Coltrane’s Divine Tone Circle

“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.” – Thelonious Monk

The beautiful illustration above is full of mystery and intrigue. Is it a ferris wheel? Or some sort of esoteric symbolism? Indeed, it is both and more. This is a drawing by John Coltrane, legendary American jazz saxophonist and composer. It is his interpretation of a Tone Circle, which in music theory is a geometrical representation of relationships between the 12 pitch intervals of a chromatic scale. I will not be going into depth about music theory or what intervallic relationships Coltrane decided to emphasize here, but I simply wanted to show you the beauty of Math in Music.

Do you see the pentagram described within the circle? I want to discuss this a bit further and how it relates to Coltrane’s spirituality. The pentagram is a 2 dimensional representation of the star tetrahedron, also known as Merkaba — if you are familiar with sacred geometry you may have heard this term before. The Merkaba, which means “light-spirit-body”, is a visual/vibrational geometric shape that represents perfect equilibrium, and has been referred to as the “divine light vehicle” which exists in every being’s vibrational field, and can be attuned to for the purpose of connecting with higher realms. The Merkaba and the pentagram have been used by many religious and spiritual groups throughout time — it was first seen in ancient Sumeria, Greeece and Babylonia, and has been since used to express esoteric understanding by Wiccans, Christians, Jews, Satanists, Freemasons, and many more. I am discussing all of this because John Coltrane was a deeply spiritual man, and I believe that his personal expression of music theory, illustrated by his unique Tone Circle above, had everything to do with his own relationship with the divine

One of jazz’s most critically acclaimed recordings, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (Impulse! Records 1965), was a masterpiece of spiritual worship for Coltrane. In his liner notes, he included a poem that praises God. Coltrane was so deeply dedicated to his creator, to whom he gave all credit for the music which flowed through him, and I can’t help but look at his Tone Circle illustration and see praise. In a previous article, Music of the Spheres, I discussed Pythagoras’ interpretation of the intervallic relationships of musical pitches and how they describe the nature of the cosmos — Coltrane’s design is in the same class of philosophy: music, math, spirituality, and universal interconnectedness. Perhaps the perfect mathematical balance of music is the reason why it is one of the absolute most critical forces for unity and advancement of our human civilization. Coltrane’s Tone Circle certainly represents his esoteric vision of music and its relationship to the divine universe, where all things are connected through perfect, beautiful math.


Illustration found in The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe” by Stephon Alexander