How to Transpose for an E-flat Instrument
Suppose you want to play a duet with your friend, who plays the alto saxophone. If the duet is scored for two flutes, trying to play it as it is would simply not work.
The reason behind this is that the saxophone is a transposing instrument, while the flute is not. What does this mean?
- When a flute player plays a written C, his/her flute sounds a C.
- When an alto sax player plays a written C, his/her sax sounds an E-flat.
That's why we say that the alto sax is a transposing instrument in E-flat. Not all saxophones are in E-flat, though: The tenor and the soprano sax, for instance, are in B-flat.
As you may already have guessed, on such an instrument the whole scale gets transposed: if a C sounds as an E-Flat, a D sounds as an F, an E sounds as a G and so on.
When is this a Problem?
Every time you wish to play a score written for C instruments (like the flute or the piano) but you need to substitute one or more of the instruments with transposing instruments (like saxophones). Here are some typical examples:
- You have a flute-and-piano score, but you want to play the flute part with a sax.
- You want to play a duet scored for two flutes, but you have a flute and a sax.
The problem only occurs when you mix different instruments: if you want to play a flute duet with two saxophones, the score can be played as is.
So, How Do I Solve the Problem?
You need to transpose all the parts that will be played by transposing instruments. For instance, let's say you want to change a flute duet into a flute-and-sax duet: in this case you only need to change one of the two staves, the one that will be played by the sax. Do not change the part that will be played by the flute!
What you need to do is basically to transpose all the notes on the staff up by a major sixth, or down by a minor third. Here are the steps to accomplish this:
- Move all the notes up (or down).
- Adjust the key signature.
- Fix any extra accidental.
Let's now explain these steps in detail.
- Move all the notes up (or down). Get some blank staff paper. Transcribe all the notes of the part you want to adapt, but moving all of them up by five degrees. Omit all the accidentals (sharps, flats and naturals) for the moment, we will put them in later.
For example, for
- Adjust the key signature. Let's say you know the order of sharps (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#) and flats (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb) in key signatures.
- If the original key signature has no flats, add the next three sharps.
- If the original key signature has just one flat, change it to an F#-and-C# key signature.
- If the original key signature has just two flats, change it to an F# key signature.
- If the original key signature has at least three flats, remove the last three flats.
Before After Before After
- Fix any extra accidental. You are almost done! Now you only need to search the original music for extra accidentals, and to translate them according to the following table:
Before After C# A# D# B# E# Cx F# D# G# E# A# Fx B# Gx Before After C♮ A♮ D♮ B♮ E♮ C# F♮ D♮ G♮ E♮ A♮ F# B♮ G# Before After Cb Ab Db Bb Eb C♮ Fb Db Gb Eb Ab F♮ Bb G♮
That's it! Now the part can be played on an E-flat saxophone, and it will sound fine even when played together with a C instrument like the flute. Remember, the flute must play the original version, not the modified one!