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There are many instruments that have keys other than C. For example:

  • The Eb Alto Saxophone
  • The Bb Clarinet
  • The Horn in F

Why do these instruments have a key in the first place? Here's a more specific example:

On the alto saxophone, in order to play a concert A, you must play an F#; why isn't the F# on the alto saxophone just called and taught as an A?

At least from my perspective, the only reason why that note on the saxophone is called an F# is because that's how it is taught. However, if it was taught as an A, then the instrument wouldn't be in "Eb" - it would be in concert pitch, right?

  • 3
    Possible duplicate of What is a transposing instrument? – Shevliaskovic May 8 '16 at 22:28
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    @topomorto The previous question did not ask why, but the answer does address that point: "The reason for transposing instruments has to do with the fact that many of these instruments come in different sizes that are all playable by someone who knows the technique and fingerings for one of these instruments." – David K May 9 '16 at 13:37
  • Another very closely related question whose answers seem applicable here: music.stackexchange.com/questions/7225/… – David K May 9 '16 at 20:44
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There are two concepts and ideas that happen in music which, when combined, explain why this happens.

The first is that the way certain instruments are constructed affects what sounds they can produce. The E♭ alto saxophone, the B♭ clarinet, and the horn in F each can easily play in the key designated. Typically, when learning to play these instruments the scales and pieces you would play would be in the key of the instrument. Those instruments can be constructed in other keys and sometimes are, but the popular key that they are built in tends to best take advantage of the timbre and the range of that instrument.

The second is that we tend to center the basics of what an instrument can play around C. So combined with the fact that instruments are built with one key being easier to play in than the others, it's common to call the easiest key to play in "C" even though it may not actually be C.

This may seem confusing, but there is one big advantage to doing this which is that someone who can play an instrument in a transposing family like the saxophone can keep the fingering the same in the notation. Wikipedia sums it up nicely:

The instruments in these families have differing ranges, with the members sounding lower as they get larger; but an identical pattern of fingerings on two instruments in the same family produces pitches a fixed interval apart. For example, the fingerings which produce the notes of a C major scale on a standard flute, a non-transposing instrument, produce a G major scale on an alto flute. As a result, these instruments' parts are notated so that the written notes are fingered the same way on each instrument, making it easier for a single instrumentalist to play several instruments in the same family.

  • Good points, but I'd say that guitar (classical or otherwise) is actually not easier to play in C. E and A work particularly well, due to the fact that bass accompanying notes, especially for classical stuff, lend themselves well, as open strings can be used. Not arguing with any of your points, but do you think it doesn't apply to guitar? Maybe we should be playing the 'A guitar'... – Tim May 9 '16 at 5:55
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    Many brass instruments used to be incapable of playing in certain keys without physically switching out parts of the tubing. I would assume that this is historically part of the reason for considering these instruments to have different keys, but I don't know for sure. – Kyle Strand May 9 '16 at 16:38
  • The fingering aspect is fair for readers. A guy I play with uses alto and tenor, and generally busks. I feel that having the same fingerings isn't going to help in that sort of situation. He just seems to play spontaneously, although when he asks for the key of a piece, he must transpose that to the key of whichever sax he's playing. – Tim May 17 '16 at 13:26
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Transposing instruments are so due to convention, not by a technical property. The main advantage is, that different instruments of the same family can share the same mapping of note->fingering and so makes it easier for the player to switch instruments.

The disadvantage is, that the sheet music has to be adapted to exactly the instrument used and therefore it has to be stated there. Playing an A clarinet voice on a Bb instrument without mental transposition makes a lasting impression...

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Abother reason why instruments have a key: some (mainly folk/ethnic) instruments are limited to diatonic scales and can only play in one key, with several versions of the instrument for different (concert) keys.

Meaning, technically, the Great Highland bagpipes can't play the Scottish national anthem.

  • 1
    Hi anonymous downvoter, please clarify your downvote. Is my answer incorrect? – Amedee Van Gasse Sep 19 at 8:06
  • It's a problem with stack exchange. Downvoting without clarification is a disgusting yet allowed behaviour within the network! – Dave Oct 2 at 6:44
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    I am a Stack Overflow veteran (the SE site for software development Q&A), and there I actively work against this toxic culture. Might as well do that here too. – Amedee Van Gasse Oct 2 at 9:10

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