Transposing for Sax once instead of every frickin time

I am new-ish to sax (alto), and I’m wondering if there is a down-side to learning to think of my sax in terms of concert pitch instead of “alto sax speak”. What if I just call that thing that happens when I hold the first two keys down a “C” instead of an “A”? Would that make me a horrible person?

I get the the whole point of IFR’s “pick a note and everything is relative from there” idea, and am loving it. -but sooner or later, when it comes time pick a backing track, or improvise with a friend who plays guitar/keyboard/etc, or read sheet music not 100% translated to “alto sax speak” it might be nice to be able to know which pitch we are all talking about without too many mental gymnastics.

I am not likely to take up flute, tenor sax, soprano sax, etc, so I’m willing to risk not having the same fingerings match the same dots on a page as I quickly switch from instrument to instrument. I’m in my late 50’s, and am too old for that nonsense. :slight_smile:

Beyond losing “fingering portability” and the ability to quickly sight-read bespoke sax sheet music, is there a downside to just learning to think of a “C” as a “C”?

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Welcome @da3v! You’re a man after my own heart. That’s exactly how I tend to think about things as well. I can’t tell you which path is right for you, but let me tell you about three similar situations I’ve had in my own life and the choices I’ve made:

IFR TONAL NUMBERS: Believe it or not, I experienced some of the same doubts when I was first experimenting with the idea of switching all of my thinking and language over to the tonal numbers instead of the letter names. At first I didn’t even know if it would be viable for me in my own music practice. But that doubt was soon cast aside by the incredible benefits that I was discovering with each passing day. But even then, I still doubted whether anyone else in the world would be willing to think and talk about music in this way. Needless to say, those fears were unfounded. IFR is successful today precisely because we DID have the courage to throw out all of the junk that had cluttered up mainstream music teaching, and start fresh with a much more powerful and adequate language.

TUNING THE GUITAR IN PERFECT FOURTHS: You may not know this about the guitar, but the traditional tuning of the strings is irregular. This prevents you from taking advantage of an incredible benefit that string instruments could offer, which would be a way to visualize any harmonic shape directly on the fretboard. Guitarists still rely heavily on the visualization of shapes, but they have to learn THREE different physical displacements for every interval. For larger structures like scales and chords, this complexity gets multiplied to the point where guitarists don’t even see some of the most obvious and beautiful connections and parallels in western harmony. So the superiority of a perfectly regular tuning was clear. But could I live without being able to play other people’s guitar compositions note for note? And could I live without being able to make use of the entire body of teaching literature for guitar? But much like the IFR Tonal Numbers, from the day I began experimenting with a perfectly regular tuning (all strings separated by perfect fourths), the new discoveries and possibilities were opening up like a waterfall. It’s been 15 years and I’ve never looked back, and I love the perfect fourths tuning more each day. So again, the lesson is clear:

Enormous benefits accrue to those who listen to their inner voice of common sense.

TRUMPET NOTE NAMES: While my main instrument is the guitar, I’m also an amateur trumpet player and I’ve been enjoying the trumpet more and more over the past couple of years. I learned the note names as a kid when I played the trumpet in my high school band. But as an adult musician returning to the trumpet, I knew that I would never have to read trumpet parts. So I considered this very same question that you’re raising. The trumpet is in Bb just like the tenor sax. So why not just learn the fingering for the note “C” and call it a Bb just like any pianist would call that sound? I have not taken that step (yet), but it’s not because there is any danger in doing it. I think it’s a perfectly valid way of developing your own mastery of your instrument, and I don’t see why you can’t give the notes any names you like. But in my own case, the benefit just isn’t quite strong enough. Because I already learned the note names quite deeply as a child, and because I do all of my thinking in IFR Tonal Numbers anyway, I kind of don’t care what key I’m playing in. So at this point, I think that adopting a new naming system would hinder my playing more than helping it.

So this is the final point I wanted to get to. You’re right that you don’t need the traditional note names if you don’t care about reading charts for alto sax. And you’re also right that learning the concert pitch note names would facilitate reading all of the other music literature that is out there. So if you’re just getting started on the alto sax and you have no intention of reading sheet music or exercise books for alto sax, then there’s really no other reason to feel tied to the traditional note names. But I also want to plant the seed of a different idea, which is that once you really understand harmony, you can be equally successful with either set of names.

