- 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.