Paul R. Coats
By the time a young Saxophonist gets into
high school he may be asked by his director to play from a part written
for another (missing) instrument. The versatile tone of the saxophone is
often called upon for these chores, substituting for Oboe, Bassoon, Cello,
or other instruments. Fortunately, this should not be as terrifying as
player will generally not be asked to perform a part for which his
instrument is clearly unsuited. A Tenor Saxophonist will not be asked to
play a Piccolo part, for example, but may be asked to play a Cello part.
There is one simple transposition skill that will take care of 80% of the
transpositions the Saxophonist will be called upon to perform—one whole
step up. In the following examples this will be explained. The other
lesser skill is to be able to ignore the clef sign, mentally substitute
the treble clef, and to change the key signature.
Soprano Saxophone is a useful substitute for Trumpet or Clarinet in some
situations. No transposition is required, as these are all Bb
instruments. Only the low end range of the Clarinet need be taken into
Soprano Saxophone makes a good substitute for the Oboe. Both instruments
have approximately the same range, and a similar tone quality. For the
transposition of C instrument parts, that is Oboe, Flute, Violin, the one
whole step up transposition is needed. The key signature of the new part
has two fewer flats, or two more sharps.
One whole step
The Alto Saxophone may be called upon to
play French Horn or English Horn parts. These are both F instruments, and
Eb Alto Saxophone requires the same one whole step up transposition that
is required for the Soprano Saxophonist to play an Oboe part. As before,
the new key signature will have two fewer flats, or two more sharps.
first thought of a Tenor Saxophonist, upon seeing a tenor clef part, is
pure terror. This is really very easy. The tenor clef is ignored, and a
treble clef is substituted, along with a new key signature having two
fewer flats, or two more sharps. Now here is the easy part… the notes are
read just as usual for the Tenor Saxophonist. A written second line F is
now read as the Tenor Saxophonist’s second line G. Even the octave will
The Baritone Saxophonist will often be called upon to play trombone, tuba,
bassoon, or other bass clef parts. As with the Tenor Saxophone and tenor
clef, the Baritone Saxophonist has it easy. The treble clef is
substituted for the bass clef, and the key signature is altered by
subtracting three flats, or adding three sharps. Once again, no shifting
of the notes up or down is required.
What to do
about accidentals? A general rule of thumb is flats become naturals, and
naturals become sharps… but not always. Look over the part carefully and
figure out the correct accidentals for these notes. The more complex the
harmonic content of the music being played, the more difficult this
There are other
useful transpositions, such as the perfect fourth up. This is useful for
reading Alto Saxophone parts on the Tenor Saxophone. Another is the
perfect fourth down, which is useful for reading Tenor Saxophone parts on
the Alto Saxophone. These skills are more involved, taking much more
practice, and require careful consideration of range.
I hope this
gets you off to a good start.