Sheets of sound

Sheets of sound was a term coined in 1958 by Down Beat magazine jazz critic Ira Gitler to describe the new, unique improvisational style of John Coltrane.[1][2] Gitler first used the term on the liner notes for Soultrane (1958).[3]


Coltrane employed extremely dense improvisational yet patterned lines consisting of high speed arpeggios and scale patterns played in rapid succession: hundreds of notes running from the lowest to highest registers.[4] The lines are often faster than sixteenth notes, consisting of quintuplets, septuplets, etc., and can sound like glissandos.[5] The saxophonist invented this style while playing with Thelonious Monk and later developed it further when he returned to Miles Davis' group. Both leaders are known to have facilitated a free atmosphere where Coltrane was able to experiment on the bandstand.

Vertical approach

The saxophonist used the "sheets of sound" lines to liquidise and loosen the strict chords, modes, and harmonies of Hard Bop, whilst still adhering to them (at this stage in his musical development).[6] Playing with the Miles Davis groups, in particular, gave Coltrane the free musical space in which to apply harmonic ideas to stacked chords and substitutions.[7] Further, this open approach allowed Coltrane to arpeggiate three chords simultaneously, a style Monk initially taught Coltrane. The "three-on-one chord approach" gave the music a fluid, sweeping sound that was harmonically vertical.[6] Concepts of vertical (chordal) versus horizontal (melody) are key ideas in the work of George Russell, whom Coltrane had recorded with in September 1958.[8] This approach reflected Coltrane's fascination with third relations. Sometimes he used diminished chords, other times he used augmented chords. At times, Coltrane might use scales or licks in the passing keys instead of arpeggios. Coltrane employed these harmonic ideas during his "sheets of sound" stage in 1958. At other times, he would simply play rapid patterns of diminished-scales.[9]


The "sheets of sound" approach can be heard as early as the 1957 collaboration with Monk in solos like the one on "Trinkle, Tinkle" from the album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane.[4] Coltrane's live performance of "If I Were a Bell" with the Miles Davis sextet on September 9, 1958, well exemplifies his use of the "sheets of sound" during this stage of his career.[10] In "Trane on the Track", an article published on October 16, 1958 in Down Beat magazine, Coltrane spoke to Ira Gitler about the sheets of sound, telling him, "Now it is not a thing of beauty, and the only way it would be justified is if it becomes that. If I can't work it through, I will drop it."[2] Coltrane began using the style intermittently in 1959, preferring to incorporate it into his solos in a less abrupt manner.[10]

Selected recordings


  1. Hentoff, Nat (1960). "Liner notes for John Coltrane: Giant Steps (Deluxe Edition)". Rhino Entertainment. Archived from the original on 2002-08-17. Retrieved 2008-02-15. While he was with Miles, Coltrane was tagged with the phrase "sheets of sound." Jazz critic Ira Gitler had first used it. These "sheets of sound" were multinote hailstorms of dense textures that sound like a simultaneous series of waterfalls. "His continuous flow of ideas without stopping really hit me," Gitler said. "It was almost superhuman. The amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship."
  2. Gitler, Ira (1958-10-16). "'Trane On The Track". Down Beat. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
  3. Porter 1999, p. 319.
  4. Porter 1999, p. 111.
  5. Coltrane, John (1960-09-29). "Coltrane on Coltrane". Down Beat. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
  6. Coltrane 1960
  7. Porter 1999, p. 160. Coltrane states; "In fact, due to the direct and free-flowing lines of his [Davis's] music, I found it easy to apply the harmonic ideas that I had. I could stack up chords-say, on a C7, I sometimes superimposed an Eb7, up to an F#7, [resolving] down to an F. That way I could play three chords on one..."
  8. Porter 1999, p. 160.
  9. Porter 1999, p. 161.
  10. Porter 1999, pp. 132-134.


Further reading

  • Baker, David (1990). The Jazz Style of John Coltrane: A Musical and Historical Perspective. Warner Bros Publications. ISBN 0-7692-3326-0.
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