One of the absolute most confusing things about playing the saxophone is understanding what a transposing instrument is and how it works. In this tutorial, I am going to unravel the mystery of how to transpose on the saxophone and clear up all of the confusion about how to play the same note as a person playing a different instrument.


  • What does being a trasnposing instrument mean?
  • How to transpose from a C instrumnet (like piano) to the alto sax.
  • How to transpose from a C instrument (like piano) to the tenor sax.
  • How to transpose from alto sax to piano (or any C instrument).
  • How to transpose from tenor sax to piano (or any C instrument).


Inside the Sax School, we cover all of the basics for playing the saxophone in detail. All of the material covered is level appropriate and will guide you along a structured pathway of learning that will make playing the saxophone fun and easy (with some work). In the Sax School, I take all of the guesswork out of what to practice, how to practice, and what to practice next which will be guaranteed to help take your saxophone playing to the next level.

A full-text transcription is available by clicking the accordion below. The timestamps line up with the video’s timeline.


0:00:00.0 Scott Paddock: What's up, everybody? My name is Scott Paddock, and today we are going to solve a mystery, the mystery of why does the C on the piano not sound like the C on the tenor sax? Why are those different notes? Today, we are gonna talk about transposing instruments, mainly the saxophone, the B-flat tenor sax, and the E-flat alto sax.

If you have ever tried to play along with a track or with another person like a piano player, a guitar player, you figured out really quickly that our instrument is not in the concert pitch. Concert pitch is the key of the piano, it's the notes on the piano.

So when they are playing a C, we are not playing a C. We are playing a different note. So today we're gonna explain a little bit about why we are transposing instruments and figure out what the transposition is.

Why do we have transposing instruments? There are several reasons, some have to do with range and other things, but the most important one and the one that's easiest to figure out is because of fingerings.

0:01:12.1 SP: The saxophone comes in two different varieties, B-flat and E-flat. The B-flat ones are tenor and soprano, and the E-flat ones are alto and bari. So we have written pitches, which is the pitches that we play, and then sounding pitches, which could be considered the concert pitch. So if we played everything in concert pitch, then the fingerings on the saxophones would be different.

This G on the tenor saxophone would not be written the same way as this fingering on alto saxophone because they sound different. So we have to transpose the music that we read to make it sound correct so that we are using the same fingerings. So you find that with trumpets. There are trumpets in different keys, clarinets, flutes are in different keys, the main flute obviously is in C, but you have other flutes that are in different keys also.

So most transposing instruments transpose their written note so that they don't have to learn different fingerings for each instrument that they play that is in the same family. Now, if you think about the whole Woodwind family in general, on a flute, you finger G 1, 2, 3, saxophone, 1, 2, 3, the upper octave of a clarinet, 1, 2, 3. So there are similarities throughout the whole Woodwind family, and I'm assuming it's the same way in the brass family, I don't play brass, but I'm assuming it's similar in the brass family as well.


0:02:34.0 SP: When it comes to explaining transposition in instruments, it all comes down to C, the note C, C is home base. So what we are talking about when it comes to we are a B-flat saxophone, that means that B-flat is the note that the piano, the C instruments, the concert instruments, B-flat is the note that they have to play to match our C. They have to play a B-flat to match our C. So they are down one whole step or two half steps, how we wanna think about it.

So if they play a C on the piano and I play a C, it's not the same note. If they go down one-half step, it's definitely not the same note. If they go down another half step, which would be a whole step, so B-flat, it's the same note.

So when we are talking about transposition, it is a B-flat saxophone, because the piano has to play a B-flat when we are playing our C. C is home base. Now, what makes this even more confusing is there are two ways to think about it. Saxophone to piano and piano to saxophone. If we're going piano to saxophone, in other words, concert pitch to B-flat pitch, we have to think up a step.

0:03:54.5 SP: So if they are playing a B-flat, we play a C. If they're playing a C, we play a D. If they're playing a D, we play a E. If they're playing a E, we play a F-sharp. Whatever the concert pitch is on the tenor saxophone, we are up one whole step.

The opposite is also true. If we are explaining our notes to the piano player, if we're playing a D, they're playing a C. If we're playing a C, they're playing a B-flat. If we're playing a B-flat, they're playing an A-flat. They are down a whole step.

