Transposition and the Saxophone
The fact that saxophones are ‘transposing instruments’ is not a subject that student
saxophonists will need to know at first. But when you begin to play with others, or use
backing track videos off YouTube etc, it becomes a more important topic to understand.
Firstly though, a short note about instrument tuning and key signatures before we get onto
All instruments have a basic tuning. In stringed instruments it will be a set of notes for the
open strings, whereas on the piano, playing all the white notes gives you the simplest key of
C major. Wind instruments, including saxophones, are physically designed to be set in a
particular key too – for the sax, this is either E♭ or B♭. The choice of key is historic, many early
instruments couldn’t easily be played in other keys, or sometimes even manage a chromatic 12-
note scale. (See more about the different keys for the different sizes of saxophones here.)
Pieces of music are all written in different keys, shown by the flats and sharps in their key
signatures at the beginning of the musical stave. For those who read music it can get quite
complicated, especially if that means you need to use all the black notes on the piano for
This means moving a set of notes up or down in pitch, playing in a different key to that a
piece is written in.
For the guitar, it’s really simple to transpose up keys – using a capo, you can stop the strings
at a different pitch and still use the same fingering. Again, it’s more difficult on the piano!
The saxophone family are designed to be transposing instruments, the different sizes
overlapping with each other. The range of an E♭ instrument partially shares that of a B♭ one
making it easier to overlap musical lines, as opposed both playing at the extremity of their
range. Also, the fingering is the same for playing a particular note on the different sizes
which makes for easier doubling of instruments by the same player.
Going back to playing along to those YouTube backing tracks on alto or tenor. To
make it simpler, you need a transposition chart.
It just so happens I’ve made one for you to download here free.