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Beginner Transposition

ArgoPete

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Hi I am just starting with Music having basically retired after many years as an IT Architect. Beginning with Piano as the obvious way into Western music with a love of Jazz and the blues high on my agenda and an interest in sax, trumpet etc. as skill increases - I was kicked off on this path by youtube of Joan Chamorro and the Sant Andreu Jazz band combined with a life long love of listening to jazz and classics..
I believe I have got a good grasp of chromatic and diatonic scales in even temperament and understand the difference with true temperament. I can even see why blowing down a longer tube will produce a different note as in soprano and baritone sax.
However I am baffled by "Traditionally instruments tune to a concert A (F# on alto and B on tenor)". I know concert A is 440 Hz the A above middle C on the piano. Then I discover that I have to transpose my music down a whole tone for B-flat trumpet for example. Why? Surely a 440Hz vibration is going to produce A no matter what. Is it that transposing instrument players just like to see their open pipe note occupying the centre between the two staves which is the normal position for middle C on Piano or do the vibrations actually produce a different note in a tube to a string?
 

kevgermany

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Transposing instruments came about because musicians didn't have to learn different fingerings to play a tune in different keys. The clarinet is a good example, historically they were made in most keys, even though today they're mostly Bb. So simply by switching instruments, using the same score, you play at a different pitch i.e. in a different key.

A non transposing instrument is in C, and plays what's written in concert pitch. Best example is a piano. Guitars are transposing instruments that play an octave lower than is written, because the note names are the same, many people don't think of the guitar as being a transposing instrument.

So how does it affect the sax?

First hold on to concert pitch, A=440.

Saxes fall into two pitch families, Bb and Eb. This means that played on a Bb sax, a written C is a Bb in sound. Similarly playing a written C on an Eb sax gives you an Eb.

Working through the saxes, soprano, tenor, bass are in Bb. Alto and baritone are in Eb. There are others around, mostly in C, but they're oddities today.

So how do they relate to concert pitch? The Soprano plays a tone down from concert pitch. So the written A sounds as the G immediately below it. Tenor plays an octave below soprano. I.e. an octave and a tone (nineth) below what's written.
Bass plays an octave below tenor. Music for these saxes is written a tone up, so if you want a C, a D will be written.

The Eb saxes slot between the Bb ones. So alto is pitched in Eb between soprano and tenor. And baritone between tenor and bass. As it's easier to remember, we think of alto playing higher than written. Written C sounds as Eb, a minor third up. So alto music is transposed down because the instrument transposes up.

It's easy to get confused at first. So work from what the instrument does and this gives you what happens to the notes.

If you hear people discussing transposition, be careful. You'll see comments like 'alto transposes down a minor third' or 'tenor transposes up a tone'. When it's said like this, it's referring to the score only, bypassing the instrument. It's a convenient aide memoire for composition and transcription. But it's only correct if you remember the context.

The last part of your question - about likes - is a good one. Basically we've standardised on treble and bass clef for most music. Melody is usually in the treble. In older music and a couple of orchestral instruments, other clefs are found. Sax parts are always in the treble clef. Makes it easier for most. But people with perfect pitch can find this difficult because they're expecting to hear what's written, not what comes out. We had an interesting discussion about this with one of the members who has perfect pitch a while ago.
 
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kevgermany

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There's one other factor I didn't mention. Concert A 440 was only standardised relatively recently. 457 was another standard and many others existed. If you get interested in older saxes, there are many high pitch saxes around. Generally at 457, but it's not hard and fast. High pitch saxes can't be played in tune with 440 pitch instruments.
 

jeremyjuicewah

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That was a masterful answer. I am assuming its all correct cos there is a great deal there that I did not know or did not understand. Thanks for taking the time, very interesting. Wont make me play better, but I like all them bits to be in my head, somewhere.
Cheers
 

Tenor Viol

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Plenty of stuff there from Kev. For OP - you're right, strictly speaking, saxes do not need to transpose and to some extent it's odd that they do. The main reason is (probably) to keep the fingering the same for the written notes for the different sizes of instrument.

