The most feared song in jazz, explained


This is John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.
It’s considered one of the most important jazz albums of all time,
it cemented John Coltrane as a legend among jazz saxophonists and composers,
and it’s home to one of the most one of the most revered and feared compositions in
jazz history. The reason why the album’s title track is
so iconic can be heard in its first few seconds. Coltrane wrote these unique chord changes
for Giant Steps, and later went on to use them over traditional jazz standards. These chords came to be known as the Coltrane Changes — and
improvising over them is considered a rite of passage for jazz musicians. But, if you don’t understand a lick of music
theory like me, it’s really hard to see how this is so legendary. Lucky for me, I know two people that can explain
why… Braxton Cook Braxton: Okay you caught me off guard
there! And Adam Neely Adam: Should I get into the, like, technical jargony
stuff? Let’s cut to the logo first. So there’s a moment in the Giant Steps recording
that really illustrates just how demanding this song is. It happens when Tommy Flanagan, the pianist
on the record, starts his solo. Braxton: The story goes that John Coltrane
brought in the music, he shows up ready to go and then calls he this really fast tempo. Adam: If you hear on the recording, Tommy Flanagan just cannot handle the chord progressions as they’re going by. His improvisation is very halted. Braxton: And Tommy Flannagan’s just holding on for dear life. It really becomes apparent how much he struggled,
when you hear Coltrane take off at lightning speed the second Flanagan stops. Braxton: And then it goes down as like one of the most
legendary recordings of all time. That’s messed up. I’d want another shot. I’d
be like bro, don’t put that recording out. To understand why this was so difficult for
even a highly trained pianist, we need to know three basic concepts and it all starts with this:
the circle of fifths – it’s kind of like a color wheel for music. Braxton: Okay, awesome, you glued this stuff
and everything. This is fire. All twelve notes of the western musical scale
are on it, but you might notice they’re a little mixed
up That’s because they’re organized by a
very special number in music… a fifth. What’s a fifth? Braxton: It’s like if you’re in the C-major scale, you go C, D, E, F, G – right? 1,2,3,4,5. From C to G is five notes, from G to D is
five notes and… well you get the idea. If you play through the circle you’ll traverse
the entire keyboard starting on the lowest C and ending up on the highest C. It sounds much more harmonious than just playing
all the notes in order. That’s because… Adam: The fifth is a sound that our ears just
like. Uh… please explain. Adam: Whenever we’re hearing anything, whenever we’re hearing people sing… Adam: Whenever we’re hearing people play music, we’re
hearing these other notes, these overtones alongside the pitches that they’re playing. When I play this C, the first two loudest tones
that are pushed through the air are both C, one is just an octave higher. But other tones travel to our ears as well. The third loudest is a G, which happens to
be a fifth above C. In 1973, Leonard Bernstein demonstrated this
phenomenon live on a grand piano at Harvard. Listen closely after he hits that note. Bernstein: What do we hear now? That G, right? A new tone. Again, clear as a bell. You want to hear it again? Adam: These overtones are kind of like subliminal tones that you’re hearing alongside a regular note. Adam: And you’re hearing these overtones everywhere. A lot of western music is based on the power of the fifth, especially how it relates so
strongly back to its home chord. Adam: In the case of the key of C major we
have the G chord resolving to C. Adam: And if you’re thinking about what
the G chord represents, it represents kind of tension. You want this to resolve. When it finally does resolve, Adam: it creates this feeling of finality,
it creates a feeling of home. That five to one relationship is present in
a lot of chord progressions, including the most common one found in jazz. The 2-5-1 Braxton:] The 2-5-1 essentially is like the backbone of most jazz music. Even in its most basic form it sounds super
jazzy. So it comes as no surprise the Coltrane Changes
are just chock full of them. Which might raise the question: Why was
Tommy Flanagan caught off guard when he had to improvise over them? Well, the Coltrane Changes aren’t in one
key, they’re in three keys. They’re basically a musical MC Escher painting. So each one of these rungs on the circle of fifths
