Bb – F – C – G – D – A – E – B – F# – C#

      For tenor, you have to travel 2 stations to the right, and for alto you go 3 stations to the right.
      If you now ask, what happens when the guitar player says B and you have an alto.. ???
      The next station after C# would be G#, but that can be played as Ab, so you would play Ab with four flats instead of G# with 6 simple and one double sharp 😉

  • Steve Lester says:

    Johnny, I couldn’t agree with you more. Reading these replies, I’m almost confused! LOL! I started playing the sax in April of 2015. I purchased an Alto and a Tenor, because I couldn’t decide which I liked the most. I have never played any instrument, and don’t know anything about the “Circle of Fifths” (I had to look that up) and I don’t know the difference between a “semitone” and “major and minor” and all that other stuff you guys are talking about. So… Something Johnny taught me months ago has worked AWESOME for me. When playing with the piano or guitar, I say “What key are you in?” And WHATEVER they say if I’m on the Alto, I subtract 3, and if I’m on the tenor, I add 2. 2 or 3 what??? I don’t know. And I don’t care. Call it whatever. It’s simple though. If they say “C” and I’m on the tenor, I say to myself, “C sharp, D… I’m in D” If they say “C” and I’m on the Alto I say, ‘B, A#, A… I’m in A.” It really is THAT simple. As for the octaves, thank God for an octave key and an ear. I don’t have to be a mathematical genius to figure that one out, nor do I have to have a musical degree. As for learning the scales, I’ve about got them all down. As for the 1, 4 and 5, I’m going to figure out what that is, and learn that too. As for my playing ability, I was asked to play at a church of about 250 people during the Christmas season, and then asked to come back and play for their Christmas program between sets. I played with and without backup music and tracks and they loved it. Played the songs I’d purchased from Johnny’s site. The easy ones!! LOL!!

  • Johnny Johnny says:

    Yes Steve, you got it without even understanding much theory. the thing we are subtracting or adding is a semi-tone, which is the very next note. look at a piano and if you play a key then move up to the very next key (black or white) without skipping any of them, this is a semi-tone.
    two of these semi-tones equals a whole tone, thats why when you count up 2 semitones you end up playing in the right key when on tenor, tenor is one whole tone above concert pitch.
    the 1, 4, and 5 refer to the chords in the key (scale) we are in… so if we are jamming a blues tune in C, then C is the 1 chord, the next chord will be the 4 chord which is the F, then the G which is the 5 chord.
    this is so simple because you know that this is what a C major scale looks like: C D E F G A B C
    C is the first note of the scale and so the 1 chord, F is the 4th note of the scale and so the 4 chord, G is the 5th note of the scale and therefore the 5 chord.
    Easy right?

    • Steve Lester says:

      Aw man! That IS simple! I was thinking the 1, 4 and 5 was going to be complicated! LOL! That’s simple math. So when I do my scales I’m just going to make a mental note of each one and I’ll have it down in no time! Thanks Johnny!!

      • Yes, everything in harmony is based on the 5. In fact the 4 is 5 counted down from the main tone 1. So if you have a C and you go 5 tones down, you’ll find the F.
        When looking on the chords, the basic chord consists of the first, third and fifth tone of the scale, this is for C: C-E-G. And here it is again: the 5!
        Now look at the circle of fifths above. FInd the C. What do you see left and right to the C??? F and G.
        Now to the accidentials: You know that C (major, we speak about major scales here) does not have any accidentials. Now back to the circle: Counting from C to the right, you add one sharp. Now, what sharp do you add? – just the tone 2 left to your scale. So i.e. looking at the E. That is 4 right of the C – you know now that E has 4 #’s. Which ones ? just count 4 back from the D (2 left from E) and you get: D# G# C# F# – easy ?
        Now the other side: from C to the left, you add one flat. Again – which ? Just the tone directly left – so for F you add one flat and this is Bb. For Bb you add Eb etc.

        The only thing you have to know is how to count to 5 – and that is not hard, you just need the fingers of one hand 😉

  • What Johnny brought out above, to just keep it simple, is one of the hardest things to do for many, many people; not just for transposing . We tend to complicate many, many things in learning to play the Saxophone. What Johnny is showing here is not rocket-science or anything, it’s very straight-forward. He’s just talking about playing with a band, a guitar/piano friend whose playing in say the key of E. If I’m on Tenor that means I’m going to play with him in F#, which is 2 semi-tones above my friend. If I’m on Alto I playing with my guitar friend whose in the key of E, on the Alto I will play in the key of C#, 3 semi-tones below the key of E. It’s a simple as that, piece of cake! Nothing complicated about this stuff 🙂

  • Jeff says:

    Michael – Besides learning to play the sax properly I have set myself the goal of being able to pick up any piece of music and to play it exactly the way it should sound. This afternoon I discovered that I was pressing the reed and mouthpiece too tightly on the Tenor. Now with less lip pressure the sound has improved quite a bit. It may be easy once you know how, but it takes time and practice to get all these things right.