I think it's 'easier' to think about if you think about trumpets. Trumpets used to be just like bugles - a tube with a mouthpiece and no valves. The only notes which can be played are those on the harmonic series for the length of the tube. To play different notes belonging to a different 'key' you need to change the length of the tube.

This is what they did - they plugged in a coil of tubing called a crook to change the length and therefore the notes that came out. The music therefore was always notated "in C" and you inserted the relvant crook (D, G, F etc). Technology came up with automating the process by adding 'valves' which are in fact interconnected crooks operated by pistons. By combining different pistons and embouchures you can play any note. Despite being unnecessary, trumpets are usually 'in Bb' - 'D' is the commonest alternative used in much Baroque music. Here's a baroque trumpet in action - also known as an English trumpet.
 
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jbtsax

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However I am baffled by "Traditionally instruments tune to a concert A (F# on alto and B on tenor)". I know concert A is 440 Hz the A above middle C on the piano.
To sound "Concert A" an alto saxophone plays a note a 6th higher which is F#2. Another way to say it is that the alto saxophone "transposes" up a 6th.

To sound the same "Concert A" the soprano sax plays a note that is one step higher or B. In other words the soprano sax (or Bb clarinet) "transposes" up a step.

The tenor sax which sounds an octave lower than the soprano transposes up an octave and a step. The bari sax which sounds an octave lower than the alto sax transposes up an octave and a 6th.
Surely a 440Hz vibration is going to produce A no matter what.
Right. A 440Hz vibration is always a "Concert" A which is read as F# for the alto and bari, and B for the soprano and tenor.
Is it that transposing instrument players just like to see their open pipe note occupying the centre between the two staves which is the normal position for middle C on Piano
Sort of. Transposition basically helps to keep the notes in the range of the instrument the player reads from going too far above or below the staff.
or do the vibrations actually produce a different note in a tube to a string?
Tube, string, saw blade, metal bar, vocal chords, etc.---whatever vibrates at the same frequency produces the same pitch, but it may go by a different note "name". Yeah, it is confusing at first.
 

Colin the Bear

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If you play enough Eb saxophone and see enough lead sheets and chord charts in concert pitch to play the transposition becomes automatic. It's demanding at first but you soon get used to it. The four main saxophones, soprano, alto, tenor and baritone have distinctive voices and I believe are the ones that sound the best. The melody C saxophone is making a slow comeback and has a unique sound.

Understanding the history of how we got where we are won't help you play any better but it does explain why some things are the way they are.
 

Tenor Viol

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Believe it or not, life is simpler than it used to be. In the days when paper and printing costs were very high, all sort of weird clefs were used to avoid having too many leger lines.

We have to principle staves: the treble (G2) and the bass (F4).

Two C clefs are still in use: violas use the alto (C3) clef and cellos/trombones/bassoons use the tenor clef (C4) hor higher pitched stuff.

Weird ones, such a French violin clef (G1) and baritone (F2) have fallen into dissuetude, fortunately.
 

Greg Strange

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To add even more to the confusion...you could take up the alto flute...:rofl:

Greg S.
 

Greg Strange

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Alto flute? Banjo? What about the French horn...!

I'm starting to get confused myself...:confused2:

I'm off to listen to some Led Zep - dazed and confused...:rofl:

Greg S.
 

Tenor Viol

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I know someone who is learning French horn - I aree, it must be the most difficult instrument - all of that transpositon at sight that is needed....
 

