Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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After five years of relentless touring Zappa in 1969 disbanded the Mothers of Invention in their first line up. The band members were taken by surprise and accusations on both sides followed. According to Zappa their technical abilities weren't adequate for performance of his compositions and the band members accused Zappa of using their ideas without giving them credit. Some of them hold grudges until today. From the unreleased studio and live recordings two albums were compiled, "Burnt weeny sandwich" and "Weasels ripped my flesh", just as "Uncle Meat" and "Hot Rats" mainly instrumental albums. Both were released in 1970. For a completely live album from the sixties we have to wait until 1993, when "Ahead of their time" was released.

From these two albums I've taken some examples of atonal melodies. Though the concept of tonality is the main factor in harmonic analysis, its meaning is usually taken for granted. It depends much on the context of a text what the author means by it. Tonality is not such a clear concept as sometimes suggested, because it's a combination of features, that for this site I would describe in following order of importance as:
- The music uses (mainly diatonic) scales.
- The scales are applied in a stable unfragmentated way.
- The chords are 5th and 7th chords, occasional 9th chords, moving in a fluid way from chord to chord by having notes in common.
- The opening scale is also the ending scale.
- Harmonic cadences confirm the keynote.
You may as well use a different definition. But by describing tonality this way, it becomes better explainable that there's a large grey area between completely tonal and completely atonal. There's a big difference between Wagner's rapid shifting through keys and chromaticism, Debussy's extended chords (all combinations of scale notes, but avoiding the minor second) and his whole tone scale compositions and the calculated 100% atonality of Schoenberg. In the earlier mentioned compositions "Brown shoes don't make it" and "Uncle Meat main title", Zappa's inclination to make fast and sometimes abrupt key changes has been commented upon. Of the note examples of this section the first one still has a faint relationship with keys, the others are completely atonal.

Atonality is an integrate part of Zappa's music. He could use it at will in his rock compositions as well as his chamber music and orchestral works, sometimes combining tonality and atonality in the same piece of music. See also the table below for an overview of pieces with atonal sections in this study, being over sixty. The subject will come by in various other sections in this study like:
- Lumpy gravy: "I don't know if I can go through this again".
- Sequences: "Penis dimension", "Billy the mountain".
- The LSO - The perfect stranger.
- Drowning witch - Them or us.
- Jazz from hell: "Damp ankles".
- The yellow shark.

Piano introduction to Little house I used to live in

Piano introduction to Little house, #1, bars 6-9 (notes).

This fragment from "Piano introduction to Little House I used to live in" from "Burnt weeny sandwich" is a good example of tonal vagueness. The melody by itself is hardly tonal, but a relationship with keys is established in the chords that are played on this melody. The combinations (in major keys) are notes of C, notes of B, and a sort of mixture chord. This last arpeggio chord starts chromatically but then proceeds with notes of C. The album liner notes are ambiguous about whether band member Ian Underwood is its performer or also its composer. The "The Frank Zappa Songbook vol. I" takes away this doubt: composition and score are by Frank Zappa (see the credit information at the end).
The middle block of the "Piano introduction..." is an atonal chord progression. The whole piece is characterized by several kinds of chord progressions that are interval determined (compare the melodic line of the first section of "Uncle meat" from above). For instance the next three bars:

Piano introduction to Little house, #2 (midi file)

Piano introduction to Little house, #2 (notes)

Here the common element for the alternating notes in each of these three bars is a fifth plus fifth chord alternating with a fourth plus fourth chord or with a third plus fourth chord. There are several more comparable bars in the piece with intervals alternating. Just as in "five-five-FIVE" and the first section of "Uncle meat", traditional harmony is ignored. See also the "It must be a camel" example (Hot Rats section) and the "Put a motor in yourself" sections (Synclavier section) for non-traditional chords. Ian Underwood is playing this episode with refined expression on the album. Compared with his performance the midi file here is mechanical. For further reading about this piece you can look into chapters 44-45 and 51 of a dissertation by Ulrik Volgsten, called "Music, mind and the serious Zappa: the passions of a virtual listener". In this study Zappa's serious music is described as tending either to pastiche works or to guitar derivatives, with some works in the middle. The word "pastiche" is here used in the sense of a simple "sounding like" quality, thus an aspect of the music rather than a hard categorization. The piano introduction then belongs to the pastiche works in the sense that it bears reminiscences of various modern music pieces as described in chapter 51.

