What Is the Difference Between Alto and Tenor Sax?

Most people who are new to the world of saxophones are surprised when they learn that the saxophone is not just a single instrument — but a family of woodwind instruments designed by Adolf Sax that includes 14 different types of saxophones. Of these 14, alto and tenor are the most common types in use today. Do you know the difference between an alto and a tenor saxophone? If not, don’t worry! You’re not alone. 

Alto saxophones are smaller and lighter than tenor saxophones, and they have a higher pitch. They are also easier to play than tenor saxophones, which is why they are often recommended for beginners. Tenor saxophones, on the other hand, have a lower pitch with a darker, more complex sound. Alto saxes are commonly used in classical music, whereas tenor saxophones are the go-to for jazz and blues. 

The differences don’t end here. Both saxophones have their own unique set of characteristics that decide which one is the better choice for a particular player. So, if you’re wondering whether to go with an alto or a tenor sax, let us help you out. In this post, we will discuss the differences between these two instruments and help you decide which one is right for you! Stay tuned!

5 Key Differences Between Alto and Tenor Sax

There are 5 key areas where the alto sax and the tenor sax differ – Size, Design, Transposition, Sound, and Price. Let’s discuss each of these areas in detail and how they differ for alto and tenor saxophones. 

  1. Size

Have a quick look at the graph below to see the difference in size between the four most popular saxophones (alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone). (Source)

Saxophone Sizes

As you can see, the tenor saxophone is taller than the alto by around 7 inches. It’s also heavier, weighing about 7.7 pounds, with the alto weighing only around 5.5 pounds. Since larger instruments produce deeper sounds, the size of the tenor means that it can create a richer, fuller sound than the alto. However, it also makes it more difficult for students, especially children, to hold and play a tenor sax. For this reason, the alto is often recommended for beginners.

Once you have grasped the basics of playing the saxophone and have some experience under your belt, you’ll be able to easily play both the alto and tenor saxophones irrespective of the size.

  1. Design

Both the alto and tenor saxophones have noticeably different designs. An alto sax has a neck that bends at a sharp 90-degree angle, whereas the tenor saxophone’s neck is curved downwards. You can easily tell both saxophones apart simply based on this visual difference.

The keys on a tenor sax are also placed further apart than on an alto, making it more difficult to reach certain notes. This can be a challenge for beginners, but with practice, you’ll be able to overcome this obstacle.

(Photo Attribute By File: Yamaha Saxophone YAS-62.tif: Yamaha Corporation; remove background: Habitator terrae – File: Yamaha Saxophone YAS-62.tif: Yamaha Music Europe; Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Tenor sax By Yamaha Corporation – Yamaha Music Europe, CC BY-SA 4.0,
(changes images joined together, size reduced))

  1. Transposition

Saxophones are transposing instruments, which means that they are written in one key but sound in another. For e.g., most music is written in the key of C, but in saxophones (excluding the C-melody saxophone), the actual sound will be in a different key. Because of this, saxophonists have to transpose keys to their respective instruments when reading sheet music. 

Alto saxophones are E-flat transposing instruments whereas tenor saxophones are B-flat transposing instruments. In simpler words, a C key on an alto saxophone will sound like E♭ on other instruments, and a C key on a tenor will sound like B♭.

So if you want to play alongside other instruments such as a piano, guitar, or violin, you have to play music transposed for E-flat or B-flat (depending on whether you’re playing alto or tenor) to play in the same key.

  1. Sound

As we mentioned earlier, the size of the tenor saxophone allows it to produce a deeper, fuller sound than the alto. Alto saxophones, on the other hand, have a brighter, more delicate sound. 

Both saxophones also have a different range of sounds in which they can play. Alto saxes have a range from concert D♭3 to concert A♭5, whereas tenor saxophones have a range from A♭2 to E5. What this means is that the tenor sax can go much lower in pitch than the alto, making it a more versatile instrument overall. 

  1. Price

Perhaps one of the most important differences between the alto and tenor saxophone is the price. This is especially true for new musicians who are contemplating whether to go with an alto model or a tenor model.

Let’s do a price comparison for two entry-level Selmer saxophone models – Selmer AS711 Prelude and Selmer TS711 Prelude. The AS711 is the alto version of the model and it costs around $1069. The TS711 is the tenor version of the same model and it costs around $1479. As you can see, the tenor model is almost $400 more than the alto model!

It’s clear that tenor saxophones are more expensive than alto saxophones, and this is due to their larger size (hence needing more material to make), as well as better sound quality.

Which Saxophone to Learn First – Alto or Tenor?

Now that you’ve learned about the main differences between the alto and tenor saxophone, you might be wondering which one you should learn first.

If you’re a complete beginner who wants to start with the basics of playing the saxophone, we recommend going for an alto saxophone. These are cheaper, and easier to carry around, and their simple design makes it easy to reach all the keys without any trouble. It’s also the perfect choice for kids, as well as adults with small hands. 

Once you’ve mastered the basics of playing the alto sax, you can always move on to the tenor saxophone. After all, the skills you learn on one saxophone will easily transfer over to the other! You can also go with the tenor saxophone if you have some prior experience playing the saxophone or any other similar instrument like the clarinet or trombone. 

Mastering the tenor saxophone also opens up more opportunities for you in the world of music. It even helps you learn other types of saxophones with relative ease. Who knows, someday you might just be playing all 14 types!

List of Some of The Best Alto and Tenor Saxophones

Once you’ve decided on whether you should go with an alto saxophone or a tenor saxophone, what’s next in store? Buying the saxophone of course! There are hundreds of choices out there and it can be quite overwhelming, especially with all the different designs, features, and price tags. 

To help you out, here’s our list of some of the best alto and tenor saxophones in the market today. We’ve included options for beginners, intermediate players, as well as professional saxophonists.