Here’s a quick example of how this plays out in my case with the traditional trumpet note names. Let’s say I’m going to play with a group, and we’re going to play a piece of music that was composed by one of the other musicians. Imagine that this musician gives me the sheet music in concert pitch. As I scan through that document, in my mind I’m not transposing those notes to Bb trumpet. I’m translating them into tonal numbers. Once I’m able to grasp that entire composition in tonal numbers, I’m quite happy to play it in any key that you like.

Obviously this isn’t practical if the composition is 10 pages long and goes through 50 key changes. (I can’t visualize a structure that large in my mind.) But in my case, I am never in this situation because I would hate to play a composition like that, and I have no interest in playing from sheet music. What I love is improvisation and dialogue among the musicians, and the best vehicles for that experience are much shorter compositions that I can feel and play by ear.

So this is what you have to decide:

Do you care about reading alto sax literature?
Do you care about reading concert pitch literature?

If you’re just starting out then you have no bias for the traditional names. So if you also don’t care about reading books written for alto sax, then it becomes simply a question of which system opens the most doors for you. And since there is about a thousand times more literature written in concert pitch than transposed for alto, the winner of that contest is pretty clear. :slight_smile:


That is extremely helpful, thanks!!!

I fully agree with you about all 4ths! As a Stick player, you have probably run across Rob Martino, but if you haven’t, you might want to. He uses a mirrored 4ths tuning, and does some beautiful things with it. Mirrored 4ths Intro - Custom 5+7 Chapman Stick - YouTube

Welcome @da3v.

Another Stick player? Meet @DavidW.

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Welcome to the forum @da3v . I’m not sure who you are referring to as a Stick player, but maybe there’s a little confusion over all the David’s around here? LOL!

  • @ImproviseForReal is David Reed , the author of the IFR book, & plays (at least) guitar & trumpet, and prefers P4 tuning on guitar.
  • There’s also @Dave, i.e. David Robert, who runs the forum
  • And there’s me, @DavidW, David Wright, who happens to have a Chapman Stick (but also plays guitar, on which he also uses P4).

And that’s just the regular ones…

Not only have I come across Rob, I’ve (recently) developed my own variation on mirrored 4ths. If you’d like to know more about the variation, I wrote up the development in a topic on the Stickist forum.

Yes, I got my Davids mixed up, sorry! I think there is a Dr. Seuss story along those lines. I’m also a Dave (the “3” is silent) .

My Stick is currently in all 5ths because I’m taking a class with people who are really into that kind of thing, but it will probably go back to 4ths eventually.

I’m also messing around with Linnstrument (4ths all the way!) and Haken Continuum (all half-steps are created equal, as are all of the points between them.) -as well as the aforementioned sax.

So far, this seems like a great group of people. Thanks for making it happen!

I play a tenor guitar tuned in 5ths, and a 6 string guitar tuned in 4ths. I love the freedom the regularity gives you.

Haven’t come across these instruments, but sound interesting.

There are a lot of us about. LOL! I checked some UK name popularity stats & David / Dave was a ‘top 5’ name from ~1930 to ~1990. I ‘experimented’ with the Dave version in my teens, but reverted & have stuck to preferring the full David ever since.

Putting 2 & 2 together & hoping to get 4, I think I found you on Stickist? If so it looks like you’ve been playing since around 2008?

Or pretty much anything else, at the touch of a few buttons!

By total coincidence, a discussion here a few weeks ago got me looking at ‘alternative keyboards’ (du-touch, which led to Seaboad Rise whch led me to Linnstrument).

As a result of those investigations, & much thinking, a Linnstrument arrived at my door a few days ago. Wow! I’m so glad I made (& was able to make) the decision. I love my other instruments, especially Stick, but they now have a new friend & I feel they’re all going to get on great.

For a string player the Linnstument is just so intuitive. I was able to not just pick out but play melodies (one handed) straight away & have it sound like music (the ‘Dark Cello’ voice in the Surge XT ‘Linnstrument MPE’ download is my favourite voice so far).

Welcome to the party. :slight_smile:

I don’t know the Haken Continuum @mem , but I can confirm Linnstrument is beyond interesting. It’s not even ‘just’ all 4ths. At the press of a couple of buttons you can be in 5ths, 3rds, or whatever. If you want irregular intervals (e.g. 4 ‘strings’ in 4ths & the others in 5ths) that’s possible, it just takes a bit more setting up.
If you want something that’s beyond the in-built options (e.g. some strings ascending left to right & others ascending right to left), even that is probably possible, but would involve some processing in a DAW (Linnstrumnet outputs MIID data, so you could have the DAW use some ruel or other on certain channels).

