What are the Coltrane changes?

The "Coltrane Changes," also known as "Giant Steps" changes, refer to a harmonic progression that jazz saxophonist John Coltrane made famous through compositions like "Giant Steps," which appeared on the album of the same name released in 1960. This progression represents a significant departure from traditional jazz harmony and is considered one of the hallmarks of Coltrane's innovative approach to jazz improvisation and composition.

The essence of the Coltrane Changes involves a series of chord changes that move in major thirds, rather than the more common cycle of fifths used in many jazz standards. This creates a more rapid and complex harmonic rhythm, with the root of each chord moving up or down by a major third interval, leading to a pattern that can feel both unsettling and exhilarating due to its unconventional resolution paths.

The basic progression of the Coltrane Changes can be illustrated in the key of B major as follows:

  • B major 7 → D7 → G major 7 → B♭7 → E♭ major 7 → etc.

This progression divides the octave into three equal parts (major thirds), cycling through key centers that are a major third apart. The progression can be used in various ways within a composition, providing a challenging and engaging harmonic landscape for improvisation.

In "Giant Steps," Coltrane applies these changes as part of the tune's bridge, creating a rapidly shifting harmonic foundation that requires the soloist to navigate through three key centers (B, G, and E♭ major) at a brisk tempo. This has made "Giant Steps" and other compositions using the Coltrane Changes a rite of passage for jazz musicians, testing their ability to improvise over complex chord changes.

The Coltrane Changes have had a profound impact on jazz music, influencing generations of musicians and composers to explore more complex harmonic concepts and expand the boundaries of jazz harmony.

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