There is a large variety of saxophones in the world, but the major ones are the soprano, tenor, alto, and bass sax.

That being said, however, the two saxophones that caught the interest of most sax players are the alto and tenor sax. These two saxophones have become favorites over the years, and are widely used by composers, listeners, and musicians all over the world.

charlie parker playing the alto saxophoneA number of professional musicians have done a great deal to bring the saxophone into the limelight, especially the alto, tenor, and soprano sax.

Professionals such as Charlie Parker (alto sax player) and John Coltrane (tenor sax player) did well to make these two saxophones become very popular today.

They brought the alto and tenor sax into the mainstream, due to their dexterity and fame. Although the alto, tenor, and soprano sax are featured in orchestras and professional bands along with other instruments, their uniqueness has led to the question of which is better in the two – alto vs tenor sax!


Let’s take a closer peek at their differences



There are a lot of similarities between the two saxophones, but their differences are quite numerous. One might assume these differences are minute, while some might regard them as significant. Some differences can be seen on the body of the sax while some are in the tones.

Story short, let us have a look, shall we?



alto vs tenor sax sizesEvery saxophone player would know that one major difference between the alto and tenor sax is their size. The alto saxophone is smaller than the tenor saxophone. It is lighter and easy to manage than the tenor sax.

On the other hand, the tenor sax is heavier and larger, and might not be as easy to manage as the alto sax. Considering size in the brass instrument family, we know that size affects the sound.

Smaller brass instruments produce brighter and higher tones than a larger brass instrument. However, the tenor sax produces a mellow, deep and rich sound in comparison to the alto sax.  Another difference between the two is that the neck of the alto sax bends upwards while that of the tenor sax bends downwards.

These differences also involve the handling of the instruments. Beginner sax players find it easier to handle the alto sax than tenor sax, due to their smaller lung capacity and experience playing the instruments. Professionals, however, can produce a wide range of tones from either the alto or tenor sax.




The alto and tenor sax are both transposing instruments (a transposing instrument is an instrument where the note that is written is different from the note that sound, as an example: a C on a Bb instrument will sound like a Bb – depending on the instrument) and they produce sounds that are different from the piano and other concert pitch instruments.

But as we mentioned earlier, their size affects the tones they produce. In sheet music, the pitch of the alto or tenor sax is written differently than what they actually produce. For instance, a song written in the key of C would sound on a different key other than C when you play either of the two saxophones.

The only similarity between the alto and tenor sax here is that they have the same fingerings, key positions, notes and they require a mouthpiece to play. These similarities are quite visible, and one can easily tell by just looking at the two instruments. These similarities are what makes most professional sax players learn both types of sax in order to be more marketable.



We have pointed out that the tenor and alto sax are similar in many ways that one can easily tell by just looking at them. One major difference that a lot of people won’t notice is their difference in the note register.

The alto sax is an E-flat instrument. This means that sheet music on the key of C would sound like E-flat on alto sax. The tenor sax is an octave lower than the written sheet music. This means that a song written on C would sound like B-flat on the tenor sax.

This is why playing the alto saxophone to sheet music written for a tenor saxophone would seem completely off. As a learner of the instrument, you should learn all the note registers for both instruments to ensure transposing to the required key works.

This means that you can try transposing your tenor sax to E-flat to play a piece of sheet music written for alto sax and vice versa.



The tenor and alto sax need accessories just like every other brass instrument.

Now, one can’t deny that they use similar accessories. The essential accessories that you need regardless of the saxophone type include a mouthpiece, an extra set of reeds, a sturdy case, and cleaning cloths.

There are a lot of accessories that you can use for these instruments, but some are not as important as the essential ones. These include a metronome and music stand. However, the major differences in these accessories are their size.

For example, the case of a tenor sax would be larger than that of an alto sax. But this might not be the case in all accessories. The main thing is to get the accessories for both instruments because they come in handy for a beginner.







There is a lot of buzz around the question – which is better for a beginner, alto or tenor saxophone?

The alto vs tenor sax buzz made a lot of people give their honest opinions, and one can’t discredit their opinions because it might work for other people. However, we must put a lot of things into consideration if we are to make a professional decision on which of the two is better for a beginner.

There are instructors who believe that the size of the instrument matters when it comes to learning for the first time. A smaller instrument is easier to handle in terms of weight and ease of learning dynamics and might make learning for a beginner easier.

This is one of the major reasons why the alto sax has the upper hand over the tenor sax. Its small size also makes it perfect for younger beginners. It has a smaller and tight embouchure, and it is not as complex to understand as larger saxophones like the tenor sax.

Understanding how to play an alto saxophone; in terms of understanding the embouchure, makes it easier to grasp larger saxophones.

There is no doubt that an alto sax would be the best option for smaller beginner sax players of the instrument. Since they have small hands, it would be easier to move around the instrument and would require less energy to play.

A number of beginners might have decided on a genre they prefer playing and might have a hard time choosing a saxophone based on that genre they wish to learn. The deal is that nearly all types of saxophones are used in most forms of music, but it is hard not to notice that jazz music uses more of the tenor sax than every other sax.

This does not mean that jazz music is limited to the tenor sax. On the contrary, jazz music uses every type of saxophone and is not limited to one specific type. But since tenor is the best bet for jazz music, then you should get yourself or a learner under you a tenor sax to help hasten and boost their learning experience.

In general, the alto sax is the best option for all student players but not in every situation.

Learning how to play the saxophone based on genre makes one consider other options such as the tenor sax. But since we are focusing on general learning of the saxophone, the alto sax is probably the best option.




As you can tell from the review above, both sax’s are great and it mainly comes down to the personal preference of the musician themselves.

So, once you have decided on the size of your instrument and the type of music you want to play (which is important due to the sound output – the Alto being an octave lower) all that’s left for you do is start making great music.




You can also read our very detailed and comprehensive post on all the Saxophone Types both new and old, you will get a better understanding of the sax family musical instruments and see which one suits your needs best.