Saxophone Transposition Explained [Chart Included]

by ReverbLxnd in Saxophone

Here's why notes played on the saxophone will sound different from notes of the same name played on a piano, guitar, flute, and sometimes even clarinet and trumpet. There's everything from a transposition explanation guide and a transposition chart.

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This guide shows you how to transpose music for the saxophone.

The saxophone is a transposing instrument. This means that that notes played on the saxophone will sound different from notes of the same name played on a piano, guitar or any other concert pitched instrument.

By way of summary, tenor and soprano saxophones are B-flat in the Key of B-flat, whereas alto and baritone saxophones are in the key of E-flat. This means that when you play the note C on tenor or soprano sax the note that is heard is actually B-flat. The same goes for alto and bari sax.

In this guide, we will look at the saxophone transposition chart, concert pitch and then transpose both B-flat instruments and E-flat instruments from concert key.

Let’s kick things off with a saxophone transposition chart.

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Saxophone Transposition Chart

Concert Pitch InstrumentsB♭ InstrumentsE♭ Instruments
piano, guitar, concert flute, piccolo, bass flute, chromatic harmonica, any instrument that has a piano-like keyboard, and any instrument that has strings.tenor sax, soprano sax, trumpet, clarinet, bass clarinet, flugelhornalto sax, bari sax
concert pitcha whole note higher than concert pitchthree half notes lower than concert pitch
CDA
C♯ / D♭D♯ / E♭A♯ / B♭
DEB
D♯ / E♭FC
EF♯ / G♭C♯ / D♭
FGD
F♯ / G♭G♯ / A♭D♯ / E♭
GAE
G♯ / A♭A♯ / B♭F♯ / G♭
ABF♯ / G♭
A♯ / B♭CG
BC♯ / D♭G♯ / A♭
CDA

What is Concert Pitch?

Concert pitch simply refers to the key of C.

We refer to those instruments that don’t transpose as being in Concert Pitch or Concert Key or the Key of C.

Some Instruments ARE in Concert Pitch

The piano, the guitar, the trombone, and the flute are in the key of C. There are quite a few instruments that are in the key of C. That basically means you don’t transpose them. If you say a note is in Concert pitch, that’s the note that they play.

Any instrument that has a piano-like keyboard such as an organ, electric and acoustic pianos, synthesizers is almost certainly in concert pitch.

Any instrument that has strings such as banjos, guitars, sitars, ukelele, any of the stringed instruments is almost certainly in concert pitch.

A number of the wind instruments such as the piccolo and concert flute and bass flute and the chromatic harmonica are in concert pitch.

So there is a wide range of instruments that fall into the category of concert pitch instruments.

Whether an instrument is a concert pitch instrument or not is very important from a transposition standpoint.

Granted, some of those instruments, like the guitar actually sound one octave lower than written. But for the purpose of transposition, classifying a guitar as a concert pitch instrument is correct enough.

Saxophones ARE NOT in Concert Pitch

Other instruments, mostly because of the size they are made in, are not in the key of C.

For saxophones, the tenor sax and soprano sax are in the key of B♭, whereas the alto sax and baritone sax are in the E♭.

SaxophoneKey
AltoE♭
TenorB♭
BaritoneE♭
SopranoB♭

Concert C on Alto Sax and Bari Sax

If you take a chromatic tuner calibrated to detect the note A in Concert pitch, and finger C on the alto sax or the bari sax, it will detect this as being the note D♯ (enharmonic equivalent E♭).

We came across chromatic tuners when looking at how to tune a saxophone. Check that guide out if you haven’t if you want to learn why your saxophone needs tuning and how to tune it.

Because there is no key called D♯ major, the alto sax and the bari sax are correctly referred to as E♭ saxophones. They are, therefore, E♭ instruments.

The note that we just played is the equivalent of E♭ above middle C on the piano.

Concert pitch is typically at 440 Hz., and internationally, since about the 1950s, the world has settled on 440 Hz. as being what is called Concert A. That is the note that the orchestras tune to, and what is commonly seen now as standard tuning.

Concert C on Tenor Sax and Soprano Sax

If you take that same chromatic tuner calibrated to detect the note A in Concert pitch, and finger C on the tenor or the soprano saxophone, it will detect this as being the note A♯ (enharmonic equivalent B♭).

Because there is no key called A♯ major, the tenor sax and the soprano sax are correctly referred to as B♭ saxophones. They are, therefore, B♭ instruments.

The note that we just played is the equivalent of B♭ above middle C on the piano.

Concert C on Flute

If on the other hand, you take a Concert Flute, the very name of that flute—Concert Flute—sets that flute as being the same pitch as the piano.

The note that we played earlier on the alto saxophone is low C on the Concert Flute. Don’t get confused, it’s still the E♭ above middle C on piano—the fourth C on the piano.

