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Alto Saxophone Basics

Basic information about the Alto Sax

The Alto Sax was invented between 1840 and 1846 by Adolphe Sax. You can read more about Adolphe Sax here.

The Woodwind Family

The Alto Sax is part of the much larger heading of Wind Instruments and then a member of the Woodwind Family and of course the Sax Family. Wind Instruments are all of the ones you blow in. The Woodwind Family includes Flutes, Clarinets, Double Reeds (Oboes and Bassoons) and of course the Saxophones.

You might not realize how many different sizes of Flutes there are, for example. The smallest is the Piccolo, then the Standard C Flute we have all seen a bunch of times; then the Alto Flute, Bass Flute and Contra Bass Flutes round out the Flute Family.

Much like these older instrument families, there are many different sizes of Saxophones and the Alto Sax is one of the medium sized Saxes and probably the most common of the Saxes.

The Sax Family

Like every Human family, you have Moms and Dads, Grandparents, Great Grandparents and brothers and sisters. When you are related to someone you often have the same last name and that's the same with the Sax Family.

The smallest Sax is the Soprillo Sax; next comes the Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass and Contrabass Saxophones. Each of these Saxes have a different first name but since they are in the same family, they have the same last name or "Family Name", as some cultures call it. All of the modern versions of these Saxophones are transposing instruments. That means you can't play piano music with a piano player and have the same note sound come out of the Saxophone as you hear the Piano playing.

Many instruments are in the Key of C like Piano, Strings, Bass and C Flutes. Most the other instruments you might know about are in different keys and must be transposed to play with the other instruments in a band or orchestra.

The common Keys for Saxophones are either Bb or Eb. In band, the music is transposed for you so you play the note you see on the music and it will sound right with everyone else. If you don't have music transposed for the Alto Sax and want to play your Alto with others, you would have to learn how to look at the notes and play different notes than the written notes; this is called Transposing. People have tried to make Saxophones in other Keys, mostly the Key of C and the Key of F, but these Saxophones did not sound as good and never really took off.

Eb Alto Saxophone

The Alto Sax is one of the most common Saxophones seen in music today. The other really popular Saxophone is the Tenor Sax, then the Bari Sax and Soprano Sax rounds out the top 4 in the Sax Family.

What does the "Key of Eb" mean?

Alto Sax is in the Key of Eb. The Eb Alto Sax sounds a 3rd lower than it looks on paper. That means a middle C on piano and a middle C on Alto Sax are off by 3 notes. Instruments that are in the key of C are called Concert Pitch Instruments.

Transposing for Alto Sax

To Transpose from Concert Pitch to Alto Sax, you have to play a Minor Third (or 3 half steps) lower on the Alto. It sounds harder than it really is. If a middle C on Piano is an A on Alto, than the interval is the next space down on paper. The D on Piano would be a B on Alto, which is the line below for Alto. The transposition for Alto will always be the next line or space down on the music staff, with a total of 3 half steps between them. When counting half steps, you count each relationship or interval. Three half steps, starting from the Concert C would be - C to B, B to Bb, Bb to A = 3 half steps. Start on Concert D and 3 half steps are counted - D to C#, C# to C natural, C to B = 3 half steps.

The above explanation will make more sense if the student can play a chromatic scale on the Sax. The Chromatic scale is all half steps. It is easier to count half steps if you know what they sound like and can play them. Looking at a Piano and having some basic Piano understanding can really help too. The Piano is very visual with all the notes in front of you to see. Counting half steps can get pretty easy, pretty fast with a little Piano study.

With all this said, aren't you glad they do that for you in your Alto Sax music in band?


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