How to Read Saxophone Music Notes

Updated July 20, 2017

Reading music is one of the most important skills to be mastered when learning to play the saxophone. If you have no experience with music, you will need to start with the basics of note reading. These include learning how to read the rhythm, recognising each note on the staff and knowing how to finger that note on the saxophone.

Become familiar with rhythm notation. Notes are played for a certain length of time depending on their types. Three basic types of notes are the crotchet (1 beat), the half note (2 beats) and the whole note (4 beats). Each note has a corresponding rest that indicates silence for the same amount of time.

The time signature, which looks like two numbers stacked on top of each other, is located at the beginning of each song. The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom number tells you the type of note that gets one count. A measure is the space between the vertical bar lines on the staff.

For example, if a song is written in 4/4, the notes in each measure will always add up to four beats. There could be four crotchets, two crotchets and a half note, two half notes or one whole note. In 3/4 time, the notes in each measure equal three beats, so there would not be a whole note in that song.

Practice tapping out the rhythms of simple songs in your method books. Don't worry about where the note is on the staff yet. Focus on playing the correct rhythm for the song. You may even pencil in the counts below each note to help you know which beat to strike them on. Remember that the counts repeat, so in 4/4, you would be counting 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.

The staff consists of five lines and four spaces, and each note will fall either in a space or on a line. Saxophone music is written in treble clef. In treble clef, the lines beginning at the bottom are E, G, B, D and F. The spaces are F, A, C and E. If a note is intersected by the bottom line, it is an E. If it a crotchet, you would play the E for one beat. If it is a whole note, you would play the E for four beats.

There are tricks to help students remember the lines and spaces in treble clef. The lines correspond with the phrase Every Good Boy Does Fine. The spaces spell the word FACE.

The range of the saxophone includes notes that are below and above the staff. For these notes, short horizontal lines called ledger lines are used to create the additional lines and spaces that notate those pitches.

Once you can recognise the notes on the staff, it is time to learn to finger them on the saxophone. Method books have fingering charts on the first few pages, including a diagram that explains the keys of the saxophone and which keys are pressed to produce each note. Method books also have diagrams to demonstrate how to hold the instrument correctly and which fingers to place on each key.

Using the simple music at the beginning of the method book, finger through a song. Most methods teach up to three notes at first, and then teach additional notes on the following pages. This gives you a chance to build your skills gradually.

When you are comfortable fingering and counting a song, try to play it. This adds the dimension of tone production and breath control to reading the notes. Once you are sure you're fingering the notes correctly, listen to the tone and work out the best places to take a breath.


A saxophone teacher can work with you on using a correct embouchure, hand position, and posture. Practice regularly to strengthen the muscles in your mouth that produce the sound. Play-along CDs are available for beginners, and listening to these will help you recognise proper tone and pitch. Listening to advanced players can also inspire you with the possibilities of the instrument. Remember that the saxophone is not a C instrument, so if you play an E on the sax and an E on the piano, they will not match. If you would like someone to play along with you on the piano, the piano music must be transcribed into a different key.

Things You'll Need

  • Saxophone
  • Fingering chart for saxophone
  • Method book
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About the Author

Melissa Young graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University with a BA in communication studies. Her educational training included journalism, interpersonal communication, communications law. Young currently works as an evaluator for a local publisher, writes for online sites including, and is an associate editor for a semi-annual print journal.