The most feared song in jazz, explained

Making sense of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”

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John Coltrane, one of jazz history’s most revered saxophonists, released “Giant Steps” in 1959. It’s known across the jazz world as one of the most challenging compositions to improvise over for two reasons – it’s fast and it’s in three keys. Braxton Cook and Adam Neely give me a crash course in music theory to help me understand this notoriously difficult song, and I’m bringing you along for the ride. Even if you don’t understand a lick of music theory, you’ll likely walk away with an appreciation for this musical puzzle.

Braxton Cook:
Adam Neely:

Some songs don’t just stick in your head, they change the music world forever. Join Estelle Caswell on a musical journey to discover the stories behind your favorite songs. is a news website that helps you cut through the noise and understand what’s really driving the events in the headlines. Check out

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Izz Danish Adam says:

Im listening to it right now and idk if it does the same for yall but, the saxophone is on the left side of my headphones ONLY and the right side is the other and my god its so weird?

john elton says:

Tommy flanagan one of the best in jazz, to say he is not keeping up?? don’t think if he knew he could not do it, he wouldn’t have volunteered to be on this recording, and John Coltrane would not have suggested him!!! Heard of Dynamics in playing? heard of syncopation?? heard of poly rhythms? well there’s your answer, not everyone has to play at the same level as everyone else, you can analyze anything in life to death, and not everything in jazz, is by the book, or the circle of fifths<

Paul Mayer says:

Top notch video

Blake Canham-Bennett says:

Amazing as always, Estelle Caswell!

Hravokh says:

holy balls! this was awesome

barry badonde says:

Im so confused… sigh.

dadautube says:

very well done video explaining its topic of discussion in a very understandable manner!

Darryl Jones Jr. says:

This is dope. Very dope.

Sean Spark says:

Well that explains it. I always wondered why Jazz music sounded so disorganized, like a mess of wrong notes, played really fast and accurate. Bunch of good players playing out of tune, not knowing what key the other may go to. Almost reminds me of musicians warming up, with no regard to the key of the others warm up. No offense Jazz lovers, but it is just not my style of music to enjoy. Very annoying stuff.

trent williams says:

“if you don’t know a bit of music theory like me”

*brings these two guys to explain it to you but not me*

S.T. HearrtTree says:

no its not

nomen nominandum says:


David Kelly says:

Musical Spirograph!

Thiosemicarbizide Benzoyl Alcohol says:

Excellent explanatory video of a legendary musician and his genius. Its a shame people don’t respect the musical beauty of jazz anymore. Nor do they understand its depth.

Malc180s says:


Adam Allen says:


Jordan Hemsley says:

How about a comparison video on soloing over changes vs modes? And what that means for the soloist and listener

Jordan Thistle says:

I love when people try to tell me that heavy metal drumming patterns are the hardest of all music genres. Then I show them a few jazz percussionists.

SkarTisu says:

Really interesting stuff! Well done!

doggonemess says:

That was really cool. Great explanation, especially for someone clueless about music theory. Still hate jazz, though.

SethTheNext says:

I like jazz

Aaron Mijail Herrera Castro says:

*That last analogy make me remind of Collateral*

Vox says:

Madlib, one of my favorite Hip-hop producers, made an entire album flipping Blue Note recordings. It’s an incredible set of tracks that showcases how great hip-hop and jazz sound together. What are your favorite jazz inspired hip-hop songs? – Estelle

Joshua Stephens says:

John Coltrane was a genius

Frank Farance says:

You left a couple important holes on the explanation of fifths, “tension”, and improvisation lines. Regarding the commentary, the main different between that sax solo and the piano solo is the distance in the harmonic horizon of resolution: the sax solo had a longer (more distant) horizon, which is why it might sound more fluid, dynamic, and daring. Not all musicians look for a long horizon, it can be adjusted per phrase, and more experience and range can give a long horizon. At its extreme, one can make every note sound consonant, as long as (1) there is time and a route to resolve it, and (2) the *listener* can perceive those longer horizon resolutions.

