In a nutshell. In Spring of 1960, Coltrane's composition titled "Giant Steps" began its global travels by riding over the airwaves and all the lands on vinyl. A first of its kind, this song featured a marvelously modern approach to Americana's deep love of improvisation and of being synchronized 'in the moment' with combining time, melody and harmony into music.

Often termed throughout academia as 'Coltrane changes', the concept and construction is a 'next step' from the traditional arpeggio 'spell the chords' approach to creating melodic lines by weaving through a bass line and harmony centered around root motion by perfect fourth. Coltrane's innovative mel-harmonic approach in "Giant Steps" is foundationed by a four note 'no bad pitches' pentatonic cell, a new one for each chord in its cyclical progression. Thinking 'C' major, Coltrane's motif discovery, ex. 1.

' C D E G '

' 1 2 3 5 '

root ~ major 2nd ~ major 3rd ~ perfect 5th

Every chord. This new simplicity; using a pentatonic idea for each chord, innovates 50 years or so of performance tradition; the diatonically outlining chords through parent scales and arpeggios, an approach that Coltrane had recently expanded through 'V7b9' explorations becoming the legendary aural stunning 'sheets of sound.'

Pure velocity. Maybe this is why Coltrane plays it all so fast on this seminal recording; for pure excitement aside, maybe it was just too easy; same riff pattern with just four notes per chord, all major and a new bass line story. For after all the V7b9 substitution shedding, a respite of four note clusters ... ? Regardless, do spin the radio excerpt. Super fast, directionally key center clear and in its day, super brand new modern, by bringing back a now ancient and pure pentatonic motif into modern jazz ... the origin pentatonic color, where so many of us started off our musical journeys.

Theory kaboom. Within a few years, the improv / theory fundamentals in "Giant Steps" have begun to be reshaped into a new language; where the pentatonic scales have been 'modalized' in a similar fashion as the original diatonic modes. And with various alterations, there's a pentatonic group of pitches to match every imaginable triad / colortone combination, through all three chord types, diatonic and altered. And with the blues, the 'pentatonic modes' approach becomes the groups of pitches for the newly emerging style fusion of jazz and rock, helped along by Miles Davis and friends, commonly termed as 'fusion / jazz fusion ' back then.

wiki ~ jazz fusion

BA curriculum. Coltrane's musical evolutions over this 10 year span (1950 to 1960) form the advanced jazz theory / improvisation curriculum of this e-book, built upon a foundational study of diatonic harmony, the study of "Giant Steps" which follows, is the closing chapter. One step beyond is included for phrasing / time.

wiki ~ 1950's in jazz

Developed by following along the historical timeline of the recording and release dates of Coltrane's original compositions, this curriculum follows the development and modernization of compositional resources by Coltrane, in both melody and harmony and their ramifications for the evolutions in tonality of the last century for our AmerAfroEuroLatin spectum of styles.

An increasing complexity / challenge. As a single note melody line player, sounding out arpeggios becomes Coltrane's way to present his modernizing harmony through chord substitution. For as Coltrane's searching and evolutions become the harmonic structures of his written / recorded songs, with each successive evolution into new harmonic cycles, there are new challenges to be met. Coupled with ever faster and faster tempos, Coltrane just kept setting his own bar higher, further upward to discover "Giant Steps" in a next leap.

Monk and Coltrane

NYC 1956

'sheets of sound' era

As his practicing standards are now legendary among the faithful, Coltrane continually exhausted his pitches, chord progressions and substitutions through the conventional blues and jazz forms of the era, necessitating evolutions for greater and greater harmonic challenges. Starting with the 'double Two / Five' of "Moment's Notice", on through 'sheets of sound' of the V7b9 substitutions, and further to the harmonic scheme of "Naima" and chord cycle of "Giant Steps", Coltrane then advances towards the 12 tone chromatic freedom of pitch, form and phrasing in "A Love Supreme."

All throughout, Coltrane continually sought a greater challenge in the harmonic structures of his compositions. And like many other artists in all fields of study, when existing forms of expression cannot capture ideas and emotions, they create their own forms and colors anew. Remember, that we're following Coltrane through the historically true Americana tradition of improvisation of melodic line, whose chosen pitches are moving 'through the notes / arpeggios of the song's chord changes.'

Thus, new or even additional chords introduced into standard chord progressions give the improvisor new opportunities for exploration. By doing so advances the harmonic schemes of the day with the new and yet still unviewed vistas of more modern creative opportunity for those who follow. That's us :) Read on ...

Coltrane's 'saxophone chords.' Coltrane always had the full equal tempered resource of chords equally from all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. He played saxophones, so no real way to sound chords, as say select pitches struck together on a piano. Coltrane conquered this reality through the arpeggio, eventually combining sheer velocity of pitches and rhythms, arpeggiating the pitches of each chord in a song's written chord progression and expanded through chord substitution principles. This approach to the soloing pinnacled in the mid 1950's, and we know of historically today as the 'sheets of sounds.'

