Saxophones are highly versatile instruments that come in different shapes, sizes, and keys.
Other instruments don’t have such a variety, so why do saxophones need to have different keys?
Saxophones are in different keys because they are transposing instruments. Their differences in size make them produce different pitches. Assigning each type a key makes it so players don’t have to transpose their music in their heads.
This article will tell you everything you need to know about saxophones and their different keys. By the end of it, you’ll better understand how the instrument works and why it is the way it is.
Table of Contents
Why Are Saxophones Transposing Instruments?
Saxophones are transposing instruments because their sound varies from concert pitch.
Each type of saxophone has its own key that’s different from concert C, so the score has to be written in correlation to its key.
- A transposing instrument is an instrument with a different pitch than concert C that must be transposed so that it plays easier.
Saxophones are transposing instruments, which means that their corresponding music scores depict relative pitches and not true concert C pitches.
This makes it much easier to play the saxophone! Instead of relearning note fingerings when switching between an alto and tenor instrument, for example, a person just has to adjust the way they read their music scores.
What Are the Different Keys That Saxophones Play In?
The different keys that saxophones play in are Eb and Bb. While few saxophone variations do come in C, these types are highly uncommon and not usually used. Expect your saxophone to be in either Eb or Bb.
Saxophones change keys as they grow larger. For example, the soprano is Bb, the alto is Eb, the tenor is Bb, and so forth.
Here is a list of the most common saxophone types and their keys:
- Soprano: Bb
- Alto: Eb
- Tenor: Bb
- Baritone: Eb
While there are smaller and larger variations like the sopranino and bass, they aren’t as common as the ones listed above.
Incidentally, the most common type of clarinet is tuned the same as the soprano saxophone (Bb) and some musicians like to compare the two when starting out.
Why Does Each Type of Saxophone Sound Different?
Each type of saxophone sounds different because they come in various sizes. These allow each type to have a different range. Each type of saxophone also has a specific timbre, so that even the notes that overlap sound slightly different.
Let’s take the baritone, for example—my personal favorite. The baritone saxophone is tuned to Eb, so when you play a C on the baritone, its true pitch will sound like Eb on a concert piano tuned to C.
The reasoning for this is that if every instrument were written in concert C, some scoring would be filled with lots of sharps and flats, making it difficult to read.
Can a Saxophone Play Music in Any Key?
A saxophone can play music in any key. Even if your instrument is tuned to Eb or Bb, you can still play music in different keys because it’s a matter of what’s scored in your sheet music.
Playing sharps and flats when indicated will allow you to play music in any key while playing the saxophone.
Just because a saxophone is tuned to one key doesn’t mean it can’t play in different keys. Each saxophone variant has the ability to play an extensive range of notes.
What Key Is Saxophone Music Written In?
Saxophone music is written in keys Eb or Bb depending on which type of saxophone you’re using. Soprano saxophone music is written in Bb, alto saxophone music is written in Eb, tenor saxophone music is written in Bb, and baritone saxophone is written in Bb.
As you can see, the scoring key for a saxophone is the same as the key it plays in.
Transposing Saxophone Music
When playing the saxophone, there’s a high chance that you’ll come across situations where you’ll have to transpose your sheet music.
For example, there might not be enough part copies for your particular instrument, so you may have to read the sheet music of another saxophone variant.
Or, you may be assigned to cover a part for an entirely different instrument. For instance, in my experience as a saxophonist, I’ve often been assigned to play bassoon parts on the baritone saxophone.
This wouldn’t be a problem if you were switching from alto to baritone, since they’re in the same key.
However, it might be tricky to change between alto and tenor, for example.
It’s crucial to understand how to transpose saxophone music just in case it becomes necessary down the line.
Here’s a quick reference for transposing sheet music between different saxophones:
- Eb alto to Bb tenor: The alto is higher pitched than the tenor, which means you have to adjust accordingly. A C note on the concert piano sounds the same as an A on the alto and a D on the tenor.
- Eb baritone to Bb tenor: The baritone is essentially a lower-pitched version of the alto. A C note on the concert piano sounds the same as an A on the baritone and a D on the tenor.
- Eb alto to Bb soprano: An alto is lower-pitched than a soprano saxophone. A C note on the concert piano sounds the same as an A on the alto and a D on the soprano.
- Eb baritone to Bb soprano: The soprano has the highest pitch of the four prominent saxophones. A C note on the concert piano sounds the same as an A on the baritone and a D on the soprano.
Learning new instruments can be intimidating, especially the saxophone.
There are many variations to choose from and it can be confusing to understand!
Saxophones are transposing instruments that come in different keys, making it easier to adjust the scoring to the instrument’s pitch in relation to concert C.
Each saxophone is tuned to its own key and reads scoring written in that key.
Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into why different types of saxophones come in different keys.
Now you can better understand the instrument and make a decision that meets your personal interests.