The reason why 5ths (or 12ths an octave above) sound natural is that they have a low number ratio in frequencies, a 5th is 3/2 times the frequency of the root, a 12th is 3 times the frequency of the root. So in a 7th chord (commonplace in Blues and Jazz), the ratios of the frequencies relative to the root are: 4/4 (C), 5/4 (E), 6/4 (=3/2, G), 7/4 (Bb).

The second element is “tension”, perfect intervals such as octave and fifth don’t really create much tension, harmonic intervals create tension, and dissonance (e.g., non-harmonic intervals and voice leading) create even more tension; whereas “resolution” relieves that tension. For example (again, assuming a C major scale), in the V-I transition, it isn’t the 5 note that causes relief as much as it’s the B (the 3rd of the V chord) resolving chromatically (half-step) upward to C (the root of the I chord) that we experience the gravitational pull of V resolving to I. With that V-I change being the “gravity” of the dominant (V chord) to tonic (I chord) transition, everything else is Dominant Preparation, i.e., the harmonic routes of getting to the Dominant (V to I), such as IV-V-I (commonplace in Blues turnarounds), ii-V-I (Jazz turnarounds), and vi-V-I or VIb-V-I (this last one having lots of chromatic “gravitational” pull).

So the chords serve as the harmonic backdrop for the line of notes, such as improvisations mentioned in this video. In general, one’s phrasing looks for a set of notes that carry you from a “harmonic” interval in the present chord to a “harmonic” interval in the next chord (I put harmonic in quotes because that can change in the context of the song). For example, this video discusses the circle of major thirds, such as A major, C# major, and F major (each 4 semitones apart), a chord sequence of A, C#, F in one chord per measure would support a phrase of half notes -two per measure- in the sequence below (along with my commentary of what might be in the mind of the player):

Measure #1: A maj chord
Play note A: Chord is A, I’m playing A, A is the root of A major, woo hoo everything is Good
Play note B: Chord is A, I just played A, I am stepping off a in an upward scale, not to worry of B is harmonic as long as the next note lands on something harmonic … which could be C# (most likely, since I’m in A major) or C (possible if there is some A minor connection in the next chord)

Measure #2: C# maj chord
Play note C#: Chord is C#, I just played a B and C# is a nice whole step, which looks fine for an A major scale (read: no dissonances created from B to C#), and C is the root of C# major, everything looks Good, except that C# major doesn’t play in A major, but that’s ok because my context has switched to C#.
Play note D#: Like the B in measure #1, this serves as an upward scale, and the rationale for the note B above is almost like this for D#. However, we realize we’re pulling aware from the A major framework, and our baseline for phrasing is now C# major … this is the Escher painting disorientation starting to take effect

Measure #3: F maj chord
Play note F: Almost the same rationale as C# above.
Play note G: Almost the same rational as D# above. Additionally, some phrasing an context might be provided to truly anchor the A maj chord as the REAL tonic among tonics, or it might be left ambiguous, as in the Escher painting.

So add a 12-tone scale, about 7 to 15 scalar modes per note (pentatonic, ionian, dorian, phrygian, etc.) and at least three chordal modes (major, minor, diminish), and there are many many combinations … and several musical styles within those combinations. An accomplished musician has his/her sweet spot of proficiency. When a musician is given this kinda chart, as presented to the pianist in the video, he/she is thinking about all those kinds of possibilities. Of course, many of them are familiar from prior work, but the questions and answers can be different for each of the notes, which is why a player can give more than one kind of solo for a particular chart.

Or to frame it in a non-musician’s perspective: it’s like playing hopscotch, but the floor keeps changing, and you need to continually look graceful (conforming to dance mores, rather than musical mores) as you hop, skip, and jump along the changing floor.

Hope this makes sense.

stratowhore says:

Coltrane himself had trouble with this tune. The “Heavyweight Champion” box set has all 9 takes and Hal Leonard published transcriptions of all 9 solos. So it wasn’t just Tommy Flanagan that had problems with the tempo. On another note–and in another genre–Jimi Hendrix also had trouble with the intro to “Wait Until Tomorrow”.

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