  • Johnny Johnny says:

    Jeff, good observation… on the same thought I can also add that when you start putting a little more of the mouthpiece in your mouth your sound will open up more too. doing this will feel slightly strange or uncomfortable at first (and so it should) but keep doing it every day and it will feel right and if you actually start playing with more of the mp in your mouth you will notice your tone improving.

  • Jeff says:

    Hi Johnny, thank you for the advice I will try that.
    I am just starting to come right with the Tenor and I hope to do a Tenor upload in the not too distant future.
    BTW – We really enjoyed your version of a whiter shade of pale – smashing!

  • Theo Marais says:

    Steve, johnny you are so right. Some explanations just lose me. I started playing tenor at 45. NO music theory but I had a very passable sound from the beginning. Learnt about transposing the hard way. Also started playing with a church band (they are very forgiving – no pun intended) and you can make mistakes. I need to grasp and understand theory to remember. So far I’m not there, but I understand the C-E-G chord progression of C and that is what I do when I see guitar chords on the music sheet. I learnt the transposed keys by heart – at least the ones we used most often. I don’t understand the discussion around the 4th (F in this case) as the third is used in the chord? And I need to learn to improvise. How do I recognise a key quickly? So I am starting with Johnny’s basic course to see what gaps need to be filled. I want to play because I like it, I like my tenor’s sound, I enjoy music and making it with a sax. And it relaxes me.

    Does this make sense?

  • Johnny Johnny says:

    Hey Theo, no, I don’t think you’re really grasping it…
    C-E-G is not a chord progression. C-E-G are the notes that make up the C major chord, these are 2 very different things.
    you said “I learnt the transposed keys by heart”… not sure what you mean by that. What are transposed keys?
    I’m trying to figure out where you’re at so I can give you some clarity, the way you describe it doesn’t make sense to me.

    • Theo Marais says:

      Apologies Johnny. I probably used all the wrong terminology in the wrong place. Let me clarify (I hope).
      I played off the guitarist’s music sheet. When it indicated “Bb” I knew that would be C. So I played C or E or G or any combination of those three in upper or lower register. It seemed to work and it served to fill in among the other instruments. That is what I mean by progression (C-E-G).
      With transposed keys I mean that Bb is C, C is D for the tenor and so on. So whenever I saw the notes for a song in F (looking at the guitarist music) I knew I play in G (G-B-D). I felt very limited, though – and frustrated.
      The stuff-up came when someone decided to do a key change. So now I do not have the notes that the guitarist should be playing and I was (still am) lost, because we started in Bb and I knew how to ‘transpose” in my head every note (notation?) I saw (Bb became C-E-G) But with a key change I have to make two adjustments in my head: the Bb I read I ‘transposed” to C, but now need to do it again and play D if they changed the key to C. Just too much to do too quickly.
      I’m sure there is a better way – just have not found it yet… (here’s hoping)

  • Johnny Johnny says:

    Ok I see you are on the right track. Best thing you can do is practice all the keys on your own and then you’ll be prepared for any situation. The good news is it’s all very mathematical and so once you know your scales and chords they;re all the same. When you see concert Bb you know for you on tenor it’s a C and so you think C E G which is right and C E G are the notes that make up a C major chord, so knowing this you can safely use those notes to improvise. taking it one step further, you can play the C major scale (CDEFGAB) and know that you can use those notes to improvise as well. so now you know that you need to be able to play all 12 major scales and chords and you can do this because you know one of them already. Right?

    • Theo Marais says:

      That is how I’ve picked it up. Need to train my ear too I suppose, but now will be checking the foundations with your course before I move on! And practicing.
      So what is the importance of the 4th note? (F in this case).

  • Johnny Johnny says:

    well, the F as part of the scale will sound like it wants to resolve when played over the 1 chord…like it has some tension so we generally keep away from playing it over the 1. The F as a chord progression is the 4 chord which is one of the major and most important chords along with the 1 and 5.

  • My comment (above?) was a reply to Mr. MFDWD and that I have done the same as MFDWD to learn the horn fingerings in concert pitches. Yes I’m lazy, but it just makes more sense.

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