The Audience Learns Part 2 supplement — John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

Jazz legend John Coltrane.  Image via

Jazz legend John Coltrane.  Image via


Imagine sitting in a classroom as the teacher explains a complicated mathematical proof.  She walks you through it, but the proof contains mind-blowing twists and turns at each step.  Knowing this, the teacher repeats the process several times, pausing to explain what is happening at each step so that her students gain a deep grasp of the material.

So it is with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” one of the landmark compositions of modern jazz. 


One might identify the eponymous giant steps as residing in the melody (0:00-0:27), but the chord changes make giant steps, too. Though the song form is a repeating structure (16 bars long), the melody leaps from one tonal plane to another, so that it might take several times through the pattern before someone hearing it for the first time can begin to identify even the basic lay of the musical landscape. 

So new were the ideas in the chord changes that you can hear jazz legend Tommy Flanagan try to navigate their crazy twists and turns during his piano solo (starting at 2:55).  He may have had scant minutes to digest the changes before the recording was made.  Coltrane, by contrast, had spent significant time with the changes to get inside and explore them.  Much like the imagined math teacher above, his soloing teaches us how to hear the workings of the chord changes, revealing them from this angle and then that one.

Consider how challenging a B-section might be in a song whose structure challenges our hearing as much as “Giant Steps.”  It might prove overwhelming, and by omitting such a section, the repetition of the sixteen-bar song-form reduces the cognitive load on listeners, which is already considerable.  The repetition allows us to take these strange chord changes inside of us, unfold and examine them, and arrive at some deeper understanding. 

The recording is a great reminder of how, within the context of their art, great artists are great teachers.  And when they are teaching us about something as radically different as the harmonic landscape of "Giant Steps," repetition is one of their most important tools.

Thank you for reading.