represents every possible key center. The closer a key is to another, the more notes
they have in common. Like the C major and G major scale – they’re
only different by one note, an F#. Okay, we need an analogy to describe this. Adam: So the way that I like to think about keys is kind of like languages that you have to learn as a jazz improviser. You have to be able to be fluent in a key. Like maybe C is Spanish and G is Portuguese. Those are very similar languages. Adam: If that’s the case, like
okay maybe C is Spanish and you have a distantly related language like maybe Japanese. Let’s say Japanese is B. There’s not much
in common with those two languages. And it’s the same with keys. If you play those scales over each other… It sounds a lot more discordant. Adam: For the most part, most pop music is based around one of these key centers. For instance, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the
Feeling” is in A major. But some songs modulate to another key for
dramatic effect. Like Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” Adam: Part of the reason why it’s really exciting is because you’re going to a place that’s really distant on the circle of fifths. And you’re creating a new sense of home.
Which is exactly what “Love on Top” does. But, it doesn’t just happen once, it happens
every time she repeats the chorus towards the end of the song. Adam: And when you chart that sort of thing
along the circle of fifths, patterns emerge. These types of patterns are what fascinated
John Coltrane in the late 1950s and ’60s as he was trying to push jazz harmony to its
limits. This is his study of the circle of fifths. Braxton: I think what makes Giant Steps really special is that it really just, it just documented
an artist doing something super unique, super stylistic, and virtuosic at the same
time. Here’s the first 16 bars of Giant Steps
again, with just the key changes highlighted. If you chart those changes on the circle of
fifths it comes out as a pretty dramatic pattern. That’s because these keys are separated
by major thirds, which divide an octave into 3 equal parts. On the circle of fifths these three keys are
as far apart as possible from each other. Adam: Giant Steps is kind of like you’re
shifting from Spanish to Arabic to Japanese very quickly. By quickly, he means like every two beats
in a song that’s nearly 300 bpm. Adam: It’s not only just like you’re saying
one word per language, you’re having to construct a sentence out of the language. And how does Coltrane make those disparate
languages connect? With one of the most ubiquitous phrases in jazz, the five one. Adam: What he’s doing is taking some of the conventional ideas of tonal harmony, the conventional relationships
between the five chord and the one chord and applying it to this very chaotic circling, sort of chord progression that is the Coltrane Changes. Adam: So if we were all in the same key, it would sound like this. Adam: But because we’re going from key center to key center, it sounds very different. This is why the Coltrane Changes are like
this picture here. Even though you’re seeing things from a
completely new perspective you still feel like you’ve made it home somehow. When Tommy Flanagan saw the charts for Giant
Steps he knew he wasn’t going to just have to play this chord progression – he was going
to have to improvise over it. very quickly. Braxton: That was probably so funny, he was probably like, “What?!” Adam: It is a bit of a rite of passage to
say that you not only can improvise on Giant Steps, but you can also improvise in all 12
keys. Adam: Now, generations of jazz musicians are approaching Giant Steps as the sort of pinnacle of improvisation. Wait. I think I’ve got an analogy for this.
It’s like you’re a cab driver and instead of only knowing one way to get somewhere,
you have to know every back alley and side street just in case. Braxton: It’s essentially like that. You still get to the same location, but it’s really interesting and you might see some really cool stuff in the neighborhood. Braxton: But ultimately I still think the
music boils down to 5 1. People want to come back home. Thanks so much for watching the first of three videos I’m going to release in the next couple of weeks on Jazz. I want to give a special thanks to Braxton Cook and Adam Neely. Between the time that I interviewed Braxton and now, he’s released a full album. Please check it out below and of course special, special thanks to Adam Neely. You can check out his YouTube channel below. Until next time!

