This is a strange thing to write about, but an interview with Quincy Jones was published yesterday in which Quincy Jones repeatedly referred to Giant Steps, and at least one other John Coltrane recording, as being “12-tone.”
I’d put Quincy Jones near the top or at the top of any list of greatest record producers. And he’s not just a great record producer, he’s also a gifted and accomplished musician and arranger whose best work is iconic and legendary. He deserves every superlative he receives.
But Giant Steps is not 12-tone, not by any definition of the term. Quincy Jones is very wrong about this. And I have a feeling that some people who read that interview are going to start claiming that Giant Steps is a 12-tone composition without knowing what that means, so I want to set the record straight.
I’m not going to be doing a lot of catch-up in this article, but here are explanations of some basic terms that I’ll be using a lot:
Tonal (pronounced toe-null) refers to music that is written or performed in one specific key at any given time. In a piece of tonal music there is one specific note that you can identify as the tonal center, and the chord based on that note is considered to be the key center or the tonic or the I Chord (pronounced “the one chord.”) All other chords and notes operate more or less in relation to that stable tonal center and key center. You can know something is tonal if you can say “This is in the key of _.” Treasure by Bruno Mars is in the key of Eb major. How do we know this? Our ear hears Eb as the tonal center, and all of the chords operate in ways that lead towards or away from Eb. (Bonus points if you know why I picked this song as the example.) Virtually every piece of music that you hear on a day-to-day basis is tonal.
Functional Harmony refers the way that chords operate in relation to one another in a piece of tonal music. If you are learning to play guitar, you are probably getting used to playing certain chords together. If you’re playing in the key of G, for example, you’ve probably noticed the D or D7 chord often comes right before a G chord, and that the C, E minor and A minor chords frequently show up in various ways. These chords all have a certain function in the key of G in terms of the way they operate and the way they sound as they move towards or away from each other, so you’ll see the same basic patterns a lot. In another key, these chords would have totally different roles to play. In the key of Eb, for example, the D7 chord functions much differently than it does in the key of G. This, on a simple level, describes functional harmony, which is a feature of a lot of tonal music.
Atonal (pronounced ey-tonal) refers to any music that lacks a tonal center, but it most commonly refers to music that is purposefully written or performed in a way that avoids any sense of a tonal center. Atonal music still has melodies and harmonies, but the melodies are not in a “key” and the harmonies do not function as they do in tonal music. These days, atonality is extremely rare outside of specific settings, but for several decades in the early- and mid-20th century, atonality was a dominant force in what we broadly call “Classical” music.
Free Improvisation or Free Jazz can refer to an improvised musical performance without any predetermined adherence to rules like chords, scales, forms, etc. It can also refer to an improvised performance that has a few guidelines in place, but where most of the direction of the improvisation is left up to the performers, who are free to take things in almost any direction. Free Jazz performances are frequently atonal or at least not consciously tonal, but not always, because it’s free, baby. No rules here my man.
12-tone refers to a specific approach to composing and performing atonal music where all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are given equal value. In a pure 12-tone composition, all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are placed into a unique order, called a tone row, and the relationships of the pitches in that row (and various permutations of that row) form the backbone of the piece of music. There is no “key” or tonality in 12-tone music, nor are there functional chords like you find in tonal music.
The first piece of music written with this approach is considered to be Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25:
Because 12-tone music is purposefully written in a way that avoids tonality, and because 12-tone composers also frequently try to break other conventions in their compositions, 12-tone music can sound “random” to listeners. It’s not random; it’s highly structured, sometimes to an obsessive degree.
So is Giant Steps 12-tone? No, it does not fit the definition of 12-tone at all.
John Coltrane, more than any other recording artist that I know of from his era, pushed the limits of functional harmony with his compositions, and in this way he does have something in common with 12-tone composers. His compositions, especially those from the late 1950s, frequently feature highly sophisticated chord substitutions, multiple tonal centers, and strings of functional chords that travel between several keys before arriving at their target chord. The earliest notable example of this is probably Moment’s Notice, written and recorded in 1957:
(I did not make this video.)
