Thursday, May 24, 2012

Coltrane Changes

After ten days of practicing and blogging about Coltrane changes, the obligatory theoretical explanation is probably overdue.

Many musicians/theorists have provided commentaries on Coltrane's "Giant Steps" matrix. For this reason I will keep mine concise, but will include links to articles and a brief bibliography for those wanting to dig deeper.

In a nutshell, 'Trane divides the octave into 3 equal parts.  In the key of C this looks like:

C --- Ab --- E --- C 

Think of these as tonal centers (or key areas) descending by major thirds.  A progression is formed by preceding each tonal center with its dominant (V7).  Theorists call this "tonicization".

The progression ends up looking like this:

Coltrane's cycle of descending major thirds, also known as the Coltrane Matrix or Coltrane Changes

John Coltrane superimposed this harmonic cycle into existing, commonly played tunes within the jazz repertoire.

Here is a regular ii -  V - I progression in C, followed by Coltrane's reharmonization, as it appears in "Countdown", which is actually a reworking of "Tune Up" by Miles Davis.

John Coltrane reharmonized many songs by superimposing this harmonic progression over a 2 - 5 - 1 harmonic sequence.
He retains the first chord (Dmi7) and then goes into the cycle of descending major thirds.

The song "26-2" is Coltrane's reharmonization of "Confirmation" by Charlie Parker.  Here are the chords for the first five measures of Confirmation, followed by "26-2", for the sake of comparison.

John Coltrane reharmonization of Confirmation by Charlie Parker
Note how he successfully superimposed his matrix progression while still arriving at the tune's primary tonal centers/harmonic targets of F (I) in measure 1 and 9, and Bb (IV) in measure 5.

Here is one more:  Coltrane took the standard, "How High the Moon" and transformed it into his composition, "Satellite" using the same method.  Again he successfully retains the original harmonic targets, which in this case are G, F and Eb.

Coltrane changes on "How High The Moon"
For those wanting to delve deeper into the topic here are some recommended books and links:
Wikipedia has a fairly good article dedicated to Coltrane Changes.  Here is the link:

Now... back to the piano to learn how to navigate myself through these chords!


  1. Thank you for doing this work,I have been studying the Wikipedia examples but at this point too complex for me, however I totally understood your first two examples. When my brain is more rested, I will apply the logic to the remaining examples, You explained it very well, again thank you. Susan Mcgee-Wiens, Calgary Alberta.

  2. Thanks Susan. As you will soon find out, understanding it is one thing and being able to play it fluently is another. I highly recommend Walt Weiskopf's book, listed in this article.

    All the best with your music. Glad to be helpful to another Canuck. :)

  3. By far, the best explanation on the subject I've ever met! Great job!

    1. Aww shucks! Thank you. I hope it is helpful.

    2. Hi! i also suggest "Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns" by Nicholas Slonimsky.

  4. Up a half-step in bar 1 gives the first dominant, then down a 4th, up a minor 3rd, down a 4th, up a minor 3rd, down a 4th.

    ii of the root chord V-I V-I V-I

    You should know but don't need to reverse engineer the flat VImaj7 or the IIImaj7.