100 thoughts on “The most feared song in jazz, explained”

  1. Love Vox Earworm? Hop onto a live Q&A with Estelle Caswell, the creator behind the series, on December 20 at 5 PM ET by joining the Vox Video Lab, our new membership program on YouTube. She and other creators on our team will bringing you behind the scenes in a completely new way! (And if you missed the livestream, you'd still be able to see a recording).

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  2. So, this song is like Joyce's writing. Ulyssess or maybe even Finnegan's Wake. Unless you know what to look out for, you're not gonna be enjoying yourself throughout the ride.

  3. I have a friend, who can play any instrument. Any song if he hears it once or twice he can play them, and he is hard into Jazz… I can't for the life of me understand the music, to me it sounds random, and I can't really get a tune out of it… If I were to whistle anything like that it would sound awful to me… But to him, such things like this is amazing… Jazz really is the musicians music…

  4. Memories: As very young children we played in a house 90% completed, built for Mr. Coltrane, on Green Street, Englewood, NJ

  5. I appreciate the efforts that went into this. Still, I think Coltrane is an egomaniac, playing too fast and ignoring the context of the rest of the composition he's playing in. In Kinda Blue, he ruins each track he's featured in…. IMHO. And here, the piano is sublime…. but his solo … the only nice thing I can say, he's energetic. I'll give him that. Was he an addict of some kind?

  6. Good stuff thank you. Suggestion…….Do a video on Bernstein describing how hard Bach interpretations were due to his lack of specifying how it should be played or in what tempo or style. Instead looking at whole piece and creatively figuring out what makes sense to the ear through music theory. Glenn Gould was brilliant at it and they were friends. I bet you could do it plenty of footage:)

  7. Quentin Tarantino does today what Coltrane did. Break rules in your own style and tell naysayers to "shut it down"!

  8. I don't buy into this way of understanding Jazz.
    Nobody who improvises consciously thinks in complex Theoretical Scale Constellations and compares different Chords and their Relations, rather the melodic lines just flow out of them like somebody speaks in a certain Dialect.

    A bit more chromatic here, a bit more rhythmically intricate here.

    Don't make a Headache out of Jazz, you must feel the Phrases, then you can come up with something.

  9. My high school jazz ensemble (of which I was a part of this past year as a senior) played this for the Countywide Jazz Festival, along with "Coconut Champagne" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" — and we got an overall Superior. My fellow HS band folks know what I'm talking about.

  10. you might have mentioned the influence of existing jazz standards on Trane's project to push the limits further. It is quite known that he loved "Have You Met Miss Jones" by composers Rogers & Hart. The B-part has a very interesting shift in tonalities, and there are similarities to "Giant Steps"….

  11. Absolutelly impressive. I discovered that i REALLY don't know an inch of these musical language that is being talked.
    Bunch of wizards.

