What is a transposing instrument?

To put it simply, a transposing instrument is one whose musical notes are written at a pitch different from actual concert pitch.

It’s easier to understand if you first look at non-transposing instruments, which include the piano, flute, violin, viola, and cello. Their musical notes are written at concert pitch. For example, if a pianist sees a C on the page, they play (and the listener hears) the note C.

However, other instruments like the saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and French horn, don’t sound that same C when they play it. For these instruments to play music from a concert part and match to it, the music needs to be transposed, which means moving notes or pitches up or down by a constant interval.

In general, all music written in a major key can be transposed to a different major key and all music written in a minor key can be transposed to another minor key.

Why is transposition used?

A key reason is that some instruments, like the saxophone, come in various sizes to provide different sounds and ranges.

Take two saxophone players: one on alto sax and one on tenor. Without transposing, they would not be able to see the same notes on the page or use the same fingering, making learning, playing and moving between instruments difficult. This is because the alto sax is an Eb instrument and the tenor is a Bb one. However, with transposition, a written C will be the same fingering for both players, although different notes will sound from the alto and tenor.

Do I need to learn to transpose?

Most music will already be transposed for an instrument, and for beginner and intermediate players, they should concentrate on learning and mastering the fundamentals of their instrument. Advanced musicians may be able to transpose on sight with practice and experience. You can shop a wide range of saxophone music to find exactly what you need, no matter your instrument, playing style or level.

Transposition charts

You can find a variety of transposition charts on the internet or by purchasing educational materials. Here is a basic transposition chart that will help you understand what an alto, tenor, soprano or baritone sax would play compared to a concert note.

C Instrument Bb Instrument Eb Instrument
C# / Db D# / Eb Bb
D# / Eb F C
E F# / Gb C# / Db
F# / Gb G# / Ab D# / Eb
G# / Ab Bb F
A B F# / Gb
Bb C G
B C# / Db G# / Ab
Example instruments: Piano, Flute, Violin Example instruments: Tenor Sax, Soprano Sax, Trumpet Example instruments: Alto Sax, Bari Sax

Shopping for Saxophones and Sax Accessories

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