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I've been playing the flute for over a year. I have multiple music books from different stores and different editions, and I've noticed that 99% of the music written for flute has a few flats in the key signature. Recently, I've started playing the saxophone, and most of the music is sharped. Why is this so? Can it have anything to do with the saxophone being a transposing instrument?

  • Related question. – guidot Apr 24 '17 at 6:57
  • @rock-on - flute is concert, sax is Eb or Bb, depending which sax. – Tim Apr 24 '17 at 7:15
  • Looking back through my first few flute books, there is about an equal number of # and b keys. In the sax books, only a few more tunes with #, because it's a transposing instrument, maybe to make life a bit easier for any accompanists. Also, in the early stages, most instrument tutors favour written keys of C, F and G, and only stray when the range of a tune neccesitates it. – Tim Apr 24 '17 at 8:27
  • Short answer: Yes. Long answer: See upvoted answers below... – awe Apr 24 '17 at 11:11
  • Part of the answer is at Key choice for brass instruments – lauir Apr 24 '17 at 19:09
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In most cases, it's a byproduct of the given instrument's construction.

For example, the four open strings of the violin (with standard tuning) are:

enter image description here

You'll notice that each of these pitches is the tonic of a key with sharps in its major key signature. As such, a violinist (and a violin section) will sound fuller when playing in keys that use these open strings. D♭ major, meanwhile, doesn't use a single one of these open strings.


Similarly, let's look at a B♭ trumpet with three valves. Here are the concert pitches (within two octaves) that a trumpet can play without using any valves:

enter image description here

In order to play the other pitches, the trumpeter needs to introduce various valve combinations, which introduces a host of other problems. For instance, these valve combinations extend the length of tubing that the air must go through within the instrument, making these pitches harder to tune, harder to articulate cleanly, and harder to create a wide dynamic range. There's also the issue of finger dexterity; a trumpet playing in B major is using many more (and more difficult) finger combinations than one playing in B♭ major.

Of course, professional musicians are expected to play in any given key at any time just as well as they'd be expected to play in one of these "easy" keys for their instrument.


You mentioned the notion of transposing instruments. An alto saxophone, for instance, plays pretty easily in concert B♭ major. But this two-flat key signature, when written for the saxophone, is actually written with one sharp (G major)! So the effect of transposing instruments isn't really that large; if anything it's a little bit misleading!

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    I'm not sure that a violinist, or bank of violins in an orchestra, would be using open strings much. No opportunity to use vibrato either. Once a violinist uses stopped notes, what key or what those notes are won't have any influence on their sound, or on the difficulty of execution. – Tim Apr 24 '17 at 8:13
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    @Tim the keys which contain open strings are easier to play even if you don't use the open strings. At least on cello, we like to play in 4th position (which is easily controlled because the thumb rests against the neck-body joint), and there the first finger has the same pitch as the next open string. As you add accidentals beyond F♯ or B♭, this position gets ever less comfortable. Moreover, having the empty strings can make fast passages a lot less of a hassle. One may use the empty strings only for short, unimportant note, but this can save a lot of awkward back-and-forth position changes. – leftaroundabout Apr 24 '17 at 12:56
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    The presence of the A-flat in that series of trumpet notes is a bit misleading; it's a "harmonic seventh" rather than the one we're used to from equally-tempered scales. A trumpet who wanted to play that A-flat in tune with an ensemble would need to use their valves. – Michael Seifert Apr 24 '17 at 14:42
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    @Tim the open strings on a violin resonate sympathetically, just like undamped strings on a guitar. And short notes (without vibrato) are often played on open strings. Good string-writing takes account of such things in the music itself! – user19146 Apr 24 '17 at 17:05
  • You're over-thinking this, Tim. A well-designed trumpet blows freely with or without valves depressed. And in any case, a degree of 'resistance' is required. One fingering is as easy as another. A trumpeter is never required to have the dexterity of even an elementary pianist! – Laurence Payne Aug 16 '17 at 9:11
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In theory, transposing notation has no influence. Yes, an A clarinet requires three more flats to notate than non-transposing instruments for the same key, but at the end of the range of keys things reverse themselves: where normal instruments notate six flats to indicate G flat major, an A clarinet would simply switch to notate in A major (rather than double flat B major) and use three sharps rather than nine flats.

However, in practice the remote keys are rare, so the player of a down-transposing instrument probably does see a lot more flat marks than a string instrument would.

A further influence is the ease of playing in different scales. In an orchestra you have to play the key that the composer chose for all players, but in solo compositions, if one scale is easier to play than another, composers will probably chose the corresponding key more often for their compositions in the first place. These two influences overlap to varying degrees in different instruments (I'm not sure which way the saxophone goes, since there are many different sizes with many different preferred keys).

  • "And use 3 sharps other than 9 flats"- How is 9 flats OR sharps even possible, assuming there are 7 notes?? – Ira I.I. Apr 29 '17 at 18:48
  • You'd start by notating a double sharp rather than a normal sharp for the f, resulting in a G sharp major signature. But that is purely theoretical. As I said, you always notate A flat major instead. – Kilian Foth Apr 30 '17 at 10:47
  • Sorry, I don't know much about music theory.... What is a 'double sharp'? I've never heard that term before. – Ira I.I. Apr 30 '17 at 16:41
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Whenever I listen to concert band music, I find that the sound majority of Grade 0.5-1.5 pieces are in B flat major. Flutes read this as B flat major (since they're non-transposing instruments), while alto saxophones read this as G major.

