In case your are not 100% sure how transposition works, I’ve put together this concise saxophone transposition guide to clear things up.

Watch the video below:

Click here to get a downloadable pdf of this guide.

The saxophone is a transposing instrument. 

This means that notes played on a saxophone will sound different from a note of the same name played on another instrument such as the piano or guitar. 

We refer to those instruments that don’t transpose as being in “Concert” key or the key of C.

B-flat instruments

*Tenor and soprano saxophones are in the key of B-flat.

This means that when you play the note C on a tenor or soprano saxophone, the note that is heard is actually a B-flat.    

transposing-guide-bb
Played note C                     –                     Heard note Bb

*tenor saxophones sound an octave lower than shown in the examples. The examples reflect how saxophone players typically visualize and think about transposing.

So if you are playing along with other musicians or a backing track, and they are in the key of B-flat, you will want to play in the key of C on your tenor or soprano saxophone.

The interval between the note or key that you play in (on a transposing instrument) and the actual note or key being heard (concert key) is constant. 

Important:

For any B-flat instrument, you want to be playing notes that are 1 whole step (or 2 half steps) above the concert or “heard” note.

In the following example, the music is in the key of G.

transposing-guide-example-g
Concert Key of G

 

So on our B-flat saxophone we need to transpose up a whole step putting us in the key of A on our instrument.

transposing-guide-example-a
Transposed Key of A

E-flat Instruments

*Alto and baritone saxophones are in the key of E-flat

This means that when you play a C on your alto or baritone saxophone the note that is heard is actually an E-flat.    

transposing-guide
Played Note                     –                     Heard Note

*alto saxophones sound an octave lower than shown in the examples. Baritone saxophones sound 2 octaves lower. The examples reflect how saxophone players typically visualize and think about transposing.

Important:

For any E-flat instrument, you want to be playing notes that are a minor 3rd (or 3 half steps) below the concert or “heard” note.

In this example the music is in the key of G.

transposing-guide-example-g
Concert Key of G

So on our saxophone which is in the key of E-flat we need to transpose down a minor third which would put us in the key of E on our instrument.

transposing-guide-example-concert
Transposed Key of E

Essential for all saxophone players

As saxophone players, we need to be able to calculate this transposition instantly so that we can play with other instruments that are in concert key like piano and guitar.

For example, if you are playing with a group and they tell you the next song is Stand By Me in the key of A, you will need to transpose. 

Can you do it in your head right now?

Saxophone Transposing Chart

The chart below represents each of the 12 notes or keys. They are arranged chromatically in a circle like a clock. Each hour position ascends a half-step as we progress clockwise and descends a half step in the counter-clockwise direction.

Use this chart as a guide to transposing on your saxophone. If you play a B-flat instrument like tenor or soprano saxophone, you will need to go up clockwise 2 positions from the “Concert” key or note.

Saxophone Transposition Chart
Saxophone Transposition Chart

Transposition Quiz:

1. If the Concert key if F, what key will you be in if you play tenor saxophone? alto saxophone?

2. If the Concert key is Ab, what key will you be in if you play the baritone saxophone? soprano saxophone?


Jay Metcalf
Jay Metcalf

is a saxophonist who has performed and recorded with some world renowned musicians including Booker T, Graham Nash, Madeleine Peyroux, Larry Klein, Ashford & Simpson, Huey Lewis, Ben Taylor, Chuck D and others.
As the founder of BetterSax.com his mission is to help developing saxophone players break away from traditional music learning methods and discover a more efficient, practical and fun way to become a Better Sax player.

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    2 replies to "How to Transpose – a Guide for Saxophones"

    • Gerard Smith

      I’ve tried several times to make sense of the circle of fifths and how to transpose properly and quickly, but never had much success, it always seemed complicated.

      After reading you Saxophone Transposition Guide, I had it all figured out in five minutes. You’ve made it Incredibly simple and it made sense straight away.

      Thank you, great guide to read.
      Gerard.

      • Jay Metcalf

        Gerard,
        I’m glad to hear that. These things always seem complicated for a while until they don’t. I think I had someone explain it to me that way a long time ago and it was then clear.
        Jay

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