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While I just accepted this for years, why does playing a G on an alto come out as an E? In other words, why not just call it an E? I never really understood this.
 

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The basic notes are those of the C scale. On wind instruments these are the main finger positions. Same on a flute or a sax. Same on alto or tenor, baritone or soprano sax.
So if you have the main fingering the same on different sounding instrument you can pick any up and play it knowing the fingering for a G, for example. If you go by the actual pitch note names you'd have to relearn the fingering for each different instrument.

The Bb or Eb comes from brass instruments already in existence. The idea for the first sax came from putting a clarinet type mouthpiece on a keyed brass instrument.
You can have saxophones in C or F. C Melody saxophones were made to play the melody line of piano music when sheet music was the popular way of assessing different tunes.
 

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After reading all this, it still makes no sense to me. If I only play alto or tenor sax, why would I care if the fingering is different on different instruments? While the fingering may be the same, I’d still have to think in a different transposition for every different instrument. It seems like it would be easier to remember different fingering than have to transpose written sheet music.
 

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Orion: Have you forgotten that there are millions of players out there who may not see it the same as you do? Like has been said, there are at least four different pitches in saxophones (add a fifth for G-saxophones). Rather than learn four (five?) different fingerings, someone made it simple for all of us by making them all finger the same. DAVE
.
 

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After reading all this, it still makes no sense to me. If I only play alto or tenor sax, why would I care if the fingering is different on different instruments?
OK, but what does your preference have to do with the historical evolution of these instruments? We are discussing a design feature that developed over hundreds of years, and moved from one instrument family to another. Remember that musical instruments were created primarily with the needs of professional musicians in mind. For example, the main reason that clarinets come in so many different keys, yet all have basically the same fingerings, is that musicians playing primitive clarinets with rudimentary keywork needed horns in different pitches in order to manage all the keys in which they had to play. It was often easier to pick up a separate clarinet than to try to navigate a bunch of sharps or flats on an instrument with premodern fingerings. And saxophones borrowed this tradition.

Ask yourself why guitar and banjo players sometimes use a capo.
 

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The first thing they had to do was invent a sax in a certain 'voice' as all wind instruments are voiced. Let's say they decided to make the first one an alto. They borrowed most of the key work from the clarinet family which set the range of notes. Then they made the sax with a similar voice to an alto singer, and the 'C' note was concert Eb. They did the same with the tenor, and the 'C' note was concert Bb. In this way music for all the saxes had the same range of notes with the same names, which enabled the sax players to jump from one sax to the other by just swapping the music - all saxes have the same fingering for the same written note, which will have a different concert pitch in accordance with the key of the instrument.
 

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ALL saxophones, regardless of their pitch, have the same fingering. It makes perfect sense for each of these fingerings to have a common name across all the types. In orchestras the arrangers and copiers take care of the transposition problems for you. In jazz groups where improvisation over chord patterns is the norm and where instruments with different voices have to cooperate, then it makes sense for you to take care of the transposition problem. To this end you need to know both the concert name of the notes that you are playing and the instrument names. And, actually, it's not really that hard.
 

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After reading all this, it still makes no sense to me. If I only play alto or tenor sax, why would I care if the fingering is different on different instruments? While the fingering may be the same, I’d still have to think in a different transposition for every different instrument. It seems like it would be easier to remember different fingering than have to transpose written sheet music.
Oh dear, dear… You read Bb sheet music for Bb instruments and Eb sheet music for Eb instruments. The note you read on sheet music is tied to the fingering position on the instrument, and not to the pitch of the note. Thus you read "C" on the tenor sax sheet, finger "C" on your tenor sax and it sounds "Bb"; whereas if you read "C" on your alto sax sheet, you finger "C" on your alto sax and it sounds "Eb". If I'm playing tenor and my mate next to me is playing alto and the music requires both of us to play "F concert" in unison, his sheet will have "D" written, while mine will have "G".

The only time you have to transpose is when you don't have the dedicated sheet music for the instrument which is in your hands. There's nothing to stop you calling the key positions by their concert names and just reading the treble line of the piano score, by the way. You can also just get yourself a C-tenor…

If you can't read music or prefer not to, you can just play by ear of course — but that presents its own problems, for doublers at least. The tune you are more than comfortable with on tenor can become a nightmare if you switch to alto for the same tune. That's why most saxophonists decide which horn is "their" voice and just stick to it alone.

One reason why Sonny Stitt is so admired is that he played both alto and tenor with equal facility. (I like him best on baritone, but as his life began to turn into a non-stop world solo tour, he dropped the big horn — obviously because it presented too many logistical challenges.) However, if you investigate his recordings of standards and check the keys he played them in, you will find that he played many of them in the "wrong" key. I can't remember the exact details now, as it's a while since I checked this out, but take the old warhorse "All of Me" for example's sake. It's always played in Bb concert. Now if Stitt learnt that on alto (where he'd be fingering alto G), and he decided to play it on tenor instead, he'd play it in F concert (tenor G), in order to use the same fingering as on alto and save himself the trouble of learning it in a new fingering. You can do that when you're touring as featured solo horn with rhythm section accompaniment. It's a different story playing with other horns, particularly if it's in someone else's band.

One way to familiarise yourself with the change from Bb to Eb and back, is to learn Bb soprano clarinet, where the the middle, clarino register is pitched in Bb, while the bottom, chalumeau register, although the fingering positions are renamed to fit in with Bb pitch, is actually pitched in Eb. For example, the C fingering in the clarinet register (with the thumb-activated register key added) produces the same note as the C fingering on Bb soprano sax, and sounds concert Bb — but down in the chalumeau register, that same fingering (without register key) sounds concert Eb, just as on an Eb alto sax — but because the clarinet is classed as a Bb instrument, and has transposed Bb sheet music, that note, instead of being called "C" is called "F".