Played very very 'fast', 'sheets of sound' is a melodic cascade of notes that creates a chordal effect not unlike that created by an orchestral harp, but Coltrane's jazz is just way faster in basic tempo, articulation and of the number of pitches in a phrase. It's very hard to hear the changes in these lines, the pitches just go by too quickly for most of us to hear and understand its theory. Additional aural challenges develop through Coltrane's chord substitution principles. Luckily for scholars today, some of Coltrane's live 'sheets of sound' era performances are transcribed. Explore to find.

While very few of us a performers will strengthen to this level of actual performance, knowing 'sheets of sound' pitch theory is rather quite simple really. We venture into the V7b9 portal of colors and resolutions, which are easily sketched out with letter name pitches with pencil and paper. And thus theory empowered with potential harmony avenues for exploration, our own improvised lines may evolve, often one pitch at a time, and bring forth motifs and melodies we've never heard before which can them become original our songs.

Today we've a cool addition to 'sheets of sound' that's been around for the last couple of decades. Termed throughout as a 'blur' or 'blurring', any idea of pitches can be enhanced chromatically; just adding in the note between the usual notes we play. Done quickly, like 'sheets of sound', and we get a blurring effect that can transcend through all of the cool elements; moving through time, playing over or through chord changes, in the blues and when jamming too.

Even when everyone in the group chromatically blurs a bit, does it simultaneously ... we're right back to where we started, back to New Orleans jass of the 1920's ! Everyone plays melody ... all the time ... on every tune ... at every gig :) So ... somehow and sometimes ... faster is just better (more fun) ... go figure.

Coltrane's discoveries.

'That the music can go faster by using greater interval leaps between chords while reducing the number of pitches needed to sound identify each chord', deeply stunning artistic results.

That five notes of the pentatonic scale are equal to an arpeggio 7th chord figure, in representing the colors, and functioning, of any chord in a song's chord progression.

Jazz before, up to and during the Coltrane years, from 1947 through 1967, is based on how an artist creates single note melodic lines, through the chord changes and chord progression of a song. Creating melodic lines through the changes, in any style really, is one basis of the approach to creating improvisations with melodic lines.

A pathway to follow. Further, that by shedding completely through the diatonic, natural tonal evolutions of our Americana harmony to arrive at his conclusions, Coltrane creates a clear pathway for understanding this evolutionary process, one that enables Americana musical art to fully mirror a similar tonal evolution in the vast Euro classical library of musics.

While all of this art is created with the same basis of pitches, what took the Euro masters two centuries or so to discover, Americana Coltrane mastered in two decades. Imagine that if U will :) And how blessed we are today as discovery learners, to have both evolutions of tonality, our 'AmerEuro', to muse about, study pitch by pitch, and enjoy as aural art.

"I think I was first awakened to musical exploration by Dizzy Gillespie and Bird. It was through their work that I began to learn about musical structures and the more theoretical aspects of music."

John Coltrane

Evolution of the harmony / "Giant Steps." From a purely theoretical sense, Mr. Coltrane's composition 'Giant Steps' is positioned here as the most organically evolved of our Americana harmonic cycles. It's based on what was in its day, a new harmonic scheme, thus bass line story, of its chords, rocketing through three tonal centers whose root notes form an augmented triad.

While there's the '... all roads lead to V7' evolutions, is there anything in jazz quite like Coltrane's evolution in this song ? Other evolutions will surely come along. For artists today are working every day like Mr. Coltrane, sifting through their pitches, looking for their own new way forward in melody, harmony and swing.

In a couple of instances now, in our historical development, the building block between melody and chords, the arpeggios, have provided the new stimulus for players to evolve their own music, and in doing so, point the way to a next valence of artistic combinations. Maybe it will again be the arpeggios that will point the new way forward.

Coltrane's arpeggio based evolution. With triangles and colors to represent our seven chakras, we can overlay the basic theoretical evolution that takes us from our core essential One / Five / One cadential motion. With a historically correct writing sequence, we've the Coltrane compositions "Moment's Notice" into "LazyBird" into "Naima" and on "Giant Steps."

As an academic end point of sorts of the early 60's, the new harmonic cycles of "Giant Steps" are coupled with a new approach for improvising. Here Coltrane departs from the arpeggio in favor of the ancient five note pentatonic group of pitches, to begin his next ascent to "A Love Supreme."

That the barriers broken by Coltrane's "Giant Steps", especially in the improv thick of it, are a revision of beginning improvisation techniques. Using the pentatonic colors in all of their universality of melodic invention, they are newly applied; a 'new' ( parent ) pentatonic scale for each new chord that comes along.

