- Sopranino is in Eb
- Soprano is in Bb
- Alto is in Eb
- Tenor is in Bb
- Baritone is in Eb
- Bass is in Bb
- Contrabass is in Eb
There are others of course but I didn’t include them on the list because they are very rare and not made or used anymore. These are the C soprano, C melody, the C bass, and the Sub-contrabass. The ones with the letter C in their name means they were made to be in the concert key, just like the piano.
Knowing which key your saxophone is in relative to other instruments is a must!
When we sax players play along with concert pitch instruments such as piano, guitar, violin etc, we must play a different note on our horns for it to come out sounding like the same note the concert pitch instruments play. Read on to understand the saxophone keys…
Why do they call it a Bb saxophone?
Because when a Bb saxophone plays it’s written C it sounds Bb on the piano (concert pitch).
Why do they call it an Eb saxophone?
Because when an Eb saxophone plays it’s written C it sounds Eb on the piano.
All saxophones are transposing instruments. This means that they are not in concert pitch like a piano or guitar. So when a Bb tenor sax plays it’s written C it sounds Bb on a piano. Think about that for a minute. The note C is exactly one whole step up from the note Bb so whatever concert key your piano or guitar player friends are playing in you need to be one whole tone higher – they’re in A so you need to play in B. If they’re in E you need to play in F#.
If an Eb saxophone such as the alto plays it’s written C it sounds Eb on the piano. If you study the relationship between these two notes you can see they are a minor third apart – C, C#, D, Eb. So whatever the concert pitch instruments such as the piano and guitars are playing in, the Eb alto needs to be a minor third (3 semi-tones) below – Concert E will therefor be C# for the alto, concert G will be E etc.
Why Must We Have These Saxophones Be Transposing Instruments Anyway?
You’re not the first person to wonder about this question that’s for sure! Ever heard of the C Melody Saxophone? Well, the reason it was invented after all the other saxophones was so that we could have a saxophone that could play in concert pitch.
Imagine, a saxophone that was already in the same key as the piano and all the other concert pitched instruments…no more transposing headaches etc. The C Melody sax conceived of in the earlier part of the 20th century, long after the invention of the original alto saxophone back in the 1840’s.
Now whether you realize this or not, the C Melody is not in production any more and has been out for many decades. Why? Because it just didn’t sound as good as the other transposing saxes. Just didn’t work as well. I’m not sure about the scientific reason (if there is one) but you’d have to think that the instrument’s actual size is important and related to this. The C Melody was a little bigger than the alto and a little smaller than the tenor and for this reason it just didn’t work out as well.