ArgoPete

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Wow! What a fantastic group this is. Thank you all very much for the explanations. You would not believe the number of people and internet sites I have queried to get his far. Answers have varied "I gave up the sax because it (transposition) was doing my head in" she carried on with the violin. Choir master at Remembrance Day event "You may find it difficult to follow the band so just sing lower". Part time professional musician "Theory is all mathematics so just play by ear".
I am an IT analyst and have lived by a couple of dicta "There are no stupid questions only stupid assumptions" and "If you don't know why something happens you are probably missing the point".
When I decided to start learning to play , before I even had an instrument or a teacher, I said Notation is the language of music so learn to read. I immediately found the Circle of Fifths and felt I had died and gone to Heaven, here is the Rosetta Stone of Western music. Then I realised that the piano is the road map, thanks to sundry people on the web from drummers to trumpeters and guitarists saying always start with the piano.
I have discovered to my horror that a great many battle on eventually learning by ear when a simple knowledge of basic harmony would have got them there in minutes.
By the way I get very annoyed with people who say that Harmony is all mathematics. It is not. Harmony is a natural phenomenon the understanding of which can be simplified with very basic arithmetic. If one is clever enough to arrive at a given place at a given time on a given day you know all the arithmetic that is necessary. One does not even need to know that even temperament tuning is based on the twelfth root of two, although I find that interesting. Just as I find Iannis Xenakis compositions based on stochastic theory interesting - for a brilliant exposition of the latter I recommend www.sabinepyrker.at/biography_en.php . Thanks again one and all.
 

kevgermany

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Plenty of stuff there from Kev. For OP - you're right, strictly speaking, saxes do not need to transpose and to some extent it's odd that they do. The main reason is (probably) to keep the fingering the same for the written notes for the different sizes of instrument.

A Sax originally envisaged two sets of instruments, in C and F for orchestral use, and in Bb and Eb for band use. These pitches were chosen to match existing transposing instruments, so they could play from the same score. Modern saxes are keyed with an extended range compared to the early instruments.
 

kevgermany

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To sound "Concert A" an alto saxophone plays a note a 6th higher which is F#2. Another way to say it is that the alto saxophone "transposes" up a 6th.

To sound the same "Concert A" the soprano sax plays a note that is one step higher or B. In other words the soprano sax (or Bb clarinet) "transposes" up a step.

The tenor sax which sounds an octave lower than the soprano transposes up an octave and a step. The bari sax which sounds an octave lower than the alto sax transposes up an octave and a 6th.

I'm sorry, but this is wrong.

Transposition is what's done to the score, not what the instrument does. The tenor sax does not transpose up. Music for tenor is transposed up.
 

jbtsax

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I'm sorry, but this is wrong.

Transposition is what's done to the score, not what the instrument does. The tenor sax does not transpose up. Music for tenor is transposed up.
Of course that technically correct, but in the music vernacular that is understood by musicians the way musicians say it is "the alto saxophone transposes up a 6th" which implies that the music written for alto saxophone is transposed up a 6th.
 

kevgermany

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We should avoid loose and confusing terminology. It's worse than calling a harmonica a harp.
 

jbtsax

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Semantics can be fun. To the question "what do you do", I say "I teach the saxophone". Actually that's wrong. I don't teach the saxophone. Saxophones are inanimate objects with no capacity to learn. I teach people to play the saxophone. No wait, I teach people to play music on the saxophone. Oops, the music isn't on the saxophone, it comes out of the saxophone. I've got it. I teach people to make music come out of a saxophone by blowing and fingering properly.

That's quite a mouthful. Ok, "I give saxophone lessons". . . . no wait. . .
 

kernewegor

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By the way I get very annoyed with people who say that Harmony is all mathematics. It is not. Harmony is a natural phenomenon the understanding of which can be simplified with very basic arithmetic. If one is clever enough to arrive at a given place at a given time on a given day you know all the arithmetic that is necessary. One does not even need to know that even temperament tuning is based on the twelfth root of two, although I find that interesting.

Nothing is simple in this life.

http://www.amazon.com/Equal-Temperament-Ruined-Harmony-Should/dp/0393334201

Hence the old saying: "The piano tuner is paid to put your piano out of tune."
 

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