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Saxophone Scales & Harmony

Saxophone Scales & Harmony

treble_PaintingNotes are the thing that is emphasized in most ‘music theory’. Notes are important, but I think they don’t matter if you can’t play good rhythm. You also want dynamics, balance, emotion, etc. Notes are just one layer of music.

Melody and harmony both depend on notes. And knowing scales will help you understand harmony better. As will playing some piano.

Here’s a chromatic fingering chart if you need it (includes alternate fingerings)

Fingering Charts

Two options:

Here’s a more printable version, 6 pages:

Saxophone_notes_saxophone_tribe_6_pages  (PDF File: right click and save as to download)

To view on a computer/ipad/etc, this has each fingering on a separate page:

Chromatic Fingering Chart  (PDF File: right click and save as to download)

Chromatic Scale

If you play all the notes on the saxophone in order, that is called a chromatic scale. You can start on any note. There is one chromatic scale.

Here is the chromatic scale on alto, starting on low Bb. Played slowly while ascending and faster while descending.

(mp3, right click and save)

More Scales

And here are the major scales, if you know them, great, keep working on them to get them comfortable in all keys.

If you’re learning them, spend some time and master each one.

Major_scales_tribe (PDF, right click and save)

With fingering diagrams

If you’re unsure of the fingerings for the scales, you can look at this next version or check the fingering chart.  Pretty soon, you want to know all the notes without consulting the diagrams for your fingers though.

Fingerings & Major Scales on Saxophone (PDF File: right click and save as to download)

Here are all 12 majors scales played together across the circle of fifths.  Starting with Bb concert, moving to Eb concert, etc.  You should get to this point after some practice.  But learn the scales one at a time and use the diagrams if you need.


Hear all 12 major scales (mp3, right click and save as to download)

Scale Exercises

Here are some exercises with the scales and arpeggios (arpeggios are chords with the notes played separately). Might add some more scale exercises. You can break the scales apart into four or five note groups. And if a particular transition is giving you trouble, work on it and find out why. Situations like that are also where practicing the Lindeman exercises will help.

Chords & Arpeggio Exercises

Here are slower recordings of the major scales, the files you download are named in concert pitch:

(Concert C major scale is played in the lower octave which is possible on tenor/soprano, but up an octave for alto/bari since that would go below the range of the saxophone)

Bb Concert, C for tenor/soprano, G for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

Eb Concert, F for tenor/soprano, C for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

Ab Concert, Bb for tenor/soprano, F for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

Db Concert, Eb for tenor/soprano, Bb for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

Gb or F# Concert, Ab for tenor/soprano, Eb for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

B Concert, C# for tenor/soprano, Ab for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

E Concert, F# for tenor/soprano, Db for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

A Concert, B for tenor/soprano, Gb for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

D Concert, E for tenor/soprano, B for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

G Concert, A for tenor/soprano, E for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

C Concert, D for tenor/soprano, A for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

(up an octave) C Concert, D for tenor/soprano, A for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

F Concert, G for tenor/soprano, D for alto/bari (mp3, right click and save as to download)

Ionian, Dorian, Lydian?

You may be familiar with these terms, or you might not be.  You almost definitely know the Ionian sound though.  That’s the sound of the major scale.

Solomon asked about, “practice material, like chords and arpeggios, how the fit into music…stuff to make me sound better…etc.”

I told him that knowing your major scales first will make all of that come together easier.

Solomon responded, “so far i Know all major scales…don’t know minor without looking into a book…am kinda stuck to the music sheet..if the wind blows am lost and I cant play one song without sheet music…

I have time but don’t know what to practice..i need guidance.”
Personally, I feel like there is always something to practice since it seems like everything I play could get better.  But you also might know more than you think you know already.
If you know your major scales, you actually already know twelve minor
scales.  If you start a C major scale on A,A, B, C, D, E, F, G, AIt’s a natural minor scale, it has a minor third and a minor seventh.A is the sixth note of the C major scale, so if you practice any major
scale, but start on the sixth notes, you’ll be playing a minor scale,
also known as the Aeolian mode, and should hear the minor sound.
“So to every major scale there is a relative minor?…and the key signature stays the same always?” (Solomon)
There are three types of minor scales, the natural minor or Aeolian mode has the same key signature as the relative minor.  So A natural minor has no sharps or flats.There are also harmonic minor scales and melodic minor scales.In the same way we got the natural minor scale, if you play a major scale starting on the different notes, there are seven ‘modes’.  So you have seven modes with one key signature.Major is known as the ionian mode, the three minor modes are dorian, phrygian, and aeolian (aeolian is also known as the natural minor).
The other modes have different sounds.  Try playing complete scales starting on different notes of the major scale and hear what they sound like. I could record a demonstration of that.But basically, if you know your major scales well, you actually have 49 different scales that should be pretty easy to master.
A book you might want to read about this sort of harmonic theory is ‘the jazz theory book’ by Mark Levine.  It’s a good resource.
You may have heard that the alto sax is called an ‘Eb alto sax’ and a tenor sax called a ‘Bb tenor sax’?That means an Eb on piano is a C on alto, a Bb on piano is a C on tenor. The distance between the notes on piano and the notes on saxophones is that same relative distance. A minor third away for alto/bari, and a whole step away for tenor/soprano.If the piano is in G major, alto sax will be in E major, which is a minor third below. It would be A major on tenor. You can lower each piano note by a minor third to get to the notes on alto sax. You raise each piano note by a whole step (major 2nd) to get to the notes on tenor sax.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Sam Thorpe January 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Hello Neal,

Just attempted to download / listen to the 12 major scales and was unable to download and unable to listen. Can you help?


Neal January 4, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Hey Sam,
Just fixed that. Thanks.



Bengt January 1, 2013 at 4:15 pm

I am very impressed by the volume of information that you offer!!


chad May 6, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Totally agree…I am starting to see light bulbs go off…Excellent information and the format is great!


Brooks July 26, 2013 at 5:36 am

I recently bought a CHORD WHEEL which is a full page sized circular slide rule like device. $10 well spent from Amazon. It is published by Hal Leonard. I learned a lot.



Neal July 26, 2013 at 11:13 am

How have you been using it?


Brooks July 26, 2013 at 6:40 pm

I just got it a week ago. Starting where I am, it doesn’t take much to help me understand chords and keys. While I haven’t turned in Jamaica Farewell yet, it helped me solve the problem (correctly, I hope) faster noting for the tenor it started on B and would need C#, D# and G#.


Y. Rideaux November 14, 2016 at 10:40 pm

Major Scales/Arppegios/Eighth Note Charts & Exercises.
Neal, this is excellent the way you wrote out this information. I hope you have more eighth note exercises that shows how to play them on time. I have trouble compartmentalizing them my head in keeping the correct time. In other words, I understand the value and how it should be counted but cordinating them mentally and then playing correctly at the same time – I get lost. Unlilke quater notes, half notes, its easy to to think quarter note, or half note,play one beat or play for two beats. What do you have for that problem?


Neal November 14, 2016 at 11:28 pm

“One and two and three and four and” to count eighth notes. Just different syllables, but eighth notes can be exactly the same as quarter notes depending on the tempo.


Y. Rideaux November 19, 2016 at 7:11 pm

Ok, thanks


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