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The Most Difficult Song in Jazz? A Look at "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Step for Jazz

There are a few tunes that all jazz musicians know, and for good reasons. These are tunes like “So What,” “Summertime,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” and so many more.

But there’s one tune that has cemented its legendary status because of its difficulty—that’s John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”

So let's get warmed up and check out this tune. But first, if you want to learn more about the concepts behind “Giant Steps,” check out our new PDF package on Matrix Cycles.

Contents: Taking a first look at “Giant Steps”

Small steps: the V - I

Bigger steps: the Circle of Fifths

Large steps: looking at the Coltrane Changes

Giant Steps: putting it all together

Taking a first look at “Giant Steps”

The first thing that strikes you about “Giant Steps” is the tempo. At this tempo, keeping up with the changes can be tricky. And speaking of the changes…what key is "Giant Steps" in? Or maybe the better question…what keys?

The changes for “Giant Steps” are a huge part of why this tune became both so respected and so feared.

At first glance, the changes defy the classical expectation of music theory.

Here’s the progression in the first four bars:

Bmaj7 / D7 / Gmaj7 / Bb7 / Ebmaj7 / Am7 / D7

Right off the bat, it’s easy to see that these chords are not in the same key. Seeing a B major followed immediately by a D7, then a G major followed by a Bb7, these changes aren’t coming from any one typical major scale chord progression.

But with all of these chromatic changes, how does it manage to still sound good?

True, chromaticism can introduce dissonance, but the chromaticism in “Giant Steps” is carefully calculated.

Before we dive deeper into this progression, let’s start with some smaller steps.

Small steps: the V - I

Our system of western harmony is largely built on the V - I relationship.

Looking back, some of the earliest harmonies were based on fifths. Thinking back to some of the earliest music we have record of, Gregorian chant, many of those chants harmonized in parallel fifths. (Think of the theme song from the game Halo, if you need a reference for Gregorian Chant.)

But, later when classical music came along, a convention arose that many still apply to this day—avoid parallel fifths.

These customs emerged as people experimented with harmony. The monks were drawn to the sound of the fifth for their chant because it was so consonant—it thickened the sound while still sounding whole.

Conversely, this is actually the rationale behind the voice leading custom of avoiding parallel fifths. The sound of a fifth is so consonant that you actually lose the individuality of the notes. Playing consecutive fifths makes the notes form into one sound.

This fifth relationship is even reflected in the science of music. When you play one note, you’re also playing what are known as overtones—notes that ring sympathetically with a main note to create what we think of as “C” or “A.”

When you play a C, the first note is the fundamental—C. The second note is an octave above, also C. But the third note is G—the fifth. The overtone series goes on, becoming softer and less prominent, but the major scale is largely influenced by the sounds of the overtone series, particularly the relationship between the fifth and the root.

In functional harmony, the V - I is the most stable tension to resolution relationship. The V7 chord contains the 5, 7, 2 and 4—all notes that want to resolve to the I chord: 1, 3, 5. The V7 chord has two leading tones, the 7 and the 4, with the 7 pushing to resolve to 1 and the 4 pulling to resolve to 3.

The V - I was a large part of classical music and became the foundation of jazz harmony as well.

The ii - V - I progression is regarded as the backbone for most jazz tunes. But why?

In C major, the ii - V - I is Dm / G / C — which you may notice are all related by fifths. D is the fifth of G, and G is the fifth of C.

This ii - V - I relies on the 5 - 1 relationship for its pleasing sound, creating departure, tension, and release—or as some describe it, "coming home."

Bigger steps: the Circle of Fifths

So with the V - I relationship in our back pocket, we come to maybe the most ubiquitous musical tool—the circle of fifths.

The circle of fifths shows the relationships of all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, arranged in a circle by fifths. G is the fifth of C, D is the fifth of G, A is the fifth of D and so on.

Or, when read in reverse, it is also the circle of fourths. D is the fourth of A, G is the fourth of D, C is the fourth of G, F is the fourth of C, and so on.

Moving to close keys on the circle of fifths is pleasing and generally sounds consonant. Modulating from C to G or C to F is common and sounds natural. However, moving to more distant keys on the circle of fifths, like C to Ab, is a more dramatic modulation.

The circle of fifths is more than just a poster on your theory teacher’s wall. Coltrane studied the circle of fifths closely, looking carefully at the relationships of close and distant keys.

Some progressions are known as circle of fifth progressions—songs like “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix follow the circle of fifths in a way that the chords aren’t so much related to one another, but related to the one that precedes it. These chord progressions are smooth and allow you to move to chords that are distant in a general single-key chord progression.

Large steps: looking at the Coltrane changes

So combining the V - I concept and the circle of fifths, the changes for “Giant Steps” start to come into focus.

The major tonal centers in “Giant Steps” are Eb, G, and B, which are all related by major thirds.

Let’s pull in that first system again, along with some of the second.

Bmaj7 / D7 / Gmaj7 / Bb7 / Ebmaj7 / Am7 / D7

Gmaj7 / Bb7 / Ebmaj7 / F#7 / Bmaj7

Notice how all of the dominant 7 chords are setting up a V - I relationship with the following chord.

Bmaj7 / D7 / Gmaj7 / Bb7 / Ebmaj7 / Am7 / D7

Gmaj7 / Bb7 / Ebmaj7 / F#7 / Bmaj7

So while Gmaj7 to Bb7 may seem like a very chromatic change, this change is smoothed out by the Bb resolving down to its I chord, Eb.

We can look at this progression in the following way:


V / I

V / I

ii / V / I

V / I

V / I

By the end of these two systems, we’ve tonicized B, G, Eb, G, Eb, and B, and all at the tune’s tempo of almost 300 BPM.

Through this lens, it’s easy to see why Tommy Flanagan’s piano solo is so disjunct and fractured. The tune moves through several keys very quickly, without one scale to rest in for improvisation.

Giant Steps: Bringing it home

Because of its difficulty and novelty, “Giant Steps” has become an integral part of jazz history. For jazz students, soloing over “Giant Steps” is a big leap and a kind of rite of passage. It represents innovation in jazz—stretching harmony to new limits with a unique chord progression.

For more about this tune, check out Vox's Earworm feature on "Giant Steps."

If you’re looking to work more with this concept, check out the PDF package we just released on Matrix Cycles—moving tonal centers in a symmetric fashion.

If you're looking for a good way to practice jazz standards like this one, make sure to check out our blog with the 4 best ways to practice jazz standards!

Enjoy, and we'll see you again soon!

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