Readers Questions - Transposition Help for Sax Players

Saturday, November 21, 2015 


Transposing from saxophone to piano can be confusing.  This time I answer a readers question about transposition, and share a few tips that will make the process easier to understand. 

My daughter (11yrs) is learning the trumpet (currently on Grade 3). I am trying to learn the alto sax. We like to play together - it helps to encourage her to practice.


She gets sheet music from her teacher but it is of course in the wrong key for me to play along. My musical ability is not up to transposing the score and I am still a bit confused about keys etc. anyway.


Can you suggest how to transpose from the trumpet score to the correct key for the alto sax?
Hi Richard
This is a great question but unfortunately there isn't a really easy shortcut to transposing between instruments. Here are some tips though that may help.
Firstly, it's important to be aware of what "key" your instrument is in.


Alto sax is in the "key" of Eb, whereas Tenor is in the "key" of Bb. It's easy to get confused pretty quickly when you start thinking about it, but an easy way to remember this is that an Eb on piano sounds the same as a C on Alto, whereas a Bb on piano sounds the same as C on tenor.


So really the "key" of the sax is related to what note on piano sounds the same as a C on your sax. Make sense?
Once you have that clear, then it's just a case of working out how many semitones you need to move the music in order to get it in your key.
Transposing from piano music
It's a good idea to start by understanding how to transpose to/from piano key, or what we call "concert pitch". Going from piano to alto for example, you will need to move the music down 3 semi-tones (remember Eb on piano = C on Alto = 3 semi-tones down).
Going from piano to tenor, you need to move the music up two semi-tones (Bb on piano = C on tenor = 2 semi-tones).
Transposing saxophone music from piano


Transposing from other instruments
Things get a lot more complicated when transposing from a Bb instrument (i.e. trumpet) to an Eb instrument ( like alto). Now, you'll need to move the music down 2 semi-tones first to get to concert pitch (or piano key), then down a further 3 semi-tones to get to Alto key. So now we are moving the music down 5 semi-tones.


Of course if you're transposing in the other direction (i.e. from alto to tenor or trumpet) then you would have to move UP 5 semi-tones.
Transposing Trumpet to Alto sax
Just in case I haven't confused you enough, here are a couple of "cheats" you can use:
Transposing from piano to alto:
If the piano note is on a line, just read the line below. If it's on a space, read the space below. So, B becomes G, C becomes A. You'll also need to change the key signature by adding 3 sharps (that means if you have 2 flats in the key signature, you'll end up with 1 sharp as sharps cancel out flats!)
Transposing for alto sax
Transposing from piano to tenor:
Simply read the space or line above the note. So, C becomes D, F becomes G etc. For the key signature, add two sharps (again if you have 4 flats in the piano key, you'll end up with just 2 flats for tenor!)
transposing for tenor sax


And finally, transposing from trumpet (or tenor) to alto:
If the trumpet/tenor note is on a line, read the line below, then go down to the space below that. The same applies for notes on a space. So, D becomes A, C becomes G.
Another way to think about this if you're a mathematician, is to take the trumpet/tenor note up a fifth, then drop that note an octave. So, D becomes A, E becomes B etc. If you've been practicing your arpeggios then this can be an easier solution.
transposing alto to tenor sax
For Alto to trumpet or tenor, the process is reversed. This time, if the alto note is on a line, go to the next line up, then your note is the space above that. For notes on spaces, take the alto note to the next space up, then your note is the line above that.


With practice you will become much faster at transposing and eventually be able to do it at speed, but when you're starting out it's a good idea to actually just write out your part.
Nigel McGill


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About the blog:

I created this blog to share my experience touring and performing over the last 30 years all over the world with big bands, jazz ensembles, symphony orchestras and touring shows. I've pretty much worked in every part of the music business from soloist to band leader, musical director, studio musician and even managing an orchestra in London's west end. I love talking about saxophone and helping others to reach their saxophone goals. Most importantly though, I want to hear about your progress, challenges and victories on the road to learning sax. Leave me a comment to start the conversation! Nigel McGill
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