Why Giant Steps is not 12-tone

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.

6 thoughts on “Why Giant Steps is not 12-tone

  1. Very interesting article, and I totally agree. I read the Quincy Jones article, and stopped to google “Giant Steps 12 tone” hoping it was actually true. It’s clearly not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the term “12 tone” is used wrongly a lot.
    Here’s a thought, though: Could he be talking about the fact that the root, third, fifth and seventh of the chords (and the melody, for that matter) cover all twelve notes in the first four bar, and then again the four next? Basically that the main frase cover all twelve notes. Still not 12 tone, but I can understand people misunderstanding the term.

    Covering all twelve notes in a short phrase is not that uncommon if you include chords and different extensions, but here they are covered by very straight forward four tone chords.

    Just a thought.

    Thanks for a great article!

  2. Thank you for clarifying this. I found myself questioning my previous knowledge of giant steps reading Q’s interview. Gave him the benefit of the doubt, but had to conclude it is not correct. I had always thought giant steps originated from:
    – the B section of Have You Met Miss Jones
    – and an amalgam of other things like Slonimsky’s book — coltrane did work out of that but also worked with a lot of his own variations ideas and ideas circulating the tribes he was a part of; like, experiments of cutting the tonal spectrum into 3 equal parts, it’s relation to the golden mean/golden ratio, etc.

    Ascension is an elusive one. I can add that having specifically asked one of the performers who played on the recording of Ascension what they were looking at on that session, he said Coltrane did indeed give the musicians notated tone rows to derive their parts from. However, in his words, regarding that approach to music they were developing at that time, it was “every man for himself” once the music started. Sonically and literally, it would probably be better termed “chromatic saturation” or heterophony mixed with atonality or something, however I can say tone rows were involved and aided Coltrane in creating that recording. The result seems more like saturation to me than “12 tone” which seems like to broad/general term to describe such a specific thing like Ascension. It’s like categorizing a translucent aqua color as blue.

    The Berg stuff could be true. Judging from the innumerable other inaccuracies in Q’s interview, I think Berg’s influence could be possible, but at least in my experiences Wozzeck is one of those pieces that “trendy” people through around in LA to sound schooled. I’m certain Coltrane knew of Berg, but I’m fairly certain, the story of Coltrane’s influence I think is a bit deeper than that. Berg is probably not the only influence or the main influence. I think likening an entire recording to one influence is a bit ambitious to begin with also. Again, this is what I was told by someone who played on Ascension, but Luigi Nono and Luigi Dallapiccola were two composers who’s music was circulating heavily through Coltrane’s circles around the time of Ascension. Gunther Schuller was another I remember being mentioned…he’d come to shows and transcribe lines as he was listening to the band apparently. There was a whole lot of obscure avante garde classical stuff circulating among those musicians at that time. The Jazz circles seem to never get enough credit for how unbelievably committed they were to staying at the cutting edge of music. They were sought out the most sophisticated approaches around at the time. Frankly hearing about the juxtaposition of their scarce lack of resources with their impeccable aptitude and taste still boggles my mind. Some of them had Julliard level classical training, others learned on their own, they all were soldiers of the classical craft of music though…it’s hard to pin point every little detail and influence, I would say though that they were probably listening to even more out stuff than the music they were making. Charlie Parker supposedly listened to Varese…ended up making lines that sound kinda like romantic composers like Strauss…

    Also, Coltrane did lift things from time to time…impressions (1963) was lifted from Ahmad jamal’s pavane (1955) which was a treatment of Morton Gould’s Pavane from American Symphonette No. 2. (1939). Maybe one day we will learn if there are other tunes in Coltrane’s oeuvre that have sections lifted…

    1. Who did you speak to that played on Ascension? Is there anything I can find online about the tone rows used in Ascension?

  3. Thank you for this entry, Dan. During my time as a jazz dilettante (ranging mostly from college in the late 1980s, maybe a little before when I thought Dire Straits qualified as jazz), I have frequently seen musicians and music writers marvel at the dense chord changes in “Giant Steps”. More recently, I have even heard some criticism of Coltrane for being unfair to Tommy Flanagan in handing him the piece’s complex chord changes only hours before their studio date. Through this thirty-odd years of fandom, however, I have never heard anyone describe “Giant Steps” as a 12-tone piece, or hint of any debt Coltrane owed to Schoenberg. To the casual ear, “Giant Steps” does sound ultimately tonal, and the animated score you link to would seem to support this.

    Like you, I have a great respect for Quincy Jones; at the peak of his prowess, he probably knew as much about jazz and pop music as anyone alive. On the other hand, I have also known a great many men whose temperament grew a bit gnarled as the years went by. The tenor or Jones’ recent interview, which also touches on more salacious topics like a physical relationship between Marlon Brando and Richard Pryor, smacks more of octagenarian grumpiness than sage wisdom – though, as a harmonica player, I did appreciate his kind words about Toots Thielemans, even at Jimi Hendrix’s expense. It seems that Jones was more interested in being provocative than in being right.

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