John Coltrane Draws a Mysterious Diagram Illustrating the Mathematical & Mystical Qualities of Music

In a post ear­li­er this year, we wrote about a draw­ing John Coltrane gave his friend and men­tor Yusef Lateef, who repro­duced it in his book Repos­i­to­ry of Scales and Melod­ic Pat­terns. The strange dia­gram con­tains the eas­i­ly rec­og­niz­able cir­cle of fifths (or cir­cle of fourths), but it illus­trates a much more sophis­ti­cat­ed scheme than basic major scale the­o­ry. Just exact­ly what that is, how­ev­er, remains a mys­tery. Like every mys­ti­cal explor­er, the work Coltrane left behind asks us to expand our con­scious­ness beyond its nar­row bound­aries. The dia­gram may well show a series of  “mul­ti­plic­i­ties,” as sax­o­phon­ist Ed Jones writes. From the way Coltrane has “grouped cer­tain pitch­es,” writes vibes play­er Corey Mwam­ba, “it’s easy to infer that Coltrane is dis­play­ing a form of chro­mat­ic mod­u­la­tion.” These obser­va­tions, how­ev­er, fail to explain why he would need such a chart. “The dia­gram,” writes Mwam­ba, “may have a the­o­ret­i­cal basis beyond that.” But does any­one know what that is?

Per­haps Coltrane cleared cer­tain things up with his “cor­rect­ed” ver­sion of the tone cir­cle, above, which Lateef also reprint­ed. From this—as pianist Matt Rat­cliffe found—one can derive Giant Steps, as well as “the Star of David or the Seal of Solomon, very pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism espe­cial­ly to ancient knowl­edge and the Afro­cen­tric and even­tu­al­ly cos­mic con­scious­ness direc­tion in which Coltrane would ulti­mate­ly lead on to with A Love Supreme.”

Sound too far out? On the oth­er side of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal spec­trum, we have physi­cist and sax play­er Stephon Alexan­der, who writes in his book The Jazz of Physics that “the same geo­met­ric prin­ci­ple that moti­vat­ed Einstein’s the­o­ry was reflect­ed in Coltrane’s dia­gram.” Like­wise, sax­o­phon­ist Roel Hol­lan­der sees in the tone cir­cle a num­ber of math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples. But, remain­ing true to Coltrane’s syn­the­sis of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and sci­ence, he also reads its geom­e­try accord­ing to sacred sym­bol­ism.

In a detailed explo­ration of the math in Coltrane’s music, Hol­lan­der writes, “all ton­ics of the chords used in ‘Giant Steps’ can be found back at the Cir­cle of Fifths/Fourths with­in 2 of the 4 aug­ment­ed tri­ads with­in the octave.” Exam­in­ing these inter­lock­ing shapes shows us a hexa­gram, or Star of David, with the third tri­ad sug­gest­ing a three-dimen­sion­al fig­ure, a “star tetra­he­dron,” adds Hol­lan­der, “also known as ‘Merk­a­ba,” which means “light-spir­it-body” and rep­re­sents “the inner­most law of the phys­i­cal world.” Do we actu­al­ly find such heavy mys­ti­cal archi­tec­ture in the Coltrane Circle?—a “’divine light vehi­cle’ alleged­ly used by ascend­ed mas­ters to con­nect with and reach those in tune with the high­er realms, the spirit/body sur­round­ed by counter-rotat­ing fields of light (wheels with­in wheels)”?

As the occult/magical/Kabbalist asso­ci­a­tions with­in the cir­cle increase—the numerol­o­gy, divine geom­e­try, etc.—we can begin to feel like Tarot read­ers, join­ing a col­lec­tion of ran­dom sym­bol­ic sys­tems togeth­er to pro­duce the results we like best. “That the dia­gram has to do with some­thing,” writes Mwam­ba, “is not in doubt: what it has to do with a par­tic­u­lar song is unclear.” After four posts in which he dis­sects both ver­sions of the cir­cle and pon­ders over the pieces, Mwan­da still can­not defin­i­tive­ly decide. “To ‘have an answer,’” he writes, “is to direct­ly inter­pret the dia­gram from your own view­point: there’s a chance that what you think is what John Coltrane thought, but there’s every chance that it is not what he thought.” There’s also the pos­si­bil­i­ty no one can think what Coltrane thought.

