John Coltrane’s global scales: what are they?


Bonus section to main article ‘Which Indian ragas was John Coltrane learning? Decoding his handwritten notes with master musicians of the East and West‘ – where we delve into some of his personal theoretical musings to identify which ragas he was studying, where he got them from, and what he might have been doing with them. Below are some more of his ‘global scales’ I found while researching…




I came across the following scales in Coltrane: A Biography – a poetic, politically-charged 1975 book by Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins (also a student civil rights activist, Harvard-trained doctor, and medical inventor). Page 113 includes a scan of Trane’s own handwritten scale notes, featuring 18 ascent patterns from around the world, all with vague, ‘exotic’, titles. He may have got them from a reference book of some kind, or from his own listening, or from friends and collaborators such as Yusef Lateef (more info on this soon – probably a mix of these).


When I get a minute I’ll add in some info on these mysterious scales – what they’re called in their own cultures, links to original recordings, thoughts on how we can use them elsewhere, etc. But for now, here are their exact shapes as notated in the book (the actual image is, I presume, under copyright), along with quick MIDI audio demos, and sargam equivalents for my Indian collaborators. I’ve grouped them by their (claimed) geographical region.


Pic RJ narrow





“Chinese [illegible]”: 1-2-3-5-6-[inkdot over likely 8] | SRGPD[S]


Chinese [illeg] NOTES



“Chinese”: 1-3-#4-5-7-8 | SGMPNS


Chinese [1] NOTES



“Japanese”: 1-b2-4-5-6-8 | SrmPDS


Japanese NOTES



“Balinese”: 1-b2-b3-5-b6-8 | SrgPdS


Balinese NOTES



Pic RJ narrow





Algerian”: 1-2-b3-#4-5-b6-7-8, 2-b3-#4 | SRgMPdNS, RgM


Algerian NOTES



“Egyptian”: 1-2-4-5-6-8 | SRmPDS


Egyptian NOTES



“Arabian [1]”: 1-2-b3-4-b5-b6-6-7-8 | SRgmMdDNS


Arabian [1] NOTES



“Arabian [2]”: 1-2-3-4-b5-b6-b7-8 | SRGmMdnS


Arabian [2] NOTES



“Persian [1]”: 1-b2-3-4-b5-b6-b7-8 | SrGmMdnS


Persian [1] NOTES



“Persian [2]”: 1-b2-3-4-b5-b6-7-8 | SrGmMdNS


Persian [2] NOTES



Pic RJ narrow





“Hungarian, Persian Gypsy”: 1-2-4-5-b7-8 | SRmPnS


Hungarian Persian Gypsy NOTES



“Hun[garian] Gypsy”: 1-b2-3-4-#4-5-b6-7-8 | SrGmMPNS


Hun[garian] Gypsy NOTES



“Hungarian”: 1-#2-3-#4-5-6-b7-8 | SgGMPDnS


Hungarian NOTES



“Neapolitan”: 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-7-8 | SrgmPdNS


Neapolitan NOTES



“Pentatonic”: 1-2-4-5-b6-8 | SRmPdS


Pentatonic NOTES



Pic RJ narrow





On the same page (113), Trane also lists the names of (but doesn’t notate) another 15 scales:

  • There are 7 “Church” modes: in order, the “Ionian – Dorian – Phrygian – Lydian – Mixolydian – Aeolian – Locrian“. “Church” points to their origins in old European liturgical music, but their modern forms are more closely associated with jazz.
  • And 8 “Greek” modes: the “Lydian – Phrygian – Dorian, [Svatino?]-Lydian – Ionian – Aeolian – Mixo-Lydian“. Despite near-identical names, these ancient Greek scales took different forms to those above. The names themselves are of geographical origin – the Dorians and Locrians were prominent local tribes, with the former being mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, while the Lydian and Phrygian peoples came from Anatolia in modern-day Turkey.

…and while we’re at it – the word ‘music’ itself comes from the ancient Greek mousikē (‘pertaining to the muses’, the daughters of Zeus and patrons of human creativity), originally denoting a complex, culturally-interwoven union of sounds, dances, and poems. And in turn, ‘muse’ (or moũsai) is thought to have ultimate origins in the Proto-Indo-European root word ‘*men-‘, meaning ‘to think’. (I wonder if Trane could easily trace things like this in the pre-internet era? I think they would have pleased him…)


Pic RJ narrow


—Read the main article here: Which Indian ragas was John Coltrane learning? Decoding his handwritten notes with master musicians of the East and West




“If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man – it’s that I want.” (John Coltrane, 1926-1967)


George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them.


—guitar & global music—

Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here!

everything here will remain ad-free and open access