Extract and multiply. So each chord gets its own pentatonic color, moving through a set sequence of chord changes :) By 1965, jazz fusion is a pentatonic / modal / interval / permutate / forward motioning sequence of a wonderland half step extravaganza ... often over one chord, for the soloing. Here's a sketch of Coltrane's harmonic evolutions.

wiki ~ chakra
extract and multiply

The basics of minor 3rd / perfect 4th. Coltrane's evolution to get to "Giant Steps" runs through a sequence of harmonic developments that easily grow out of one another. Please scroll to the bottom of this next graphic, follow the arrows up while reading the triangles. Example 2.

Quick review. One to Five and back, both major and minor sets up the 'home / away / home' tension and release dynamic of our storytelling. Adding the Four chord gives adds a secondary resting point for melodic ideas, similar to One but different. And is motion to Four is the gospel core of it all? When Four becomes Two, we enable faster tempos and an easier way to 'suggest' moving towards any key center. Doubled up to '3 6 2 5', we've really a clear sounding cycle of fourths, that has implied a super clear direction in musics of many styles for at least couple of hundred years now.

Coltrane's discoveries. The 'b9' of Six builds us a diminished 7th chord, that slides right on down by minor 3rd. Thus the 'double 2 / 5' of Moment's Notice. Nice and sure way to ramp up the soloing challenge. We see this style of 'minor 3rd' infused composition in "Naima." As there's a succession of descending V7 chords, as in the blues, but in "Naima", resolving in a new way.

"Lazy Bird" presents a combination of Two / Five motions a minor 3rd apart, its three main key centers making up 2/3'rds of an augmented triad. Its coda has an unmistakable whole tone quality in the descending root pitches of the harmony. The minor 3rd / perfect 4th motion is perfected in "Giant Steps", which reveals the augmented triad of key centers and its associated whole tone colors. And in Coltrane's improvisations, a new improvisational way forward is revealed.

wiki "Blue Trane" album
wiki "Moment's Notice" song
wiki "Naima" song
wiki "LazyBird" song

Closing a loop / motif. Moving into Coltrane's soloing on the recording of "Giant Steps", we close another theory loop, as Coltrane returns us back to our pentatonic origins. For when most new artists start off creating improvisations in the Americana styles, the five notes of the pentatonic scale are as friendly as any group of pitches we might have for creating lines over changes. And five notes gives a variety of pitches to find mobile shaped ideas :)

Four note per chord. In Coltrane's motifs over his "Giant Steps" changes, he simplifies things a wee bit further, down to the 'four core of it all', for the super clarity needed to outline the tremendous joy and swing that the new changes bring. Hear the same basic joy and energy in the following idea? Example 3.

Sound enough unlike to sub for one another? A shorthand version of the pentatonic five? Click it again. Or ten times :) Even 50 years later, this is still the basis of the 'new' sound of today's modernes.

Coltrane's choice motif. 1235, 1235, 1235. This next ideas creates a combination of two main improvisational pathways. For Coltrane uses the pentatonic color 'over' each chord, while playing 'through' each chord with a 'cell' created for each chord in the progression. Ex. 3a.

Cool? Here the chord change in the melody line? Clarity? Yep, that's the idea. As simple and clear as the blue sky day after a nightfall of driven snow :) If need be, just keep clicking till you can hear the changes in the melodic line. They're there, you'll hear it, keep trying.

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

( ... and why is that I wonder ... :)

wiki ~ Leonardo da Vinci

"Giant Steps." John Coltrane's song "Giant Steps" is a 'joyous modern gospel 16 measure song with a melody of mostly half notes', that blazes a pathway through a whole tone structured harmony, all while sounding fully gospel and not really whole tone-ish at all. With the essential Two / Five / One motion as connectors, in "Giant Steps" Coltrane accelerates us through his newly discovered improvisational portal of pentatonic colors.

Powering through the changes in a new way and setting the new ideal of a 'fast' tempo, Coltrane's evolution from his earlier arpeggiated 'sheets of sound' to the pentatonic colors, had historic implications for near all the Americana jazz music that came after.

wiki ~ Giant Steps song

We follow Mr. Coltrane's artistic evolution to this pinnacle of theoretical development and challenge, as a pathway to understand our Americana jazz harmony evolutions. Often termed 'Coltrane changes', they're a 'last stop' of developmental destination of cycles of chords before launching into the freer forms of ideas such as his later 'A Love Supreme' and even beyond, which is more based on pedal tones, ragas and all 12 tones, than cycles of chords to blow through.

wiki ~ raga scale
In "Giant Steps", Mr. Coltrane puzzles together the three pitches of the augmented triad as the song's key centers, using this unbreakable major 3rd loop of pitches to hold together a harmonic cycle, no matter how fast you can go :)

A tune many jazz players enjoy to perform and hear to this very day, both for its joyous gospel quality and swing, it also makes for a great bossa nova / samba groove in 2, retaining the cool cycle of chords for working the pentatonic colors through the changes.

Regardless of whether we ever gig "Giant Steps", the thought process of shedding the tune is a really cool 'mind expander.' For it is just so different from anything that had ever came before it, the song encourages us to think and prepare differently.