  • Yamaha YAS-280 Alto Saxophone: A great choice for beginners, the Yamaha YAS-280 is lightweight and easy to play. Often considered the best entry-level alto saxophone by experts.
  • Selmer SAS280 La Voix II Alto Saxophone: A high-quality alto saxophone that produces a rich, full sound. It’s perfect for intermediate and advanced players.
  • Jean Paul AS-400: Made in the USA, this saxophone is an all-in-one instrument for players to fully explore their potential. It comes with all the necessary accessories included such as a mouthpiece, reed, neck strap, and case.
  • Yanagisawa AWO20U: A high-end professional saxophone designed for serious sax players. Handcrafted in Japan, this unlacquered alto saxophone focuses on quality as well as durability. 
  • Selmer Paris Reference 54: Often considered the best alto saxophone in the market. Modeled after the legendary Selmer Mark VI, this alto saxophone is perfect for those who want the best of the best.


  • Selmer TS711 Tenor Saxophone: Although it’s an entry-level sax, the quality is far beyond what one might expect. It has a beautiful gold lacquered body and comes equipped with a mouthpiece as well as a case.
  • Mendini By Cecilio MTS-BNG+92D: A fun, vibrant, and great-sounding tenor saxophone. It comes in a wide range of colors including gold, nickel, black, and blue. They’re also equipped with a full set of accessories, including a tuner and cleaning rod. Easy on the eyes, ears, and wallet.
  • Yamaha YTS-480: An intermediate-level saxophone, this particular model from Yamaha has a warm tone, highly accurate intonation, and lighting fast responses. It also has a handmade engraving on the bell for that extra level of class and finesse.
  • Yanagisawa Professional T-991: State-of-the-art tenor saxophone with a unique sound that’s reflective of its high-quality construction. A black lacquered body, brass engravings, and contoured palm keys make this particular model a joy to play with. 
  • Yamaha Custom Z: The gold standard when it comes to tenor saxophones, the Yamaha Custom Z is perfect for professional sax players looking to make their mark. It has a hand-engraved bell, ribbed construction, and a one-piece body for maximum durability. 

What Do Alto and Tenor Mean?

After reading through this post, you might have noticed that we’ve used the terms “alto” and “tenor” a lot. But what do they actually mean? In short, alto and tenor are musical terms that indicate the vocal range of a particular singer or a comparable instrument.

Alto refers to the lowest natural singing voice for an adult woman (or a young boy). When it comes to choir singing, the alto is the second-highest voice behind the soprano. It comes from the Latin word ‘altus’ which means ‘high’. (Source

Tenor, on the other hand, refers to the highest natural singing voice for an adult male. It sounds lower than the alto but higher than the baritone. It is derived from the Latin word ‘tenere’ which means ‘to hold’. (Source

What Are the Other Types of Saxophones?

When Adolph Sax first conceived the idea for saxophones, he created designs for 14 different types. They are – Alto, Tenor, Soprano, Baritone, Bass, Contrabass, Subcontrabass, Sopranino, Sopranissimo, C-Melody, Tubax, Mezzo-Soprano, Conn-o-Sax, and Saxello. 

Of these 14, only four are commonly used today (alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone). The rest are often seen as novelty items or are used only infrequently in specific genres of music.

Let’s take a closer look at the Soprano and Baritone saxophones, which are the next most common types after Alto and Tenor.


The soprano is the smallest, lightest, and highest-pitched of the four major saxophones. However, out of all 14 types, it’s the third smallest (behind the sopranissimo and sopranino). 

The design of a soprano sax makes it look more similar to a clarinet than a saxophone. It can be comfortably held in the hand and many players prefer to stand up when playing it. 

The soprano is often considered the hardest saxophone to learn as it requires an exceptional amount of breath control, embouchure, and finger dexterity. It’s used mainly in solo performances for orchestras and chamber music.


The baritone sax is the second-largest and lowest-pitched of all the saxophones (after the bass saxophone). As a result, it has a deep and rich sound that’s perfect for genres like jazz and blues.

Although the baritone is quite large and uncomfortable to be played standing up, there are specialized harness-style neck straps that can reduce the discomfort, especially when it is played for marching bands. In most cases, however, the baritone is played while sitting down since it can weigh anywhere between 11-20 pounds!

You’ll have an easier time learning the baritone than the soprano, so many players prefer to experiment with a baritone sax after learning the tenor and alto types. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here are some of the most common questions we get asked about alto and tenor saxophones.

Q.1. Is the tenor saxophone louder than the alto?

A. Technically, we would not use the term ‘louder’ when it comes to comparing saxophones, because loudness depends on the player. Instead, we would say that the tenor saxophone sounds ‘deeper’ than an alto saxophone. However, if both saxophones are playing the same notes, the sound from the alto saxophone would cut through more since it has a higher pitch. 

Q.2. Who are the best alto and tenor saxophone players of all time?

A. Charlie Parker is considered the greatest alto saxophonist of all time, whereas, for tenor, the answer would be Coleman Hawkins. Both men have revolutionized the way their respective instruments are played and have inspired legions of saxophonists over the years.

Q.3. What’s the difference between an alto and a tenor saxophone reed?

A. The main difference is that a tenor reed is larger than an alto reed, which means it can vibrate at a lower frequency and produce a deeper sound. Alto reeds are also narrower than tenor reeds, which gives them a brighter, sharper tone.

Final Thoughts

We hope you now have a better understanding of the differences between alto and tenor saxophones. The saxophone family itself is a varied and interesting one, and each member of this family has its own unmatched uniqueness. If you’re still undecided about whether to go with an alto or a tenor sax, the best way to find out is by trying them both out for yourself! Nothing beats firsthand experience when it comes to making a decision like this.

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