How to Convert Piano Notes to Sax Notes

If you provide the same piece of sheet music to a pianist and a saxophone player without changing the notes to fit each instrument, the music will not sound correct. Musicians refer to this difference between instruments as transpositions. Each instrument will have a transposition that determines what note sounds when it is played. A common transposition is from music for a piano to music for a saxophone.

 Transposing Instruments 

The reason for transpositions has to do with instrument fingering. By having transposing instruments, it is possible to use the same fingerings on each saxophone to play a single written note. However, a written E will sound different on a soprano or alto saxophone. With this system, an alto saxophone player could easily pick up a tenor sax using the same fingerings and play music that is appropriate for the instrument. This makes it possible to avoid having to learn a completely new set of fingerings for each horn.


The piano plays in concert pitch. That means, that when you see a C written on the piano sheet music, the note that is written and sounds also will be a C. When converting between piano and sax notes, it is then necessary to change the pitch so that when a saxophone plays the written pitch, it sounds the same as the sounding piano pitch. On the piano, the sounding pitch, and written pitch are the same.

B-flat Saxophones 

There are several types of B-flat saxophones. The soprano, tenor, and bass saxophone are all pitched in the key of B-flat. On a soprano sax, when you play a written B-flat, it sounds as A-flat, which is a major second lower. Piano music notes must be transposed up a major second, or two half steps. Additionally, the tenor sounds an octave lower and the bass sounds an additional two octaves lower. This means you will have to write the tenor an octave and a major second higher, and the bass two octaves and a second higher. All of these instruments are written in treble clef.

E-flat Saxophones 

The E-flat saxophones include the sopranino, alto and baritone saxophone. Since E-flat is a minor third higher than C, these instruments sound off by a minor third. The sopranino saxophone must be written a minor third lower than the piano notes. The alto saxophone must be written a major sixth higher than written. While the baritone saxophone must be written an octave and a major sixth higher to match pitch with a piano. All of these instruments are written in treble clef.

Concert Pitch 

You must understand that the written pitch is what is written on the score, and the sounding pitch is the actual note that we hear. These are not always the same thing. Some instruments have different sounding pitches. Instruments such as the violin, viola, harp and flute are concert pitch, nontransposing instruments. Instruments such as the B-flat clarinet, the trumpet, and the French horn are nonconcert pitch, transposing instruments.


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