While there always seems to be common historical elements in the evolution of each Americana song, in 'Giant Steps', we can find a similar foreshortened cycle of its chord changes in the bridge of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart jazz standard "Have You Met Miss Jones."

wiki ~ Rodgers and Hart
wiki ~ "Have You Met Miss Jones"

"Giant Steps" adds a new compositional scheme for Americana harmony, and in the original recording, at its rather ferocious tempo. Combined, they vertically ramp up the improvisational challenge for most jazz leaning artists from this point forward in our collective history.

Author's note. I personally believe that Mr. Coltrane, in his dedication to the study of Americana music through his career, that along the way he artistically exhausted what surrounded him, and then by necessity, sought greater challenges. Like Bach with the 'WTC?' Could very well be. For Coltrane's pathways of evolution are through the arpeggios, chords and progressions too.

All of us artists, in all of our disciplines, go through this cycle of boredom and the feeling of doom when our 'well' runs dry :) And the self discipline to keep shedding, to work through to a 'new', is what feeds this boredom bulldog for a while. Coltrane shows us what we too, might be capable of, if we'll just keep on keepin' on.

Coltrane's 1st challenge

The new harmony structure of "Giant Steps" becomes the new pinnacle of development in its day. Beyond amazing perhaps is that Coltrane's conquering of his penultimate harmonic challenge also humbles his improvisational basis to a four note cell created from the five note major pentatonic color.

That "Giant Steps" introduces this new way of using the pentatonic color in soloing through chord changes was revolutionary in 1960. In this work, Mr. Coltrane forgoes the traditions of the times to found a simpler approach. For as each of the chords in the main progressions are all major triads, each in turn is simply articulated by its own bit of pentatonic hued color.

And a bit of trivia history here, studio recording genius Tom Dowd, who engineered this game changing jazz recording for Mr. Coltrane, would a dozen years later engineer the sessions for blues rocker Eric Clapton's epic 'Layla', with the blues rock riff master, Duane Allman.

wiki ~ Tom Dowd
wiki ~ "Layla" song

Key centers based on the augmented triad. Here is the root motion of the first four bar phrase of Coltrane's 'Giant Steps.' A rather ingenious way to backpedal roots to a starting point, but using the pitches of an augmented major triad, an evolution from the more common motion of perfect 4th from which it evolves.

Each pitch of the augmented triad, becomes a tonal destination center of this composition. Read backpedal style, so left to right, in the bold font, the pitches of the 'C' augmented triad pitches. So, we're backpedaling in major 3rd's via diatonic V7 chords ? Yep, so it seems :)

~ C / Eb7 / Ab / B7 / E / G7 / C ~

Key centers in composition now have 'something new' to organize themselves, a new 'silent architecture.' This in itself will evolve new key schemes for writing songs. While motion to Four still wins the day, new ways to get there, or not, will evolve.

Coltrane creates a new structure, a triad based modulation and compositional scheme, but on an augmented triad pitches. It truly re-electrified the jazz scene in 1960. And didn't daVinci sometimes write this way too? Write sentences from right to left? Which when held up to a mirror's reflection, it then appears as normal writing ? Here are the roots of the chord cycle creating its perfect closure. Example 4.

root / - 3rd / p.4th / - 3rd / p.4th / - 3rd / p.4th

Now isn't that something? Click it again. Singable? Surely :) And a sense of gravity towards resolution as clear as day, clear as the driven snow :)
tonal gravity

Coltrane's music education / new challenges ? The Americana basics and the deep blues, then learning a couple of hundred standards. Ramp up challenge by evolving the 'double Two / Five with 'V7b9' diminished chord magics. Rebuild the traditional cycle of 4th's cadential motions into a new minor 3rd / perfect 4th formula. In doing so, move into the augmented triad as a compositional device, ( how many songs have a basis on the major triad ? )

Go back a couple of decades and meet Ms. Jones, on the 'Bridge in 'Db', on most maps. And who knew then that the augmented triad pitches / key centers of this lovely, scenic and lyrical bridge also includes a new dimension beyond its existing realm. That is of course only until Coltrane journeyed and unlocked this secret for all of us, forever.

wiki ~ "Have You Met Miss Jones" song

A new approach for permutation. Mr. Coltrane's improv approach on these minor 3rd / perfect 4th cycle of chord changes goes to and often stays, with the application of a major pentatonic flavored cell, so no 4th scale degree, on each chord change, regardless of the written chord type in the original. The following musical lines come from the John Coltrane Omnibook.

Using pentatonic parent scales. Here's Coltrane's cell of pitches, '1 2 3 5', permutates to start on major 3rd, root and b7. Thinking 'C' major. Example 5a.

parent scale

Start on Five. A few of these next cells start on the 5th. Example 5b.

On One. In these measures we see the root pitch as a start point. Note tonal clarity in direction of the line. Example 5c.