This might not explain why solo repertoire for flutes and saxes stick to flatter/sharper keys, respectively, but it sure explains why group repertoire for both instruments stick to flatter/sharper keys.

I also find an awful lot of relatively easy concert band repertoire in E flat major (C major for alto sax), which just confirms the flat/sharp skew.

  • The reason that this has influence, is that most players do play in concert band at some point, so they are most used to the most common concert band keys. So when playing solo music, they are often written in the same specter so that it will be a familiar key for the performer. – awe Apr 24 '17 at 11:06
  • @awe that doesn't apply to orchestral music. Concertos are in a pretty wide variety of keys for any given solo instrument. – Carl Witthoft Apr 24 '17 at 11:36
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As Kilian says, in a sense, it makes no difference. Let's suppose that we arrange Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier for a variety of instruments. Every instrument, transposing or not, will play in all 12 major and 12 minor keys. (Assuming that we use enharmonic equivalents and the alto sax does not have to play in A# major with 10 sharps).

However, leaving aside the Well-Tempered Clavier, and a few other similar suites which are mostly for the piano, music in 5, 6, or 7 sharps or flats is fairly rare.

If we suppose that most music uses at most 2, 3, or 4 sharps then the Bb clarinet will mostly have lots of sharps in its key signature and an Eb clarinet or sax will have even more. I know this from personal experience as a player of both.

Despite being used to transposing instruments, I don't like the system. There is an obvious attraction for a family of related instruments such as the saxophone but the recorder manages without that. It seems strange to play in the treble clef on the baritone saxophone and get notes that belong in the bass clef.

  • Trombonists apparently read in all sorts of keys and clefs, depending on the situation. Never understood why. – Tim Apr 24 '17 at 10:26
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    @Tim Just random choices throughout history, I guess. Violas aren't transposing and use the alto clef; they could have be pitched in F and have their music written in the treble clef as if it was for a violin. This could even be done for the cello. – badjohn Apr 24 '17 at 10:45
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    @Tim Indeed, not quite the same but if it matched up, it might mean that switching from the violin to the viola would be easier: just pretend that you are still playing a violin in your familiar clef. If I ruled the world, I would ban transposing instruments and require all to use music written at the true pitch. I might make exceptions for being an octave out e.g. piccolo and double bass. – badjohn Apr 24 '17 at 11:08
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    @badjohn Physicist or Vulcan? :-) . FWIW, I'm a physicist & a musician; any chance you can get yr pal to read Music Theory 101? – Carl Witthoft Apr 24 '17 at 11:48
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    @CarlWitthoft I knew him as he was going out with a friend of mine; she is a music teacher. The relationship did not last. I am not sure how much disagreements on the theory of music was responsible for the failure of the relationship. – badjohn Apr 24 '17 at 11:50
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Some instruments are intrinsically easier to play in certain keys.

On the flute, all keys are equally easy or difficult, and with the instrument's range, it makes very little difference what key you play in. In beginner music, the key will be near C in the circle of fifths or will be whatever is easiest for the instruments the flute is playing with.

On the violin and other strings, keys that allow more open strings to be used are more popular. Between a cello, a violin, and a viola, the open strings are C, G, D, A, and E. A guitar has A, D, G, B, and E. Open strings make the music easier for a beginner to play, and for a more advanced player, gives the option of choosing whether they want the sound of an open string, or would prefer the sound of a fingered note. It's a significantly different sound. So classical string music in D or A seem to be most popular, with C, G, and E also showing up a lot. Other keys show up less often. If a school has a string orchestra, they probably play lots of music in D instead of Bb.

In a school band, it's the brass section that determines the key usually used. The Bb trumpet is the usual student instrument, and it is most easily played in the key of Bb. The further you get from the key of Bb (going around the circle of fifths), the harder it is to play. French horns are also Bb instruments, as is the tenor trombone, which is what students usually play. Brass instruments can be bought for different keys, or a skilled player can play them as chromatically as a piano. But at a beginning level, the brass is unlikely to either own multiple instruments or be skilled enough to play well in challenging keys.

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There's one easy answer that explains certain instruments: On strings, it's generally easier to go higher, hence a fondness for sharps - in general you always can move down a given string, but if you're going to a lower note you may have to jump to a different string.

On brass, it's generally easier to go lower, hence a fondness for flats - in general you can just add a valve to what's being played, but going higher may have slightly trickier "valve math"

  • That's got a little logic with strings, none at all for brass. It just doesn't work that way. – Laurence Payne Aug 15 '17 at 20:25
  • I'm a tuba player. It absolutely works that way. It's probably not so significant, but the first valve lowers a full step, second valve a half step, third valve a step and a half. In practice, the "valve math" difference is likely trivial, but for instance when you throw in a 4th valve, knowing how it works helps learn the alternate fingerings. – Kirk Israel Aug 16 '17 at 20:49
  • Yes, the mechanics work that way. But it's irrelevant to playing technique. – Laurence Payne Aug 17 '17 at 22:58

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