The unprecedented complexity of Coltrane’s music from this era, coupled with the fact that it was frequently performed and improvised over at breakneck speed, has given John Coltrane a nearly godlike reputation among some musicians. Giant Steps is the most well-known example of his unique approach to harmony, and is the composition that most people consider to be his greatest achievement, so it makes sense that it’s the composition that Quincy Jones referenced in the interview.
It is a brilliant, beautiful, complex and highly structured piece of music, but it is not 12-tone. For a piece of music to be 12-tone, by definition, it should be written in a way where all 12 notes of the chromatic scale have the same priority throughout the piece, and there should be no tonality, and no sense of any tonal center or functional chord motion. Giant Steps does not fit this definition at all.
So if it’s not 12-tone, what is it?
Most people who know what they’re talking about would call Giant Steps a piece of music that has three different tonal centers (B, G, and Eb,) each with equal status, and I’ve heard someone argue convincingly that it’s actually in the key of Eb, with those other tonal centers being functional within the key of Eb. No matter which way you look at it, Giant Steps travels through three tonal centers and the movement between these tonal centers is functional. So by definition it is not 12-tone.
If you’re still reading but are totally lost, just trust me that 12-tone music is a different thing than what Coltrane was doing with Giant Steps.
Quincy Jones also mentions Ascension as an example of Coltrane doing 12-tone music. Ascension is a completely different story, but also not 12-tone, at least not to my knowledge.
A little history about Ascension: By the mid 1960s, Coltrane’s music was becoming more and more spiritual, and his performances were increasingly characterized by long, passionate improvisations over simpler harmonic structures. And when I say “long,” these could get really long. Someone told me a story one time – maybe Curtis Fuller? or maybe this was in someone’s biography? – about how you could go to see the John Coltrane Quartet play, leave ten minutes into the first song, come back twenty minutes later, and they’d still be playing the same song. And over time, these performances began to descend (ascend?) into what you would call free jazz.
In terms of his discography, Ascension marks the point where he went full-on free jazz, and it’s a major departure from what he was doing earlier in the 1960s. It features two trumpet players, five saxophone players, two bassists, piano, and drums, and the recording alternates between sections where everyone is freely improvising at the same time, and sections where each musician gets a chance to stretch out.
It opens with a repeated five-note melody that I would categorize as being clearly Eb minor or pentatonic minor, over what you could loosely call a drone. Being in a definable mode with an identifiable tonal center means that it can not be an example of 12-tone music. There are some atonal elements in this opening section, but again, it’s not 12-tone.
After this brief opening section, it gets pretty dense. I will admit I have never studied, transcribed or looked at a transcription for this piece of music, so I can’t for certain tell you that these performers are not using a 12-tone row to guide or ground these improvisations. But knowing what I know about this piece of music, and about the musicians involved, and the context surrounding this recording, what you are listening to is probably a purely free improvisation. It is mostly atonal from what I can tell, and like a lot of dense atonal music, probably comes across as random to the majority of people, but this should not be confused with it being 12-tone.
If I am wrong, please let me know.
In the article, Quincy Jones mentions that Ascension was influenced by Alban Berg, a prominent 12-tone composer, but I can’t find any connection there. He mentions that Coltrane brought a certain music theory book around with him everywhere he went, but this can’t be taken as evidence that Coltrane was stealing his ideas from that book. If I’m biologist doing groundbreaking work in biology, and I’m known to carry around a physics book with me, that doesn’t mean I’m actually doing physics. So I don’t know where Quincy Jones got the idea that Ascension is an example of 12-tone music.
Again, if I am wrong, please let me know.
To conclude: Giant Steps has three tonal centers, functional harmonic motion, and a melody that favors certain pitches over others. It is not a 12-tone composition.