That's it. In the end, it's up to you to do the hard yards. Good luck.

EDIT: While I was composing the above lecture, 1saxman and patmiller made their own posts — brief and to the point and expressed much more succinctly than mine is. Ah well…
 

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If only this question had been asked before ... at some point ... in the history of the internet ...
Haha! And if only the answer didn't keep changing.... wait a minute!
 

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If you can't read music or prefer not to, you can just play by ear of course — but that presents its own problems, for doublers at least. The tune you are more than comfortable with on tenor can become a nightmare if you switch to alto for the same tune. That's why most saxophonists decide which horn is "their" voice and just stick to it alone.

THIS IS THE DIRECTION I AM HEADING INTO.

One reason why Sonny Stitt is so admired is that he played both alto and tenor with equal facility. (I like him best on baritone, but as his life began to turn into a non-stop world solo tour, he dropped the big horn — obviously because it presented too many logistical challenges.) However, if you investigate his recordings of standards and check the keys he played them in, you will find that he played many of them in the "wrong" key. I can't remember the exact details now, as it's a while since I checked this out, but take the old warhorse "All of Me" for example's sake. It's always played in Bb concert. Now if Stitt learnt that on alto (where he'd be fingering alto G), and he decided to play it on tenor instead, he'd play it in F concert (tenor G), in order to use the same fingering as on alto and save himself the trouble of learning it in a new fingering. You can do that when you're touring as featured solo horn with rhythm section accompaniment. It's a different story playing with other horns, particularly if it's in someone else's band.

EXACTLY, NO PROBLEM WHEN PLAYING SOLO, BUT NOT WHEN WITH OTHER HORNS.
 

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"After reading all this, it still makes no sense to me.After reading all this, it still makes no sense to me."

If every sheet of music had middle c on the piano printed as middle c on the staff, many instruments would be reading music containing nothing but ledger lines. that would be too hard to play, or even to print.

Everyone reading music wants to see most of their stuff in the center of the staff, or as close to the staff as possible. In order to do that, something has to give.

Since the names of musical notes are nothing but code (A 440 would sound just the same if we called it "ham sandwich"), it is easier for music readers to see their middle c in the middle of the staff, so that the middle of the horn sounds notes between the lines and spaces, rather than on ledger lines. C is the conventional name for that note for the purpose of putting that instrument's sound in the center of the staff.

The names of the notes do not mean anything intrinsically. Conventions around the naming of notes are just that: conventions.
 

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It seems like it would be easier to remember different fingering than have to transpose written sheet music.
I think you have a point there. But, for me, I like the comfort of knowing that all my saxophones have the same fingerings. And unless I'm reading from a piece of concert pitch sheet music, the music will have already been transposed for me--which is 99% of the time.
 

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While I just accepted this for years, why does playing a G on an alto come out as an E? In other words, why not just call it an E? I never really understood this.
Well, the saxophone was invented as a family, of different sizes, but all with the same fingering patterns (by which I mean, the lowest note is played with all the fingers of both hands down, and an fifth up from that is played with the left hand down and the right hand index finger down, and so on).

By the way, the first saxophone was the bass saxophone. I don't know whether the very very first one was a C bass or Bb bass.

Having invented this family of instruments, the next choice was to decide whether you would:

1) call "all left hand down and RH index down" F on everything,
or
2) call it Ab on what we now call alto and baritone and call it Eb on what we now call tenor, soprano, and bass, and call it F on what we now call C-melody and C soprano, etc.

Either decision would be musically acceptable. Today's low brass by and large follow the first choice, for example, and saxophones and clarinets follow the second choice.

Basically, the first choice puts the onus on the musician to understand that a concert F is fingered differently on different sizes of instrument; but the music copyist just writes everything out in concert. The second choice puts the burden on the copyist to transpose parts for the specific instrument, but the musician fingers tenor sax parts exactly the same way as alto sax parts.

So, the answer is "because someone (Sax himself?) had to pick one of two alternatives and picked this one".

As a working musician if you go outside the classical and concert band arena you will very quickly find yourself working from all kinds of parts and lead sheets that are not transposed for you so you're going to learn transposing anyway. Never mind the fun of playing sax along with a guitar player who's using a capo and calling out the chords he's playing, but not the actual chords but rather the ones he's fingering - so you have to do two transpositions at once. Or finding out that the baritone sax part is handwritten, transposed to Eb, but in bass clef. Or sightreading french horn parts written in F.

Etc., etc., etc.
 

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I think you have a point there. But, for me, I like the comfort of knowing that all my saxophones have the same fingerings. And unless I'm reading from a piece of concert pitch sheet music, the music will have already been transposed for me--which is 99% of the time.
In my case I probably work from transposed music about 30% of the time. All my trad jazz, small group, and session playing is from concert key lead sheets, or chord charts, or scribbles on a napkin, or by ear. Only the big band stuff is transposed.

But my favorite line is still

"Next tune - C Jam Blues!"

[Me:] "What key?"
 

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... take the old warhorse "All of Me" for example's sake. It's always played in Bb concert...
Except when it isn't; like the singer needs it in another key.

Real Book appears to have it in C which is where I am usually playing it. A bit of (unverified) internet research indicates that Ella Fitz and Willie Nelson may have recorded it in G, Billie Holiday in C.

Learn how the tune goes and then play it in the key that you're playing it in.

Reminds me of a line from the studio chatter on the album "Chester and Lester":

[Chet] Where's "one"?
[Les] Where "one" is...

[Chet] Now you know, I've always admired you, Les, and you've been a great inspiration to me...but you're playing the damn thing wrong!
 
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