Alto & Tenor Sax: Similarities & Differences

When it comes to saxophones, there are four major varieties: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Among these, the alto and tenor saxophones have become favorites among musicians, composers, and listeners. Professional musicians, including John Coltrane (tenor) and Charlie Parker (alto), have brought the two types of saxophones into the mainstream. While both saxophones are often featured in professional bands and orchestras and have a similar music role, they are also quite unique in nature.

Size

The most obvious difference between the two instruments is their size. The tenor sax is slightly larger and heavier, while the alto sax is smaller, lighter, and more easily managed than a tenor. The neck of an alto saxophone also comes up slightly at the end, while the neck of a tenor bends slightly down. Beyond the aesthetics, the size of the two instruments makes a difference in the notes that they produce. Since the alto sax is smaller, its notes are higher and brighter than those of the tenor sax. The tenor sax produces a mellow, rich, and deep sound.  While expert musicians can get a vast range of sounds out of both instruments, younger musicians who have smaller hands and a smaller lung capacity tend to have an easier time playing the alto sax.

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Transposing Instruments

Both the alto and tenor sax are transposing instruments, meaning neither of them sound the same as the piano and other concert pitch instruments. In written music, the pitch of a transposing instrument is written differently than what’s actually produced; for example, playing a written C on a transposing instrument will produce a pitch other than C. Because they have the same key positions, fingerings, number of notes, and both require a reed and a mouthpiece to play, they’re more similar in nature than most would think. Since the alto and tenor sax are the two most popular instruments in the saxophone family, many professional musicians learn both in order to make themselves more marketable.

Differences in Register

Although the alto and tenor saxophones use similar sets of fingerings and embouchure, they are significantly different in regards to note register. The alto saxophone is an E-flat instrument, which means that a written C played by an alto sax actually sounds like an E-flat. The tenor saxophone, on the other hand, is built half an octave lower. It’s written in B-flat, meaning that a written C for the tenor seems like a B-flat. Although this is a major difference between the two instruments, it’s only noticeable if you try to play your tenor sax using sheet music that was written for an alto sax and vice versa.

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Accessories

Since the alto and tenor sax are quite similar in nature, the essential accessories you’ll need to purchase are virtually the same across the board. Regardless of the type of saxophone your child chooses, you’ll need to purchase the following accessories: a sturdy case, extra reeds, a mouthpiece, and cleaning cloths. While a metronome and a music stand are optional accessories, you may find that your child will enjoy their time learning a new instrument more if these accessories are available. If you need advice about caring for and maintaining your sax, ask your music teacher or a local repair technician for advice that’s specific to your instrument.

Which is Better for a New Musician?

The smaller size of the alto saxophone makes it the perfect option for younger students. Since it requires a smaller and tighter embouchure, the technicalities behind the alto sax make it easier for new musicians to grasp before moving onto playing other, larger types of saxophones. If your child is small in size, the minimal physical requirements of the alto sax also make it an excellent first saxophone for younger musicians. If you’re choosing a saxophone based on genre, nearly each type of saxophone is used in jazz music, but the tenor tends to be the one that’s used the most; therefore, if your child seems mostly interested in playing jazz, the tenor sax is a better choice.

Once you’ve made a decision about which is right for you, check out our Saxophone Buying Guide.

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9 Comments
  1. “The alto saxophone is an E-flat instrument, which means that a written C played by an alto sax actually sounds like an E-flat.”

    Incorrect. A written C on played on the alto saxophone will produce an A, transposing up a major sixth (or down by a minor third), while the tenor saxophone will produce a D, transposing a ninth.

    1. Actually the Buyer’s guide is correct: a written C played by an alto sax does sound like an E-flat. To play concert C, you need to play an A on the alto sax.

  2. The first sentence is already wrong. “there are four major varieties: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.”
    Bass saxohpone is a major variety? Where is the Baritone? Are you sure Bass saxophone is more common than baritone saxohpone? For example, almost all big band charts are written for alto-alto-tenor-tenor-baritone, not alto-alto-tenor-tenor-bass !

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