The size-exclusion chromatography (SEC) of acetone-soluble, pyridine-soluble and pyridine-insoluble fractions of a coal tar pitch indicates a bimodal distribution in each fraction. The proportion of high-mass material excluded from the SEC column porosity increases with solvent polarity. The polymer calibration of SEC shows the mass range of the small molecules to be from similar to 100 u to similar to 6000 u, with the mass range of the large excluded molecules above 200 000 u and up to several million u. In contrast, matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionisation mass spectrometry (MALDI-MS) shows a similar low-mass range of ion abundances (< m/z 6000), but with a smaller range of high-mass ion abundances, from similar to m/z 10 000 to 100 000. The large molecules may have three-dimensional structures to allow molecules of relatively low mass to behave as if they are of large size in SEC. Laser desorption mass spectrometry of the acetone- and pyridine-soluble fractions produced molecular ions of polycyclic aromatics that can be related to the known compositions from gas chromatography (GC) mass spectrometry. The experimental conditions used to generate the bimodal distribution by MALDI-MS involve reducing the ion signal intensities to avoid overload of the detector and enable detection of the high-mass ions, by reducing the high-mass detector voltage (i.e. sensitivity) and increasing the laser power. Copyright (c) 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.