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It’s been 50 years and we still don’t understand this circle drawn by John Coltrane

In 1967 legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane gave the below sketch to his friend Professor Yusuf Lateef. Straight away, musicians may recognise it as a circle of fifths, yet for half a century this drawing has been the subject of never ending scrutiny.

It belies a musical pattern that’s undefinably complex, and Coltrane was silent about it for most of his life.

john coltrane tone circle

What do you see in John Coltrane’s infamous tone circle? As of 2017, the sketch has been around for 50 years without being fully deciphered.

Since it was first published in Lateef’s book Repository of Scales and Musical Patterns, musicians all around the world have attempted to unravel its secrets. And the best they’ve done is guess.

While many scholars have dived into many of the responses to Coltrane’s circle, but the fact of the matter is that they are theories, and no defining solution has ever been gleaned.

In its simplest form it resembles a circle of fifths. Yet like any artist who expands our consciousness, Coltrane has built on mere simple music theory. 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 this hexagon, 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.” 

Thus, the circle acts as a key so that we might unlock the modal interplay, theoretical physics, and geometry of musical composition used by John Coltrane. However, if scholars are still confounded by the mysterious circle, I can’t imagine how Yussef Lateef must have felt when he first set eyes upon it.

So, what do you see in the circle?

Head here for a deeper dive on Coltrane’s circle.

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