The cir­cle con­tains Coltrane’s musi­cal exper­i­ments, yet can­not be explained by them; it hints at the­o­ret­i­cal physics and the geom­e­try of musi­cal com­po­si­tion, while also mak­ing heavy allu­sion to mys­ti­cal and reli­gious sym­bol­ism. The musi­cal rela­tion­ships it con­structs seem evi­dent to those with a firm grasp of the­o­ry; yet its strange intri­ca­cies may be puz­zled over for­ev­er. “Coltrane’s cir­cle,” writes Fae­na Aleph, is a “man­dala,” express­ing “pre­cise­ly what is, at once, both para­dox­i­cal and obvi­ous.” Ulti­mate­ly, Mwam­ba con­cludes in his series on the dia­gram, “it isn’t pos­si­ble to say that Coltrane used the dia­gram at all; but explor­ing it in rela­tion to what he was say­ing at the time has led to more under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of his music and life.”

The cir­cle, that is, works like a key with which we might unlock some of the mys­ter­ies of Coltrane’s lat­er com­po­si­tions. But we may nev­er ful­ly grasp its true nature and pur­pose. What­ev­er they were, Coltrane nev­er said. But he did believe, as he tells Frank Kof­sky in the 1966 inter­view above, in music’s abil­i­ty to con­tain all things, spir­i­tu­al, phys­i­cal, and oth­er­wise. “Music,” he says, “being an expres­sion of the human heart, or of the human being itself, does express just what is hap­pen­ing. The whole of human expe­ri­ence at that par­tic­u­lar time is being expressed.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” Ani­mat­ed (Part II)

A New Mur­al Pays Trib­ute to John Coltrane in Philadel­phia

The Secret Link Between Jazz and Physics: How Ein­stein & Coltrane Shared Impro­vi­sa­tion and Intu­ition in Com­mon

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (7) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (7)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Damn Skippy says:

    Don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s a cir­cle of 4ths/5ths with each note flanked by its neigh­bors a half-step below and a half-step above. No big whoop.

  • Mark Lundy says:

    Anoth­er You Tube Video says

    pianomanpaul1 week ago
    The “Cir­cle of Fifths” only loops back on itself accu­rate­ly because we all agreed on Bach’s sug­ges­tion to even tem­per our instru­ments. So yes there’s amaz­ing physics involved, but not quite nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring.
    Coltrane did­n’t choose 5 octaves — that’s just what it takes if you fill in all the chro­mat­ic notes in the cycle of 5ths.
    We’ve defined cir­cles as hav­ing 360 degrees for years, prob­a­bly because ear­ly sci­en­tists fig­ured out the year had about 360

  • Philip DiTullio says:

    There real­ly is no mys­tery. These are the con­cepts of the Schillinger Sys­tem of Musi­cal Com­po­si­tion. Yuset Lateet stud­ied it in Detroit and the sym­met­ric sys­tem describes the Giant Steps pro­gres­sion. Schillinger fash­ioned his books after Einstein’s the­o­ries even namin­inf one of his books/ chap­ters the Spe­cial The­o­ry of Har­mo­ny.

  • Nolan Stolz says:

    Adding to what “Damn Skip­py” said about it mere­ly being the cir­cle of fourths/fifths with the half-step chro­mat­ic neigh­bors above and below, notice that every oth­er boxed note is placed on the out­er cir­cle (C, B‑flat, A‑flat, G‑flat, etc.) and the oth­ers are placed on the inner cir­cle (F, E‑flat, D‑flat, etc.). The sep­a­rates it the 12 notes into the two whole-tone col­lec­tions (inner cir­cle and out­er cir­cle). By adding the chro­mat­ic neigh­bors to the oppo­site cir­cle (e.g., “C” in the out­er cir­cle, and “B” and “C#” in the inner cir­cle), it retains the divi­sion of the two whole tone col­lec­tions. It seems to me that Coltrane’s dia­gram is illus­trat­ing that when going through the cir­cle of fourths/fifths and by skip­ping every oth­er one, you are in one whole tone col­lec­tion, and is illus­trat­ing that each notes chro­mat­ic neigh­bor is in the oth­er whole tone col­lec­tion.

  • Fred says:

    So you all have fig­ured it out, that’s nice. Myself I put on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and enjoyed a relax­ing evening.

  • noel says:

    What a load of total­ly base­less, mean­ing­less, mind­less non­sense about ” sci­ence, physics, “geo­cen­tric”, “etc. Ridicu­lous !

  • Lucas Gonze says:

    Coltrane’s think­ing was a well of insights. The clos­er you look, the more pat­terns emerge. It’s an incred­i­ble piece of music the­o­ry.

    To those who believe it was triv­ial… The dia­gram is a mir­ror, too.

    In my own writ­ing on it, I observe that the whole-tone pat­tern can be extend­ed to the oth­er sym­met­ric inter­vals, and draw 3‑ring, 4‑ring, and 5‑ring ver­sions:

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.