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I just started learning to play tenor saxophone which is tuned in Bb key. All the tutorials begin wit learning the C major scale, but this is actually the Bb major on a tenor sax. I sort of understand the reasons why there are transposing instruments (answered in this question), but I'm still confused about under what names should I memorize the tones and scales I'm practicing:

  1. Should I learn the tone names relatively to the instrument tuning, e.g. when I play Bb on a tenor sax or trumpet, should I call it C?
  2. Should I learn the absolute tone names e.g. when I play Bb on a tenor sax or trumpet, should I call it Bb?
  3. Should I learn both?

The first approach seems to be the way playing on a transposing instrument is being taught. It will apparently make reading sheet music and switching between differently tuned instruments easier, but on the other hand it seems to bring a mess into communication with players of other instruments, which wouldn't be an issue wit the second approach.

I have encountered this issue many years ago when I was accompanying my cousin who played on a trumpet with a piano. I told him to play C and he played Bb. When I told him that it is not a C, he could not believe it. He was already playing trumpet for maybe two years at that time and his tutor was one of the greatest jazz trumpet players ins Slovakia.

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Most players think and speak in the written key, in my experience. However, they DO need to be aware that when discussing with other musos, that most others will probably be in 'concert'. Imagine an alto sax player communicating with a tenor and a pianist... So, Yes to 1, 2 and 3!

As an aside, it would be interesting and useful for you to attempt to read a tone out, when you've played a bit. When I was learning the trumpet (same Bb problem), I soon found that when playing with others, if my dots weren't transposed, as in reading 'ordinary' sheet music, either I or the others would have to re-read to play in tune. So I read things a tone higher than written to be in tune. Think trombone players can often do this as trombone parts are written in different ways.

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All your learning material, and all the band/orchestra parts you are given to play will be transposed - i.e. written C for Tenor Sax will sound concert pitch Bb. So learn this way.

If you also intend to play in jazz, rock, blues etc. bands where you may be thrown a 'top line and chords' in concert pitch, you will quickly become adept at 'up one' transposition!

I know a few 'trad jazz' players who are accustomed to reading the melody transposed, but with concert pitch chord symbols. The human mind never fails to astound me :-)

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If you continue to progress, you'll soon run into parts written in other transpositions, and thus will learn to "re-think" the meaning of tone names. It's not that different from learning to read "concert pitch" in bass, tenor, alto, and treble clefs. So I agree that the answer is "all of the above,... and then some" :-).

Typically a discussion of notes in a symphony (or wind band) setting is handled by specifying "Concert- [note name]" vs "Written."

  • In my opinion a language can do better than English using concert-, given that concert-pitch also refers to the tuning reference of 440 Hz. In German the difference would translate to written vs. sounding [note-name]. – guidot Feb 3 '17 at 11:22
  • @guidot "concert pitch" is different from "concert - [note-letter]," tho' I can understand the desire for more clarity. I've never observed a case where there was any confusion as to what a player or conductor meant during a rehearsal. – Carl Witthoft Feb 3 '17 at 12:25
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I know someone who learned the tenor saxophone in concert pitch. He could easily play music written at concert pitch, but was unable to play anything written specifically for the saxophone.

The reverse is far more common – able to read saxophone parts but having difficulty with music written at concert pitch. But this has the huge advantages that a) you will be able to access saxophone tutorial books from the very beginning, and b) that when you play in more formal settings you will be able to play the music handed to you, which will almost always be Bb parts transposed for your instrument.

I would also recommend that you try to become proficient in transposing at sight so that you can play music written at concert pitch. But learn the basics first.

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