So when you are looking at something like iReal Pro or you're looking at a backing track and you're trying to figure out what key you need to be in or what key they need to be in, their key is always gonna be listed, so you wanna go up one whole step from there on your tenor saxophone. So if your track that you are trying to play along with is in the key of C, you are in the key of D. If that track is in the key of F, you are up, you are in the key of G. You're always gonna be up a full step on the tenor sax and the soprano sax.


If that wasn't confusing enough, we have the alto sax, which is in a different transposition. So if I play a C on the saxophone and C on the piano, it's not the same note. And if I play C on the alto saxophone, and C on the tenor saxophone, they're not the same note. So tenor to alto is a whole different type of transposition that we'll talk about in a later date. Right now, we're just trying to play with C instruments, tracks, and pianos.

0:05:26.2 SP: Okay, so what makes this an E-flat alto saxophone? It's the same explanation as on the tenor, it's just a different note. When I play my C on the alto saxophone, I have to play an E-flat on the piano. That is the same note. So it is called the E-flat alto saxophone because we have to play an E-flat on the concert instrument in order to be playing the same note.

So let's play a C on both instruments, just so you can hear. C on the piano and on the alto. That doesn't fit. C-sharp. That doesn't fit. D. That doesn't fit. Now, of course, I'm still playing C on the alto saxophone. We finally have the same note.

So when I am playing with a C instrument, they have to play an E-flat to match my C, and again, C is the home base when we're talking about transpositions.

The tenor saxophone is way easier with transposing because it's just up a step if you're talking about what key the tenor should be in as opposed to the piano or down a step if you're doing vice versa, but the alto saxophone isn't quite that easy. We are down a minor third. So whatever note the concert instrument is playing, the piano, we are down a minor third from there. So if they're playing a C, we would play an A.


0:07:00.2 SP: So our written pitch, the pitch that we play, is three-half steps down from what the piano is sounding. So if they are playing a C, we have to go down three half steps. So C to B, B to B-flat, B-flat to A, that is a minor third, A to C. Another way you can think of it, if you don't like minors, you can think up a major six, so up like your C scale to your sixth note, so that would be C, D, E, F, G, A.

So you can think of it however you would like, for me, it's way easier to think down a minor third. So if the piano is in D, I am down a minor third from that. So I would go down D, C-sharp, C, B, my note would be B for me to play the same note as the piano.

So again, on the alto saxophone, we are down a minor third, which the opposite of that is up a major six, so they are the same note, just thinking of it in different directions. If you're going down a minor third, you're going down the scale, if you're going up a major six, you're going up the scale, they both end up at the same note.


0:08:09.0 SP: So what that means is if you are playing along with the track and the track tells you that the track is written in the key of F, that means you have to go down a minor third from F, which is three half steps, so you go F, E, B-flat, D. F to E, E to E-flat, E-flat to D, so we would be in D.

If the track is in A, the concert pitch is A, then we have to go down three half steps from A. So we have A to G-sharp, G-sharp to G, and G to F-sharp, so your minor third down would be an F-sharp.

Now, if we need to tell a piano player what note they need to play when we are playing an F-sharp, we have to think in the opposite direction. So we would start on our F-sharp and think up three-half steps, so the F-sharp to G, G to G-sharp, G to A.

So that's where it gets a little confusing is when you think about the two different directions, like who are you trying to tell what the transpose note is. But if you're playing with tracks in iReal Pro and all that kind of stuff, it is gonna be written in the concert pitch, and you just have to transpose it to the alto saxophone pitch or the tenor saxophone pitch.


0:09:16.2 SP: So again, the tenor is up a whole step, which is made up of two half steps, and the alto saxophone is down a minor third, which is made up of three half steps. And that's how you transpose your saxophones from the concert pitch to the correct saxophone pitch. It's all about understanding which direction you're going, and of course, knowing the difference between your concert pitch and your B-flat pitch and your E-flat pitch.

Thanks for taking the time to check out this video. If you now understand what a transposing instrument is and how to do the transposition, I would really appreciate it if you'd subscribe to my channel, give me a thumbs up and leave me some comments and share it with your friends. Thanks a lot.




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