On Six. In this idea, Coltrane starts on Six, so really in the pentatonic group of '1 2 3 5 6.' Example 5d.

Using pentatonic parent scales. Using the cell through a pair of the Two / Five cells of the 'B' section. Ex. 5e.

Capstone / using pentatonic parent scales on every chord. A simple return to a beginning shared by so many musical artists; using the pitches of a pentatonic color to improvise over a chord. For in its clarity of 'all good notes', Coltrane weaves this clear pentatonic simplicity to pioneer a new harmonic scheme.

Fortunately, history can repeat. From this piece of art we relearn the power and clarity of the pentatonic colors. And next generations of players will do what artists have always done; extract a 'piece' from a great work and create a whole new approach to their own 'modern' artform.

The application of a pentatonic scale to every chord is one path. A second becomes the 'modalizing' of the pentatonic group, then projected from each of the 12 pitches to create new groups, to become a new set of 'groups of pitches', and applied to one chord.

This next eight bar idea is Coltrane's entrance after the piano solo. Lot of root to root clarity, a Two / Five idea, then back to the clarity of the '1 2 3 5' cell. Example 5f.

wiki ~ jazz fusion

Cool ? At Coltrane's tempos this becomes electrifying. The smaller 'cell' propels the lines along, as each new chord 'shifts' the line. Convinced of the validity of this improvisational approach of soloing 'through' changes with pentatonic colors? Very cool. Today? no big deal. Thanks to Coltrane this spawned a whole new way of thinking of things.

Had a chance to listen to Coltrane's recording from 1960 yet? Find and spin that and see what happens to your perspective of this 'bookend' to the theory. There's a few places post "Giant Steps" we go to, mostly by use of the V7 chord. First a V7 chord before each chord in a song's progression. Then every chord becomes V7. With taste, pepper in the altering of the dominant chord colortones, so adding both diatonic and outside, and we've another pathway to follow in our pursuit of musical art and understanding of the tonal gravity between the pitches.

Quick review. So in working this change from seven diatonic pitches to a five note pentatonic group,

pentatonic five, a new parent scale for each chord in a song, we gain a new approach to our improvisations. Each of these pathways blossom into lifelong vistas to explore, as we learn more about what we love and evolve our understandings of all things music. Our spectrum of styles historically points to their own improvisational pathways, but there's no reason at all, for those so inclined to cross pollinate the pathways into each our own unique weavings of the pitches.

Beyond joyous for guitar ~ 'in octaves.' And way potent simplicity plus sophistication, sounding any of the above pentatonic cells, each pitch sounded in octaves on a guitar, and finding a 'parent pentatonic group' for each new chord and substitution in our progressions, all while moving through any sort of '2 and 4', magically brings a coolness of mind energy rarely found if ever at all.

Surely we can learn the 'octave' melody magic from Montgomery. Then channel it through Coltrane's improv / through the changes discoveries, and we've a recipe for a true kaboom a looming. In any and all tempos and styles too, a concept yet powerful in the creative making of melodies of pure dance.

wiki ~ Wes Montgomery

Exhausting the possibilities. Is it possible that Coltrane's evolution to 'Giant Steps' is in part created by his exhausting of the challenge of the current music he was writing and performing? Thus necessitating an intellectual evolution to greater challenges?

That through the theory of chord progressions and chord substitution, he gradually devised greater and greater musical challenges for himself ? Seems a natural enough progression. Ever get bored with your own playing?

A prolific composer, we can examine Mr. Coltrane's compositions historically by their recording dates and thus theorize to a possible harmonic evolution of his understanding, development and culminations as written into his original compositions.


A similar evolution perhaps? The sixteen string quartets of Herr Beethoven might provide a similar degree of insight into this evolution of a musical artist. For we can also easily track the Beethoven works by their published dates, and thus examine with a greater degree of confidence, his tonal evolution between the early and late quartets. While all of the music is aurally stunning, the ramping up of the musical challenge of the later and last works is simply unmistakable. For even the best of string players in Beethoven's day were said to have declared the last group of quartets 'unpayable.' Do explore these wonderful works as your time and resources permit.

wiki ~ L. Beethoven

wiki ~ Beethoven string quartets

early Beethoven 1800

middle Beethoven 1810

late Beethoven 1825

wiki ~ Oxford String Quartet

And there are surely many, many other composers whose creative works might follow a similar sort of evolution. Actually, in all of the fine arts and beyond, one might track such evolutions. The idea of seeking greater intellectual challenges and how it reflects their artistic output over their careers. One of many ways that both Calutron and Beethoven are remarkable to me, is that their own 'evolution' never leveled off.

wiki ~ composer music


They seemed to have continued to ramp up the challenge musically and artistically, discovering new realms for expression until they passed onward. Neither artist had a 'retry period' that I know of, that re-visited earlier successes, in new ways later in their careers.

