Frequently Asked Questions – “Transposing Instruments”
In this series we share Jody’s answers to some of the most frequently asked questions that we receive through our website.
I was advised that I can’t play a soundtrack in F major, with sheet music written in F major for medium voice if I am playing a B flat soprano sax. Can you unravel this mystery for me and advise what key in sheet music for medium voice, and what key soundtrack I can use and harmonize while I play along with my B flat soprano?
Transposing instruments is confusing. I’ll try and unravel this mystery with a brief explanation.
When you play a tenor sax or an alto sax you finger the A on the second space of the treble clef the same on both horns (two fingers down on the left hand). But they are actually different pitches. But it is kind of nice not to have to learn new names for the notes on every saxophone. So two fingers down is an A on every saxophone. When you play a Bb soprano or Bb tenor saxophone, when the concert pitch is a Bb, the soprano and tenor sax have to play a C to match that Bb Concert pitch. So think about playing one whole step higher than the Concert pitch. A whole step is two half steps, or two notes on the Chromatic scale.
When you play a Eb alto saxophone or Eb baritone saxophone, when the concert pitch is an Eb, the alto and baritone sax have to play a C to match that Eb Concert pitch. So think about playing a major 6th higher than the Concert pitch. That means whatever note the concert pitch is, A for example, you think of playing a major scale from that note and stop on the 6th note of that major scale. So in the case of A Concert (2nd space of the treble clef) the Eb alto sax note is F#, top line of the treble clef. The exact note on Eb Baritone sax is actually up a major 6th plus an octave.
At this point if you are not familiar with some of the terms that I’ve used above, then you should get the “Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music” and learn your musical terms.
Back to transposing for the Bb instruments of Soprano Sax, Soprano Clarinet (the normal Bb clarinet) also Bb trumpet, and Tenor sax (which is one octave lower). So when you want to play sheet music that is only written for piano and voice for example you must transpose the Bb soprano up a whole step or the tenor up a 9th to match the exact pitch. The saxophone can play in any key. Some are just less practiced than others and therefore they seem harder than others. One of Charlie Parker’s secrets to his success was that he practiced the things that he liked in every key.
The first step to this mastery is practicing scales and arpeggios in every key. Often we will find sheet music in the key of E major for example. This means that there are four sharps in the key signature and the tonic chord is E major (get that music dictionary if this stuff is fuzzy!).
Bb instruments are a whole step up so that when concert pitch is E the Bb instruments are in the key of F#. I say learn to deal with this key of F# as well as you can play the key of G. It will only take about one or two weeks of going back and forth from the key of G to the key of F# to play as comfortably in F# as you do in G.
The key of E Concert is the key of C# for Eb instruments. If you are going to play any Rock or Blues you better get this key down. What has always helped me play in tough keys besides practicing my scales and arpeggios in those keys is to play in a key a half step away that I am comfortable in. I will play licks that I like in the “easy key”, and then transpose them a half step away into the hard key and practice them until they are comfortable.
So that was a lot of technical stuff up there and it can be confusing. The other way to do this and equally or maybe more important is to develop your ear so that when you hear a pitch played or sung you can find it on your instrument. That’s how I learned to play music and I think that’s why improvising has always been the most important part of music for me.
Another personal story is how I learned to transpose in one day. It was the summer of 1979 and I was attending the 7-week summer course at Berklee College of Music. I had been playing Jazz for about 6 years and had already finished one year of College but I had never transposed or been asked to. In Boston that summer I answered a flyer on a bulletin board seeking a horn player to play with a guitar player on the streets of Boston. I met this very Hippie looking guitar player in downtown Boston on a Saturday morning and we played all over Boston that day until close to midnight. The guitar player started calling tunes that I didn’t know but he had a Real Book (fake book), in the key of C. So I was on the spot and started learning right then and there how to transpose for Eb alto. I soon came up with some tricks which I’ll explain shortly but suffice to say by the end of that day I could sight transpose reasonably well. By the way the day ended very late at night with me barely able to play anymore because of sore chops and the guitar player actually falling asleep while we were playing one tune. I played the streets of Boston all summer with that guitar player and the results were that I learned a lot of tunes, made and saved enough money to have the famous Emilio Lyons overhaul my Mark VI alto and I learned to sight transpose almost anything. To this day I request and prefer Concert parts over transposed when I’m required to read music. It’s really very simple and my simple answer will be the same for most questions you might ask. How do you learn to transpose? Just do it…. A lot. How do you play altissimo? Just do it…. a lot? How do you learn to improvise? Well you know the answer.
Having said that, there are always some pointers that we can pass along so here are the tricks I mentioned about transposing for an Eb instrument:
Think of the new key signature and then playing the notes a minor third down, which means if a note was on a line, I would play a note on the line directly underneath that, as long as it corresponded to the new key signature. If the note was in a space between the lines I would play a note in the space below in the new key signature.
Example: Take the A Train by Duke Ellington in C Concert, which makes the alto key A Major. The alto player imagines three sharps in his head. The first note of the tune starts on the second line, G Concert, so the alto player starts a line below that on a low E. The second note of the tune is an E Concert up in the top space so the alto player plays a space under that and plugs in the new key signature, playing a C# instead of a C natural. Just try it out and you’ll get the idea.
In closing, play the music that you want to and practice enough to make it happen. You can do it!
JodyJazz Saxophone mouthpieces are hand-crafted in the USA with the strictest attention to detail using the highest quality materials, and every single mouthpiece is fully gauged and play tested.