There are 88 keys on the piano starting from the left-hand side—the fourth C we run into at the midpoint of the piano, right where you sit. They call that note middle C.

However, on instruments like the flute and the guitar, that middle C which is written below the staff, is often referred to as low C.

What is Saxophone Transposition?

So, if when we are playing what we think is the note C for the rest of the world but the piano, guitar, flute, and the world of the Concert pitch instruments hear that as an E♭, it means that we are playing what is called a major sixth higher than concert pitch instruments.

Our C on the alto saxophone is, in fact, the 6th note in an E♭ major scale on a concert pitch instrument.

C is the 6th note in an E♭ major scale. And that’s the secret to getting transposition correct from concert pitch from piano music or flute music to the alto sax.

Transposition from Concert Pitch (Piano, Flute) to Alto Sax or Bari Sax

If you have a look at the music score that I have below, you’ll see two lines of music. Just four bars of a very simple variation of the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

concert pitch to saxophone transposition example, transposing piano orflute to alto or baritone saxophoneexample

The top line is concert pitch. This could very well represent any number of concert pitch instruments.

I have included the piano and flute because they are identically pitched with each other as they are written. G above middle C on the flute, for instance, is G above middle C on the piano.

Playing these two lines of music should reveal that they are identical. You’ll hear that the notes and their relative pitch is exactly the same. This music has been transposed for the alto saxophone.

It’s just the timbre of the sound that is different—the timbre of an alto saxophone is different from the timbre of a flute or piano.

So now that we’ve heard the transposition is correct, how do we actually do it?

The answer is quite simple…

Remember we said that the alto sax sounds a major 6th higher than the piano, and the piano, in this case, is in the key of G major (G A B C D E F♯ G), the key that has one sharp, E is the 6th note of the G major scale. So if the piano is in the key of G major, the alto sax (or bari sax) must be in the key of E major.

It can’t be in any other key.

If the alto sax has to play a major 6th higher than piano, well, that also relates to key signatures, not just notes.

So the second line of music has correctly been transposed into the key of E major (E F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D♯ E), the key that has four sharps.

Also, remember that the alto sax has to play higher than the piano on the music score. It will sound the same but second line G is similar to fourth space E on the alto sax.

First, work out what key the alto sax has to play in, and that’s the sixth note of the major scale of the key that the piano’s playing. Second, drop the note from the original music note to the one in the line below and then raise it an octave.

So, by that logic, the first note on the piano is G. Drop that to first line E and then raise it one octave up to fourth space E.

That’s also how you get the correct octave relationship for the alto saxophone (or bari sax) and the piano.

Now think about the 6th note of the E major scale. That would be C♯. And there you have it, E on the piano has to be C♯ on alto or bari sax. But you don’t have to worry about that because the key signature takes looks after than transposition for you.

For you, it’s simply line down to down and up an octave, or space down to space and up an octave.

One last thing, if you’ve noticed, I have deliberately put an accidental as the third last note in the melody.

An accidental is simply a sharp, flat or natural that doesn’t form part of the key signature.

B♭ is not a standard note in the key of G major.

Nonetheless, the same rule applies. B♭ on the third line drops down to G♭ and then we have to play G♭ up an octave. But the key signature indicates that every G has to be a G♯. We end up with a situation where G♭ and G♯ cancel each other out.

Another way of saying this is that the third last note is correctly transposed as a G natural.

Whether you transpose every note the long way—by taking each note up a major 6th from the piano—or the shortcut I have shown you here—line down to down and up an octave, or space down to space and up an octave—and let the accidentals and key signatures take care of themselves, the result is the same.

Transposition from Concert Pitch (Piano, Flute) to Tenor Sax or Soprano Sax

So, if when we are playing what we think is the note C for the rest of the world but the piano, guitar, flute, and the world of the Concert pitch instruments hear that as a B♭, it means that we are playing what is called a tone lower than concert pitch instruments.

The tenor sax sounds one octave lower than the soprano sax but the transposition key-wise is the same.

This means that we are playing concert pitch music, if we read that, we are going to sound an octave lower than for example a piano or guitar.

concert pitch to saxophone transposition example, transposing piano orflute to tenor or soprano saxophoneexample

To transpose guitar music (concert pitch music) to soprano or tenor saxophone music, we simply have to establish what key we’re in for concert pitch, then take that key up a full tone.

Every note is raised by a full tone including accidentals if any exist.

In this case, we’re in C major (C D E F G A B C), no sharps or flats. A tone up from C major is D major (D E F♯ G A B C♯ D), which has two sharps.

So, your solution if you are a tenor sax player or a player of any of the B♭ instruments such as the trumpet, the clarinet, the bass clarinet, the flugelhorn, make sure that you are in the right key, one full tone higher than concert pitch instruments.

The same goes for the notes as you can see in the transposed music score.

I hope you’ve enjoyed that. Bye for now.

ReverbLxnd

I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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