We've all heard how saxophones are designed in different keys. For example, the alto is in Eb, and the tenor is in Bb. With that said, beginners may be under the impression that they are restricted to playing in just one key.
Can a saxophone play in any musical key? A saxophone can be played in all keys. Saxophone players are not limited by the fact that their saxophone is a transposing instrument, meaning that they'll be able to do the transposing themselves. However, playing the saxophone in any key is more challenging than doing the same on the piano.
In this article, we'll discuss how saxophones can play in different keys and how difficult it is to learn saxophone fingerings compared to more “linear” instruments.
What Makes It So Difficult To Play The Saxophone In Different Keys?
The difficulty lies in the fact that saxophones are not linear instruments. Their key layout is not displayed in a linear sequence (like the keyboard, as a primary example).
We've explained before that you would be able to play the saxophone in every scale and key, but with varying degrees of success depending on your level.
When we look at how a saxophone is configured, different keys are arranged in different places, to wit, the front, the sides, and the back. These keys will often need to be pushed in a non-sequential way to deliver a chromatic scale.
Take, for example, a piano. Pianos are composed of white and black keys arranged uniformly and spanning a varying range of octaves. We can easily identify which note or absolute pitch will play when we hit a key, and we can distinguish naturals from accidentals simply by looking at them.
Another example would be a guitar. If we've learned a melody or scale in a guitar, we're basically able to transpose the same melody or scale to another key almost seamlessly.
With a guitar, you're theoretically able to change fingering patterns for the same musical phrase for versatility's sake. In principle, it's as easy as moving the fretting hand up and down. You can even place a tool such as a capo or turn the tuning pegs on the spot to give the guitar a different tuning.
Saxophones, unfortunately, do not come with these facilities. You're effectively stuck with the key the instrument is designed in, and you'd have no other choice but to learn the positioning for each key when transposing.
So, when we play a musical piece and learn all the different fingering patterns of a phrase, relearning it on another key will demand some boost in muscle memory. It doesn't necessarily mean that it will always become cumbersome, but it's not as simple as repeating the same pattern in another position.
If this is such with conventional keys, it goes without saying that altissimo fingerings, which are already demanding in and of themselves, would require enormous efforts.
Should Saxophonists Learn Musical Phrases In All Keys?
There is no consensus in this regard. Some people feel it helps to practice a theme in all keys. However, others may question the usefulness of this approach unless a player is planning on transposing the melody in multiple keys.
We would say that it's useful to get the gest for different intervals and patterns, for this equips the player with enough agility to make the most taxing shifts effortlessly and on-demand.
Those who argue in favour of this method would point out that, in different scenarios, the players would need to adjust to a singer's range, which would place the instrumentalist in the uncomfortable position of needing to practice the fingerings for the new key.
Furthermore, a tune you may know by heart would get arranged in a different key and tempo. In this instance, while you may have more time to rehearse, it's still better if you already knew the fingering for that new key.
Can A Saxophonist Transpose?
We often hear the claim that saxophones are transposing instruments, but this is usually in reference to how a saxophone is written. We've already stated how saxophones are not limited to the key in which they were designed. Regardless, there is a steep learning curve that needs to be overcome.
When wind instruments were being transposed, it was clear that the intention was to make it easier for musicians to identify each note according to its fingering and make the execution more streamlined. This way, they didn't have to figure out which fingering to use every time they changed to a different type of saxophone (soprano to tenor, for example).
So, for example, a musical piece that employed two saxophones or two trumpets would be written as if they were designed in C, even though the pitch would not match the concert pitch (the same note played on the piano, to give more context). This would put writers/composers/arrangers in the rough spot of figuring out the corresponding concert pitch for each note.
With that in mind, skillful sax players can, in theory, read a score and play at concert pitch, even if the instrument was designed at a different key. This enables them to perform various tasks that others cannot, such as reading from a piano sheet or creating music on the spot with other musicians, regardless of the key of their respective instruments.
This is especially easy once you've mastered the scales for all twelve notes. These would be the seven natural notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and five accidentals. Thus, you would only have to identify which note is concert C on the saxophone. For example, if we took a soprano, C would be a whole step above (meaning D), while it would be a minor third down on the alto, namely, A.
This is, needless to say, easier said than done, and it would require a lot of training on the part of a saxophonist to be capable of transposing on a whim. Nevertheless, a skillful player who has mastered his saxophone on all twelve keys and has learned to play in concert key is in clear advantage over other players who are stuck asking for a transposed sheet.