  12. This is great. Done an excellent job explaining the chaotic, yet totally satisfyingly musical, feel Giant Steps has

  13. Actually, there is quite a bit more to Giant Steps. The chord progression of three-tonics indeed are related by a major third interval. These three related chords/keys are related via the Hexatonic Scale, or the Augmented Scale. G Bb B D Eb F#.
    Coltrane had been studying this scale and ‘Third Relations’ with his teacher Dennis Sandole in Philadelphia. The music of Scriabin, Stravinsky, Bartok, Holst and others exploited third relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scriabin especially composed entire sections of large works using this scale. In the scale (for example in G – there are major third related chords each with three qualities. – Major, minor, augmented triads on G, B, Eb. They each also extend with M7ths. (These are Group One Chords).Between these ‘three tonics of three qualities’ thee are Augmented triads (Groups Two Chords) on the leading tones of Group One notes – Bb,D,F#.
    Furthermore, the melody of Giant Steps is firmly in the Augmented Scale with its variances of M7 and Mm7 chord arpeggios in lines 1 and 2 – when the B becomes Bb, (GM7)and in line 2 when the G becomes Gb ((F#)(EbM7).
    All the other guide tones of the motives in the second half of the tune outline the varying M,m, Aug chords of this Hexatonic Scale/key.. They are numerously overlapping –
    There are two notes, A and F (used to accommodate the inserted ii-V progressions) in bars 4 and 8 (the A reappears in bar 10 under the same harmony) which do not come from the scale.
    That is, the ii-V progressions are ‘jazzifications’ of the use of this iconic scale. He connects these three Major-Quality tonics with their related ii-V progressions – which do not really come from the mother scale. This becomes a ‘jazz way’ of connecting these Hexatonic-derived chord ‘key’ relations.
    Coltrane chose to compose this exercise using the Major Key orientation of this scale, but one could also do the same for the possible minor, and augmented possibilities of RN I, IIII, V. (Group One Chords).
    Remember that (Group Two Chords) RNs II,IV,VI are augmented triads. They don’t even have the possibility of extensions because of the symmetry of the scale.
    This scale was further used by the advanced players of the 1970’s and 80’s, such as Michael Brecker and the iconic Jan Garbarek, and Ralph Towner. Indeed, this scale also introduces to jazz musicians some new chord types, such as the Maj 7 #9 chord (also found in Lydian #2 mode, VI in harmonic minor; as well, for the first time for jazz musicians, the Major 7 #5,#9, as well as numerous combinations of M, m, Aug chords and M7, M7#5, mM7 (Group One chords) and using the singular ‘Aug triad of three names’ of Group II chords.
    As well, Olivier Messiaen in the 1940’s was a pioneer of symmetrical harmony and an influence on jazz musicians. Giant Steps is actually very simple, and logical as a system, an exercise in symmetrical harmonic relations eventually abandoned by Coltrane for its closed-ness and predictability.
    Charlie Parker was studying the Hindemith sonata for alto saxophone in his last years and expressed his desire for jazz to move closer to this direction. Also, of course virtuosi such as Chick Corea have been profoundly influenced by these ideas from Bartok and others.
    If anyone is interested in the full story of the structure Giant Steps, I am happy to send my short treatise (undergrad assignment at Washington University in STL).

  14. Vox is so good at these types of videos- bringing great explanations to things that are often unfamiliar and undervalued topics. Another home run.

  15. Now that I understood the giant steps stuff I'll go explain it to a friend. He's not gonna understand anything and I'm gonna confuse myself and I won't know anything anymore

  16. Great video for all of us who really love and enjoy Coltrane, music, jazz and culture, very informative and the collage infographics , the art here is gold .

  17. I don't think that first guy has ever heard the song. He gave the kind of answers I put into essays when I was in school.

  18. This was amazing! Thank you so much for creating and sharing this. I can't wait to see the rest in the series.

  19. I don’t think music is math anymore than any other thing. It may be its illustration that touches your soul. When you improvise to that soul touching flow it’s like surfing on a wave of feeling. It’s the best feeling a musician can have. You don’t need audience for that.

  20. I'm procrastinating in the design of a CPU and I came across your video. It gave me some really great ideas for how to approach visualising some really difficult concepts – especially how I need to do something very different to how we traditionally have to do it – I have to present to my peers… the visual relationship you created between fifths, thirds and the linkage using V->I and so on was so clear and perfect – and illustrative. Thank you!

  21. Sounds great! Coltrane was great. Miles was great. Jazz is great. Nothing today comes near, not even Coldplay!😂🤣😅

  22. Its kind of scary because after i read a random manga about jazz then i open youtube and this video pop up (btw the manga title is "blue giant")

  23. People who don’t understand music or don’t know anything about music theory this video will be so confusing to you ahahahaha that’s jazz and classical for you

  24. I have listened to John Coltrane's music. I read about the circle of "5th". The use of Spanish and Portuguese languages to explain the structure of the song, was eye opening! I have come to appreciate Flanagan's piano playing ability a lot more! I thoroughly enjoyed the video!

  25. you've way over complicated this, its meant to be more intuitive than this so freedom of thought can be acheived which is way more important to playing than the math.its the beuty we want

  26. Finally a pragmatic and structural explanation – now I finally understand Jazz 😀
    I liked it before, I knew there was a structure, but now thank you !! I still can´t play it, though 🙁
    But it´s fascinating and I got a tiny bit more aware of what´s going on there 🙂

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