If a trumpeter or saxophonist, for example, learned to play music by ear and not by sheet music or formal training, is it more likely that s/he learned the standard fingering names or the concert pitch? (I.e. an alto saxophonist would, from the start, call the fundamental/native-key an Eb and not C).

My guess is that most of these players play with concert pitch instruments such as a jazz band and would just learn the name of the actual pitches their playing. Why bother transposing in your head if you're never looking at sheet music and are always given the key in concert pitch?

But then what do they do when they switch (if ever?) to another instrument in the same family (alto to tenor sax, for example). Do they know memorize both notes for the same fingering, like a recorder player?

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    This is why it is important to be able to read. Each music skill you add will only do you good. I still have friends who play guitar who won't put in the effort to read or learn theory.... it hinders their ability on all affronts. They are limited in many aspects. May 10, 2017 at 5:12

2 Answers 2


My guess is that they probably don't even know the names of the notes either way. It would be mainly of academic interest, and no help for the stage they're at. On occasions, I play, separately, with a guitarist, flautist and sax player (alto and tenor), who don't read, and aren't needing the key a song is in. They just play, and it works. They seem to have a second sense as to where the notes are, and if they knew what those were called, either concert or written, it wouldn't help.

Those are only three examples, I'm sure other ideas will emerge, but what I'm not sure of is that knowing note names would help those individuals. They just have the propensity to play right, and they're not the only players I've worked with who are like that.

Not saying whether it's good or bad, generally, however, it works for them.


It's a good question. Since I read music I have no definite answer to that one, but my viewpoint comes from having "perfect" pitch (which I call "pitch recognition," meaning if you play me a pitch I can tell you the name it would have on a piano. Concert pitch.) I play a number of instruments, many of them transposing. Horn (french) plays many transpositions, but I read not by fingering but by concert pitch. So for horn in F the note on the second line from the bottom is middle C. Horn in Eb, I read concert pitch bass clef up an octave and add three flats mentally. And so forth....And I also play Bb transposing instruments, and read yet another clef in concert pitch for those. Etc....the advantage to that is I can take, for example, clarinet music and play it on the viola, since I read by pitch. People think I must be a marvelous transposer when what I actually do is read a whole lot of clefs. I think that may be what goes on with people who play by ear...doesn't matter what the transposition is if they can hear what pitches to play. Same thing, different presentation.

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