Reading Piano Music With the Saxophone

Reading the Piano Part

  • Have you ever tried reading music off the piano part?
  • Have you ever tried this while playing with the piano?
  • How does it sound?

It doesn’t sound right. Why not?

The Answer

Some instruments are made in different keys, and some instruments are made in the same key. For example, a flute and a piano are both designed to play in the key of C. The flute and piano can play the same sheet music and all the notes will be correct between the two instruments; it’s because they are both in the key of C.

The trumpet and clarinet are examples of instruments that are not in the key of C. And of course, most saxophones are not in the key of C either. If the saxophone and the piano play the same sheet music, the notes will not be correct between the two instruments. That’s because the piano is in the key of C and the saxophone is not.  Here are the keys of the 4 main saxophones:

  • Soprano- Bb
  • Alto- Eb
  • Tenor- Bb
  • Baritone- Eb

Matching the Piano

If the piano plays a C, the pitch we hear is a C. If an Eb instrument plays a C, the pitch we hear is an Eb. In order for an Eb instrument to match the piano’s C, the Eb instrument would need to play an A (if you’re confused, we have you covered-keep reading!).

So if an alto saxophone plays an A, and a piano plays a C, we’ll hear the same pitch. If we want to play the same sheet music as the piano, we must transpose the music so the saxophone plays the correct notes.

Transposing

This means we take a note and we turn it into another. In our situation, we want to take the piano note, and change it so the saxophone can match the piano. There’s an easy way to do this, and you can find the 2 step formula below.

The 2 Step Formula for Transposing

Here’s a method for transposing Bb and Eb instruments, so you can match the piano (or C instruments).

Eb

  1. Locate the note you want to transpose on the piano part
  2. Move the note down 3 half steps (or 1 whole step and 1 half step)

That’s it! Here’s an example:

Bb

  1. Locate the note you want to transpose on the piano part
  2. Move the note up 2 half steps (or 1 whole step)

Here’s another video to help:

The Octave

Once you transpose, keep in mind that the octave may not be the same. Simply use your ear to decide if you need to go up an octave or down an octave.

Family Events

Now when you see a piano part, you can transpose the main melody for the saxophone. The piano player can accompany you, or you can play the main melody together. This will be helpful at family gatherings when there’s a request to play something with a piano playing family member. Pardon yourself for a few minutes, transpose the part, and you’re set! You may not play perfectly, but everyone will have a great time!

A Saxophone in C

As mentioned above, main stream saxophones are in the keys of Bb and Eb. However, there are a large number of saxophones available that are in the key of C (no transposition required when playing with other C instruments). Here’s the question: What is the common name given to this “C” saxophone? You can share your answer in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

Here’s a previous post you can use for transposing, too

 

Comments 8

    1. Post
      Author
  1. Hey, Jeff. Nice article, thanks for sharing.
    I remember my mind struggled a lot some time ago against this… coming from piano and guitar studies, I’ve had never heard about “transposed instruments” and that gave me a hard time until I became used to. Now I can take it naturally. Much the same happened to me when I had to learn using both notes names: C, D, E… and latin Do, Re, Mi…
    The “Melody” saxophone, tuned in C, is kinda rare to find nowadays… it’s register falls in the middle of tenor and alto, and AFAIK they cost a small fortune.
    Regards.
    Marc.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Marc,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Yes, you are correct- the C melody saxophone is the answer. Take a quick look on ebay and you’ll find this instrument easily enough. Right now the price range is around $300-$1000. Some of these saxophones are almost 100 years old, too! They’re interesting to play as well. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your weekly saxophone tips. I’m reading all of them.
    I’m playing a WX5 wind controller with a VL70 sound generator. I love it. I play almost exclusively a Brecker sax. Of course I have a wonderful sound, since it is “built in”.

    I also have a real brass sax which I’m learning now. There I have a difficulty that I don’t understand.

    In the lowest tones, mostly the lowest tone of the scale, the Bb often sounds as if it was boiling, or as if it was full of water, or making bubbles under water. I can’t find out why its doing this and how to avoid it.

    Do you know what I’m talking about?

    Rene Sommer

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Rene,

      I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying the posts. If you’re diving into the posts, taking the lessons, and getting feedback, you’re getting all the information you need to succeed. Keep it up!

      I know exactly what you’re talking about in regards to the tone on the low Bb. This could be a number of things, and the first thing we need to check is the embouchure. Have you had a chance to go over the embouchure page in the free lessons?

  3. Amazing article!!! So so helpful. With pianos though you have the left hand and right hand notes. Which one do I transpose ?

    1. Post
      Author

      Great question Gillian. It really boils down to which line you want to learn. Many times the main melody lines are in the top notes of the piano music. Before you begin transposing, go ahead and play the piano part (on piano or saxophone) to confirm that the top notes are the melody. After you confirm that, go ahead and transpose it. If you need more clarification, just let me know. I’m glad you liked the post!

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