As mostly a geezer here, I shed the Coltrane regularly while the Beethoven quartets always seem to be able to put a bit more 'spiritual reflection and renewal Sunday' into my own now weekly every day can be a Sunday. That I always hear something new is the bonus :)

"A Love Supreme." Here begins Coltrane's new synthesis of all things possible. From 1965 and forward, the crossovers began into the jazz rock fusion. Picked up by Miles Davis who toured with the Nations Rockers, audiences marveled at the new weave of the blues hue into the free 12 tone of pitches with rock rhythms that hit hard on one. Within year or so, super hip funk slap bass takes funk mainstream and the young monsters of the day had a new way, their way, that held reverence to Coltrane and put his new colors and rhythms in modern dances.

Special thanks to true Spenardian Michael Allen for sharing his understanding of this period in Coltrane's career. And how it influenced the generation of players during the mid to later 60's and thus to the present day.

wiki ~ "A Love Supreme"
wiki ~ "Love Devotion Surrender"

Review, "Giant Steps." Composed by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, "Giant Steps" takes us directly to an evolutionary end of our studies of Americana music theories, as outlined here in this UYM / EMG text.

Developed and thought to be written as early as 1957, according to Wayne Shorter biography "Footprints."

Recorded in May 1959 and released in 1960 / Wiki, the compositional elements of "Giant Steps" become pathways of studies. For in the harmonic scheme Coltrane evolves by 1960, the centuries long-standing diatonic 'motion by 4th' finds yet another sleeker way to sound, thus blur the colors.

'minor 3rd ~ perfect 4th'

This cyclical root motion opens up a pathway to the augmented triad, its associated whole tone colors. Somehow, and maybe die to tempo, Coltrane re-invents the old way a new way and conquers all. Four pitches per chord, implying a major pentatonic color, and transposed for each chord of the cycle. This maintains Coltrane's penchant for outlining the harmony. That this evolution is preceded by his V7b9 and 'sheets of sound' style thinking, is testimony to Coltrane's dedication to the search.

Within a year or so of circling the globe on the radio airwaves and vinyl, "Giant Steps", and its innovative approach to harmony and soloing through changes, has energized the jazz world over with a fresh new true blue all Americana NYC jazz one of a kind.

wiki ~ John Coltrane
wiki ~ "Giant Steps"

For this song is at the apex of our historical Americana harmony evolutions. And while we've advanced beyond "Giant Steps" tonally, or more atonally actually, simply by leaning more and more chromatic through altered color tones and chord substitution, this composition is still often thought of today, in 2020, as a structural evolution of our harmonic formulas and approach to melodic improvisation among academia. From Congo Square forward on through to now, these evolutions can be known.

wiki ~ Congo Square

Three is key. That "Giant Steps" modulates through three diatonic key centers is probably no celestial coincidence either. Coltrane was known to be a deeply spiritual man. And the number three comes up a lot in our musics, its theories and of course in the blues, and all sorts of sequences and permutations. R. O. !

"Giant Steps" harmony. Today known as 'post bop symmetry', or perhaps more commonly as 'Coltrane changes', old meets new yet again to create innovation, as this song is formed by a perfectly closed and symmetric loop of chords, based on the major 3rd interval, the three pitches of the augmented triad. These three pitches, become the song's key centers.

Two, eight bar patterns are used to include each of these three key centers in two different cycles. One is by direct V7 / I cadential motions and the second slips in a Two chord before each occurrence of V7.

The eight bar 'A' section, is comprised of the 'new', chords whose root motion follows the minor 3rd / perfect 4th cycle. This 'cell' is repeated twice, from two different starting pitches. Once completed, its symmetry gets us back to our original key center.

The eight bar 'B' section is the 'old', simply a Two / Five / One cycling of the three major key centers of the A section, as structured by the major 3rd interval of the augmented triad pitches, but now using the tried and true Two / Five motions to get us to each of the key centers.

R. O. !

Melody. Two melodic / rhythmic figures predominate, the motion of half notes mostly, as the 'giant steps.' The antecedent major 7th arpeggio in half notes leads the A sections while a consequent, a '2-1 or 9-8' suspension / interval pattern / turnaround of the pitches, is applied throughout and featured in the B section. All motorized in its bright tempo, creating a sense of a true 'giant stepping' in half notes, comes right to life in our aural imaginations. R. O. !

So for the jazz artist the best of both really; a sort of 'hundred yard dash' on a cycle of chords A section followed by the rapidly moving and modulating cadential motions via the sleek and the so essential coolness of the Two / Five / One turnaround. R. O. !

Improvisation. So while the five notes of the pentatonic group is historically the ancient melody choice for indigenous cultures around the world, it again finds a new and quite stunning application in this song. This composition evolves the musical art of the day in complexity, yet clarity too. That rare combination in any fine art, that can evolve a whole new genre, adding new pathways to explore to create new works with its structures and component parts.