There seem to be a bunch of people who like having their Linnstruments set up with a tritone (augmented 4th) interval between strings - so on any given ‘fret’ (i…e. vertical row) the note is exactly the same every second string (i.e. horizontal row).

@mem So far the only downside is that being a MIDI controller, with no built in ‘sound engine’, it must be connected to something else (typically a computer) in order to produce sound.

It’s a compromise I’m currently happy to put up with, because of the wonderful sounds such a connection can enable. :smiley:

Yep, that is me on stickist. “Dabbling since 2008” might be more accurate.

@DavidW , Just in case you aren’t already on Roger Linn’s Newsletter mailing list, (I somehow wasn’t) he hosts a call-in on the first Tues of every month that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit.

The Continuum has an amazing synth engine built in, and the surface is extremely sensitive to different playing techniques. “Your finger is the envelope!” Since all of its patches are designed with X, Z, and often Y MPE in mind they work nicely with the Linnstrument. A good example of the variety you can get out of a single patch: Byzantine Dreams - exploration of a single patch on the Haken Continuum - YouTube.

Just been watching some videos about the Linnstrument, looks very expressive being able to respond to small movements and recreate pitch bending and vibrato. I think you are going have many hours of creative fun on that @DavidW

That beats “Dabbling since 2022”. :wink:

@da3v I registered on Friday & received my first newsletter this morning. :slight_smile: I need to double check the timing tfor the Zoom. I believe 10am California is 6pm UK? I’ll see if I can manage to drop in.

Talking of instrument Zooms, I regularly attend Bob Culbertson’s Saturday morning Stick call (9am California time). That’s great. Bob sometimes has a farmer’s market gig he has to go to, but he’s often there for at least part of the session. Steve Adelson is another regular attendee.

@mem I just discovered that at least one interpretation of that requirement is a built-in possibility (i.e. directions mirrored either side of a vertical split line)!

Mirrored Pitch Direction

Some LinnStrument players have expressed an interest in setting the pitch direction so that it increases outward from center in both the left and right directions. This permits the chord and scale fingerings to be mirror images of each other. Here’s how to do it:…

Can you recommend any sources @da3v ?

The Continuum is very impressive @da3v , but on balance I think I’m with Roger Linn on his choice of form factor. The ‘strings in semitones’ style arrangement works very well for me, plus the Linnstrument is beautifully compact. Even the full size 200 key version is little bigger than a standard desktop computer keyboard. Small enough to balance on a lap.

I actually use a Continuumini primarily for its synth and plug the Linnstrument into it, powering them both with a phone charger battery. I keep threatening to attach the continuumini off to one side to make it a keytar like piece of goofiness, but haven’t done it yet.

Ipad apps that are great w Linnstrument: The Moog apps AnimoogZ, ModelD and Model15 were all written by the guy who wrote the firmware for the Linnstrument, so they play nicely with each other. Geoshred is a ton of fun, and has plenty of MPE goodness baked in. ThumbJam is a surprisingly good MPE-able sampler.

To bring things back slightly toward IFR on Linnstrument, here is a Theoryboard-like MAX patch I made a few yrs ago. Left columns are chords ( Red is various flavors of 1 chords Maj, min, dim, etc, yellow is 2’s, etc). Pressing a chord on the left lights the corresponding chord tones on the right side. Version in video is a little buggy, but you can get the idea. August 14, 2020 - YouTube

Sadly, I’m not an Apple user. There is plenty of choice on Windows desktop, but I’ve not found an android MPE synth yet (SynPrez II is a neat non-MPE synth I used just to prove the connection was possible).

Good idea, else I’d be in danger of needing to moderate myself for topic drift. LOL!

A nice demonstration of the power & flexility of the lighting configuration. With different settings it would possible to ‘see’ any of the IFR environments set out in front of you in various ways.

My next move is probably to save a preset that only lights up the C’s. That would then be the equivalent of the C markers on my Stick, which I find to be plenty there. I have quite a strong mental image of 4ths tuning & I’m not sure I really like having all the naturals lit (i.e. the defaut) all the time? It’s a bit of a distraction if I’m wanting to ‘think’ in some other arrangement. Just having the C’s gives me orientation without distraction (though I’ve wondered about maybe an experimental preset that adds just, say, A as a second orientation ‘anchor’ with a moderate separation from C).

Configurabilty & choice is great - provided you can avoid choice overwhelm!. :wink: