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I've always been intrigued/annoyed/interested by the nature of transposing instruments, and specifically, recently I've been getting into discussions with my saxophonist friends. Lately, I've found that I have trouble converting notes from their respective transposed versions to concert pitch and back.

Does anyone have an efficient way to do these conversions mentally?

Mainly, I've been having problems remembering whether to go up or down the necessary amount, and whether the octave changes or not. For example, a high concert G♭ being translated to what a(n alto) saxophonist would actually read. I thought it was the A♮ above the G♭, but I was wrong. Also, I know some of you have your switch-clefs methods, but that doesn't really help me because since I'm not actually a saxophonist, I don't have the sheet music, and mostly the conversions have to occur in my head.

Having read some of the other questions about transposing instruments, I don't think they solve my problem.

  • Unrelated: I know the phrase "the dots" to refer to the written notes as opposed to chord symbols/concert pitch, largely thanks to User Tim here on SE, but there are no dots in my head for me to work with :) – user45266 May 7 at 4:43
  • When I transcribed Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches No. 2-4 for piano, I ended up checking the difference between one note on an instrument and its concert pitch version on Musescore, then using that mental transposition for the rest of that instrument's part. While I also transposed key signatures for most instruments that way, the horn parts were fairly unintuitive because they consistently had blank key signatures (even though the marches are in A minor, C minor, and G major). Cont'd... – Dekkadeci May 7 at 5:26
  • ... Worse, I believe the Horn in F parts sound a 5th below written, while the Trumpet in F parts sound a 4th above written. In short, I don't think there's that easy a way to do the conversions mentally without memorizing a lot of transpositions. Although there are trends in transpositions (lower instruments often sound a further octave below written than their higher counterparts, B flat instruments don't tend to sound above written, be careful about octave-transposing instruments such as the double bass), the exceptions will trip you up. – Dekkadeci May 7 at 5:31
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    Out of interest, have a look at what clefs etc., trombonists might come across. Don't understand why just one clef won't do, but there it is! (Or there they are!). – Tim May 7 at 7:26
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    Possible duplicate of Trumpet - Should I think in concert pitch or not? – Carl Witthoft May 7 at 13:15
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I don't think that there is any very easy short cut.

First you need to remember that saying an instrument is in Eb means that when it plays a written C, you get an Eb. It could have been done the other way: name the written note played to get C but it wasn't.

Remember that bigger generally means lower, particularly for related instruments. Order the saxophones by size: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone. They go down in approximately half octave steps. Ask them all to play a written middle C.

The soprano will play the Bb just below middle C. How do you know that it is below? Sadly, you must remember at least one of them. Actually, if you go into the physics of wind instruments, you might be able to guess the approximate pitch from the size.

Now the alto is in Eb and bigger so lower. It will play the next Eb down. Just above the middle of the bass clef.

The tenor is in Bb so like the soprano it will play a Bb. It is bigger than the alto so lower. It will be an octave below the soprano. The Bb near the bottom of the bass clef.

Similarly the baritone will be an octave below the alto.

You should be able to figure out the other saxophones from this pattern but these are the most common ones.

Other instruments? Some memorisation and some of the same logic.

Bb clarinet plays a tone below. How about the Eb clarinet? It is smaller so will play higher: the Eb above middle C for a written C.

It is fairly arbitrary which instruments use transposition. The same could have been done for the violin, viola, and cello but it wasn't.

Out by an octave is common for very small and large instruments. Piccolo, double basson, and double bass. Use their size compared to related instruments to guess whether it is an octave up or down.

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    "an instrument is in Eb means that when it plays a written C, you get an Eb. It could have been done the other way: name the written note played to get C but it wasn't." The reason why it's that way is that you name the key the instrument is most suited to playing. That key is accordingly notated in C major, as that is the key with the simplest notation. – Rosie F May 7 at 6:56
  • @RosieF You could argue the other way. When the orchestra is in C, the alto sax is in A. As a young clarinet and saxophone player, it seemed a little odd that my instruments were called Bb and Eb but I mostly played in sharp keys. – badjohn May 7 at 7:27
  • IIRC the main reason for note-shifts was so that reed players could switch instruments seamlessly -- fingering for clarinets, flutes, saxophones are all almost identical. Ditto, more or less, for valved brass. There's no such advantage for fretless string instruments, for obvious reasons. – Carl Witthoft May 7 at 13:18
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    @badjohn I think I'll memorise the soprano as playing a half-step above concert, and then go down the appropriate amounts to get the others, like you said. Thank you, I think this is the answer I needed. – user45266 May 7 at 16:35
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    @user45266 The soprano is a full step below concert. It plays a B flat when there is a written C. Conversely, if you actually want it to play C then you write a D. – badjohn May 7 at 16:37
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"Finger a C, hear the key."

This is the phrase I learned to help keep the transposition straight, and it works for all transposing instruments, not just saxophones.

This phrase will help keep you from transposing the wrong direct, but as badjohn pointed out, the octave transposition is something you will just have to learn.

A variation that I have heard is "Read a C, hear the key." This is more applicable when transposing a written part on sight. So if you're playing an Eb alto sax part on the piano, you can think "read a C, hear the key (Eb)," and think "I need play everything up a minor third."

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I have 3 methods:

  1. the relative do: it's easy to transpose a melody in all keys
  2. Eb flat instruments in Bass clef -> think a Violin clef (C in Bass clef -> A in Violin Clef, the Eb instruments transposing a major 3rd up -> C
  3. As pianist you get used to think that the middle C is on the ledger line. Just think the ledger line moved a 3rd up or down and you can read all keys and clefs. In your mind you have to think the key signs in the beginning of the staff and move the Violin clef like a Alt clef or Soprano clef or Mezzo soprano clef (the same with Bass clef and tenor clef)
  4. to transpose the correct octave shouldn't be a problem for a musician. You can play all music an octave up or down and choose the one that fits better to the sound and range of your instrument and the others you are playing with.

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