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I have no musical background but I can read sheet music. I just rented an Eb alto saxophone. I think I know the answer to the following question but I'm not sure: If a piano or guitar is playing a tune in the key of C or D, if I transpose their sheet music to the key of Eb for myself, will I be playing the identical notes as the piano and guitar?

If what I said above is accurate, why aren't the notes on the alto sax renamed to coincide with the names on the piano and guitar? For example, why isn't the G on the alto called F# to eliminate the necessity of transposing? Just curious about this last part. It would seem to be more simple and standardized for all instruments. Thanks!

marked as duplicate by Richard, Carl Witthoft, Shevliaskovic, luser droog, Dave Nov 21 '16 at 17:25

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  • The latter half could be a duplicate, but the first part isn't covered in the linked answers. – endorph Oct 30 '16 at 23:33
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    Well, for one thing, alto sax G is not F# except if you had an instrument keyed in D. – Carl Witthoft Oct 31 '16 at 11:26

Yes, you need to transpose. But not how you're thinking. In short, you need to move the melody up by a minor third. This will have the effect of adding three sharps to your key signature.

So, if an alto plays its G major scale, you'll really be playing Bb major on a keyboard. That's often referred to as concert pitch- if I ask an alto player to play Bb major, they'll play their Bb major, which is really Db major. But if I ask them to play Bb major concert pitch, they'll play their G major, which is the true Bb major.

There are various reasons for this, but the big one is that it allows you to pick up a tenor sax, which is really in the key of Bb, not Eb, and use the same fingering as the alto. In fact, you can pick up any sax, and the fingering will remain pretty much the same (with the exception of the low A on the bari sax).

Here's some further reading:

What are the practical reasons for still having transposing instruments?

What is a transposing instrument?


Use the circle of fifths; find the piano scale ( edited from "concert key" key and count three scales clockwise to find your key.

For example to jam in C a piano would play all the white natural notes, but you would have three sharps and be in the key of A.

If you play your C major scale, it would be an e flat major scale on piano. To transpose a note you move three half steps up.

  • This is inconsistent and thus confusing – Carl Witthoft Oct 31 '16 at 11:27
  • What is inconsistent? I would really like to know if I'm doing it wrong. – user34315 Oct 31 '16 at 12:03
  • It's your use of " ... you would [do something" . Can you restate as "in concert C, the piano plays in C and the sax in A; if the sax is in C then the piano is in Eb" ? That seems easier for me to read. – Carl Witthoft Oct 31 '16 at 14:28

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