Instrument ranges and transpositions

saxophones | woodwind doubles | brass | rhythm | lead part writing


The saxophone ranges below represent the lowest pitch available to the highest. Professional players can play comfortably throughout the entire range of the instrument. In addition to the ranges illustrated below, the professional is capable of the extreme high register or altissimo register, which, depending on the player, is sometimes a 5th or 6th above the highest note given below. The extended upper range should be limited to improvised solos and never used in a written part. It is also generally not a good idea to write in the extreme low range for soprano, alto, or tenor, as notes in this range have a tendency not to speak or sound forced. The baritone saxophone is much more comfortable and reliable in the low register.

Saxophones are capable of playing the jazz legato style very effectively. Unlike brass instruments, it is easier for saxophones to perform rapid passages and angular melodies. This would help explain some of its popularity as a jazz instrument.

There are usually five saxophones in a big band using the following instrumentation; 2 altos, 2 tenors, and 1 baritone or 1 soprano, 1 alto, 2 tenors, and 1 baritone.

Transposition: Up a major second from concert pitch.

Because the soprano saxophone is now a common instrument, both as a section member and a soloist, it is included on this page and not on the Woodwind Doubles page. The soprano can be heard on the melodic line of a saxophone section soli, playing improvised solos, blending nicely as an inner harmony part, or doubled with a trumpet on a melodic line. When used as the top line of a soli it is normally played by the 1st Alto player. In other situations it can be played by any member of the saxophone section.

The following tunes from the Alive XV CD use soprano saxophone: Isotope, Entropical Paradise, Oleo, North Rim, and Meaning of the Blues.

NOTE: Many sopranos now have a high F# key.

Transposition: Up a major sixth from concert pitch. Written in treble clef

The alto is usually the lead instrument in the saxophone section. It is a common solo instrument and sounds well playing unison or octave melodic lines with any of the other saxophones or brass instruments.

NOTE: Not all altos have a high F# key.

Transposition: Up a major ninth (an octave + a major second) from concert pitch. Written in treble clef.

The two tenors found in the big band saxophone section are important as players of inner harmony parts and as doublers of melodic lines. They can be heard in unison with trombones or in octaves with a trumpet, creating a "small group" sound. It is the most common solo instrument of the big band.

NOTE: Not all tenors have a high F# key.

Transposition: Up a major thirteenth (an octave + a major sixth) from concert pitch. Written in treble clef.

The baritone saxophone is the bass instrument of the saxophone section. It is common to hear the baritone playing as part of the saxophone section or in concert with the other bass instruments - bass guitar and bass trombone.

NOTE: Not all baritones have a high F# key or a low A.