Rhythms. Nearing 300 beats per minute, talk of tempo is more like talk of velocity. Hurtling through musical space like the meteors we sometimes get to see, Coltrane shows us what forward motion is all about. My words can't describe it, ya really got to spin it up, listen a couple of times, search for a chart and transcription and follow along. For like the "Omnibook" of Charles Christopher, our studies blossom yet again into colors perhaps unknown to us.

Legacy. This song was ground breaking in its day for two main reasons. First, the harmony cycle evolved a new organization of root motions, thus creating a new bass line story. And second, that Coltrane's super heroic improvisations combine startling clear approach and application of pentatonic colors to each chord.

Combined with the more traditional, 'through the changes improv approach' also found throughout the solo, we today inherit the best of both which, even tempo aside, that elevates the game for all who come after. For there's some blue hue throughout of course, and personally, when the melody is sounded as a ballad, that gracious, gospel Americana essence of call and response is clear as day.

Author's note. At my day gig the other day, the original recording of "Giant Steps" came over our housetunes airwaves. Within a chorus or two, boss Jasmine remarked that she thought the horn player had drank some serious Red Bull energy drinks before making the recording :) We all laughed of course and later, when I described to the crew the 'global influence' this song had back in its day, Jass quipped, 'no surprise, for as soon as I heard it, I could tell there was something very special in this music.'

"In the continuing evolution of music, it must be remembered that events that appear as departure almost always have roots in the past."

wiki ~ Ramon Ricker

Art ~ Author's notes, meeting new challenges. This next discussion is purely my own historical and theory musings. It is based on the idea that Coltrane exhausted the potential, at definable levels of improv / through the changes soloing and challenge, thus necessitating the devising of new and more difficult challenges in his own penned compositions.

The theory of this harmonic evolution comes about by knitting together pieces of Coltrane compositions as they were recorded and released in the years between 1957 and 1960 with Mr. Coltrane as the leader on the recording sessions. Mostly based on the multiple resolving qualities of the perfectly symmetrical fully diminished 7th chord, this evolution runs like this.

The evolutions. From the blues basis of One / Four / Five 12 bar form and cadential motion, Four evolves into a Two chord which creates the Two / Five cadential cell. Nothing Coltrane exclusive here, just a basic streamlining of the harmony for the brighter tempos that emerged in the the 1930's and 40's, when bebop arrives, with its bright new tempos.

wiki ~ "Moment's Notice"

Coltrane's first new 'advance my challenge' is to double up the Two / Five motion as found in his composition "Moment's Notice," recorded and released in 1957. Find a recording and check it out.

In this evolution the double Two / Five can easily come from the minor 3rd properties of the fully diminished 7th chord, as found in V7b9, allowing the Three / Six portion of Three / Six / Two / Five, to slide down a minor 3rd. In doing so, Coltrane shows us the basic double Two / Five chromatic cadential motion that in the day, 1957, super energizes the same old '3 6 2 5' in 'Eb.' Examine the letter name pitches in concert 'Eb', Coltrane is in 'F.' Example e1.

Eb major pitches
iii -7
G Bb D F
fully diminished 7th
VI 7b9
C E G Bb Db
E G Bb Db
ii -7
F Ab C Eb
V 7b9
Bb D F Ab Cb
bii -7
bV 7b9
A C# E G Bb
E G Bb C# (Db)

In a nutshell. The diatonic Three / Six, as a cadential cell, moves down a minor 3rd. And the minor 3rd is the interval we use to build up all of our fully diminished triads and 7th colors.

What this new motion creates is a wonderfully modified Two / Five cadential cell that creates a new and exciting energy and sense of forward motion while supporting a truly gospel cored Americana melody. Coltrane uses the classic 'common tone pitch between chords' compositional technique, to weave in this exciting new harmonic element.

So the harmony that helps to allow and support this song to sound 'seamless' and pure Americana in melody, in turn also becomes quite a 'harmonic tour de force improv extravaganza' for melodic improv through these changes when the soloing begins.

The new cool challenge. This new challenge requires the improvisor to create an idea then modulate this idea up a half step in mid flight. So an added written in, diatonic twist, organically evolved from the same old same old. That it is widely held that Coltrane had a rather robust practice regime, the 'double Two / Five' is part of Coltrane's 'ramping up the challenge' and to find something new to conquer. While along the way new pathways for creating are evolve.

The next phase of this evolution is again based upon the substitution properties associated with the V7b9 chord. As seen just above, the minor 3rd symmetry of the upper structure fully diminished 7th chord found within V7b9, can encourage us to move things in minor 3rd intervals, a three fret span on our guitars. Pairing this minor 3rd with the traditional cadential motion of moving a perfect 4th, we arrive at the basic root motion for the composition "Giant Steps." Often termed as 'Coltrane changes', or 'post bop' symmetry, it was the next structural evolution from the Two / Five / One extravaganzas of the boppers of the 40's and on into the early 50's. In C, here is the basic root motion of the minor 3rd / perfect 4th cycle. Example e2.

