You may have seen a mystic-looking circle floating around lately. In an interview with Open Culture, Stephon Alexander, a physicist and saxophonist who merges both the scientific and musical worlds together, explains that the image is called the “Coltrane circle,” an illustration done by the late musician that feels similar in many ways to the classical circle of fifths. 

For those that dozed in music class, the circle of fifths represents a shortcut songwriters use to understand the relationship between a piece of music’s major keys and their relative minor keys.

Photo: The "Coltrane circle;" Yusef Lateef

Coltrane’s above drawing was given to professor and musician Yusef Lateef in 1967; he studied the figure and included his findings as well as the illustration in his Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns book.

Musician and blogger Roel Hollander claims that “all musicians are subconsciously mathematicians," and that “musicians like John Coltrane ... have been very much aware of the mathematics of music and consciously applied it to his works.” 

Although Coltrane himself never explicitly explained the circle, some believe that it was created in an attempt to bind Einstein's theories to music, particularly as it is known that the musician incorporated the same geometric principles said to have inspired Einstein’s quantum theory in his work.

While we may never know exactly how Coltrane used his circle, now seems like as good a time as any to revisit one of his masterpieces.