~ C maj 7 / Eb7 / Ab maj 7 / B7 / E maj 7 ~

wiki ~ Coltrane changes

Note that the descending tonal centers, 'maj 7's, are a major 3rd apart, whose combined root pitches create an augmented triad, thus whole tone scale potential. Also note the absence of a Two chord in the cadential motion to each tonic. Might have Coltrane exhausted the V7b9 diminished potentials and organically moved on to the whole tone / augmented colors? At least in regards to his harmonic structures for composition?

Find a recording and check it out.

Listening to the recordings, there's just not a lot of 'whole tone' qualities to Coltrane's improvised melodic lines. The whole tone color is aurally rather prominent, and it's just not in Coltrane's soloing. And in analysis of "Giant Steps', we can clearly hear and see a move toward the major pentatonic colors.

So a hearty thank you Sir for providing the pathway for this musical ascension !!! For now we've an organic pathway for our own self development through a wide and near 'end to end' swath of diatonic jazz harmony ... so there's evolutions beyond? Sure is :)

Also to note here, that this cycle of chord changes appears as the eight bar bridge of the 1937 show tune "Have You Met Miss Jones ? Which became a standard song among jazz artist, a song Mr. Coltrane surely knew. Just imagine his own 'ah ha' moment when these dots connected up :)

So why important? Remember that back in the 1960's "Giant Steps" was the 'next', for it didn't matter what music ya played or danced to, when "Giant Steps" came over your airwaves your love of music probably made you curious. Just to stunning tour de force evolution in the music of the day, in theory and performance to pass by unnoticed. And if ya dig jazz, as so many do, its a true kaboom in the literature.

Find a recording and check it out.

For even the strongest players of these day, Coltrane's friends, this 'new' required a rethink, as its cycle of changes breaks with 50 years or so of deep deep bass line story and chord traditions, found in a 1000 tunes.

The two motive melody might be among the easiest to learn and rote memorize. For its 'mathematics' puzzle creates a numerical cycle too nice to miss out on. Motive one is a descending major 7th arpeggio to its root pitch. The second motive is a '3 2 5' cell that brings with each sounding, a new key center.

In a 16 bar form / cycle, "Giant Steps" is just as its title implies, big strides of a new organizational way forward, sounded in a glorious Americana gospel call.

For those who aspire to arrive at this understanding organically, by shedding through from a blues based start point, on through double Two / Five, advancing through the V7b9 chord substitutions to arrive, through the 'sheets of sound' principles, to "Giant Steps", know you follow a proven pathway to a better understanding of your music. For along the way discoveries are made, self discovery in art and spirit, thanks to Coltrane.

Coda. In getting to "Giant Steps" there are two other quite remarkable Coltrane songs that use this minor 3rd / perfect 4th harmonic motion in their construction. The jazz artist here should consider reading through the exquisite ballad "Naima", as well as the exciting minor 3rd modulating Two / Five romp titled "Lazybird." Both contain the harmonic elements that Coltrane condensed into the harmonic cycling in "Giant Steps."

All three songs point to what would become the next two evolutions that get us to today's modern sounds. The use of the pentatonic colors in jazz improvisation. Placing an added V7 chord before every chord in a song and making every chord in a song V7 for the soloing sections in performance.

"Learning never exhausts the mind."

wiki ~ Leonardo DaVinci

References. References for this page's information comes from school, books and the bandstand and made way easier by the folks along the way.

Find a mentor / e-book / academia Alaska. Always good to have a mentor when learning about things new to us. And with music and its magics, nice to have a friend or two ask questions and collaborate with. Seek and ye shall find. Local high schools, libraries, friends and family, musicians in your home town ... just ask around, someone will know someone who knows someone about music and can help you with your studies in the musical arts.

go to a public library and ask the librarian

Always keep in mind that all along life's journey there will be folks to help us and also folks we can help ... for we are not in this endeavor alone :) The now ancient natural truth is that we each are responsible for our own education. Positive answer this always 'to live by' question; 'who is responsible for your education ... ?

Intensive tutoring. Luckily for musical artists like us, the learning dip of the 'covid years' can vanish quickly with intensive tutoring. For all disciplines; including all the sciences and the 'hands on' trade schools, that with tutoring, learning blossoms to 'catch us up.' In music ? The 'theory' of making musical art is built with just the 12 unique pitches, so easy to master with mentorship. And in 'practice ?' Luckily old school, the foundation that 'all responsibility for self betterment is ours alone.' Which in music, and same for all the arts, means to do what we really love to do ... to make music :)


"These books, and your capacity to understand them, are just the same in all places. Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing."

wiki ~ Abraham Lincoln

Academia references of Alaska. And when you need university level answers to your questions and musings, and especially if you are considering a career in music and looking to continue your formal studies, begin to e-reach out to the Alaska University Music Campus communities and begin a dialogue with some of Alaska's finest resident maestros !


~ comments or questions ... ? ~

~ ~