Ian Underwood

Ian Underwood looking at Zappa's score for "200 Motels" (around 1970) and playing "Piano introduction to Little house" during the Prague proms, 2016 (source

Igor's boogie - Eric Dolphy memorial party

The next three examples contain some bars from "Igor's boogie, phase I" as well as the opening bars of "Igor's boogie, phase II" and the "Eric Dolphy memorial party" from "Weasels ripped my flesh". All comprise counterpoint. The lines in the two "Igor's boogie" phases are all strictly prescribed. "Phase I" is present in the Songbook. The opening of "Phase II" below is transcribed by me and only an approximation. It has a leading melody in the first staff, around which the other parts are playing in a so-called hocketing style, little interrupted pieces of melodic material. It's difficult to hear what's exactly going on with irregular notes coming up from various angles. I also can't derive the meters with any certainty; below I've followed the lead melody for setting up a division to make it readable.
Rhythmically the "Eric Dolphy Memorial Party" example from below contains two strings with accelerations through a 3/4 meter by shortening the lengths of the notes, causing many syncopes (Ludwig study page 116). To what extend the bass line in this song is prescribed is debatable, my best guess is that Zappa wrote out the melody with per bar a bass pedal note (as he did in "The black page", that has been officially published). The bass player could then improvise along this pattern. Zappa has sometimes been accused of taking too much credit of the songs. "Weasels of ripped my flesh" is an album with a lot of improvisation, estimated at 80% by Zappa himself. But if you ask yourself if then it shouldn't be credited as a group effort, then you have to take into account that: in all rock and jazz music the writer of the basic themes gets the credit and the soloists never, Zappa himself is improvising on guitar, "Directly from my heart to you" is a cover and Zappa is the one directing, editing and compiling the album. Without the prescribed material it would have been a set of loose ends.

Eric Dolphy memorial party, opening (midi file)
Igor's boogie, phase I, opening (midi file)
Igor's boogie, phase II, opening (midi file)

Eric Dolphy memorial party, opening (transcription)
Bars from Igor's boogie, phase I (notes)
Igor's boogie, phase II, opening (transcription)

Kung Fu

According to the notes in the "Lost episodes" booklet by Rip Rense "Kung Fu" stems from the late sixties. He describes it as a "stalwart little polymetric piece composed in the late '60s, with acrobatic percussion passages handled with aplomb by the redoubtable MOI percussionist of the early-and-mid-'70s, Ruth Underwood". Another larger atonal composition from this time was "Some ballet music", that regrettably is only available on the "The Ark" bootleg from the "Beat the boots" series. In the case of "Kung Fu" the title can be taken literally. In martial arts the element of surprise is crucial. During the opening bars 1-5 of this piece each bar has its own characteristics, not referring to a previous bar. Within a bar there are various forms of relationships between the parts. In bar 1 there's a hammering on the F note, in bar 2 the bass movement from Db to C dominates etc. From bar 6 onwards the whole becomes more melodic for a longer period. "Kung Fu" was on the setlist for the Wazoo band, but not performed until late 1972, when the Roxy band got formed. It is this version that's present on "The lost episodes" and another one can be found on the "Piquantique" bootleg, with a live version from 1973. Peculiar is a keyboard part for "Kung Fu", that I found on the net. It's in Zappa's own handwriting. The strange thing about it is that it isn't actually included in the album versions. If you would play it separately, then you get the second example below. This keyboard part is even more erratic than the album version, just by itself there are few structure building elements in it. Only in bars 7-10 a pattern can be recognized. In the transcription of the album version bars 3-4 in 5/8 of the keyboard part are combined to one 5/4 bar, because that's the way the drummer is beating on the "Lost episodes".

Kung Fu (Lost episodes), opening (midi file)
Kung Fu (keyboard part), opening (midi file)

Kung Fu, opening (transcription)

My guitar wants to kill your mama

Next is an example from "Weasels ripped my flesh" (1970), where Zappa includes an atonal section in an interlude for a rock song. The construction of track 8 from this CD, "My guitar wants to kill your mama", gets described below. It begins with ticking rapidly on the G chord without the 3rd, a standard from the fifties comparable to the opening of "No, no, no". The lyrics also follow rock song topics, rather than being related to Zappa's own life (unless I've missed something in the biographies). The opening is ambiguous about its use of scales. In a wider context it should be seen as G Dorian, because the same set-up is used for the verse and refrain, appearing five times in total. The opening however mingles G Dorian for the sung part with G Mixolydian for the accompaniment, because both the Dorian Bb and the Mixolydian B are used. Specific for the opening is that Zappa puts an F beneath it as pedal note, while the sung part and the accompaniment are on G. All other instances are on G for everybody. The other official "My guitar" version from "YCDTOSA IV" doesn't have this lower note beneath it neither. There both the bass and melody begin in D Dorian. If you do take the F as keynote nevertheless, the opening would be in F major mingled with F Lydian, but seen the general construction of this song it can better be taken as an incidental variation.

- 0:00 Phrase 1 ("You know ..."), as described above.
- 0:26 Phrase 2 ("I get ..."). The song moves over to step IV of G Dorian, equal to step I of C Mixolydian for its continuation in phrase 3.

My guitar wants to kill your mama, 0:00-0:28 (midi file)

My guitar wants to kill your mama, 0:00-0:28 (transcription)

- 0:30 Phrase 3 ("I call ..."). C Mixolydian, now modulating briefly to D Mixolydian by moving up a second via parallels.
- 0:34 Phrase 1 ("My guitar ..."), G Dorian.
- 0:43 Phrase 2 ("My guitar ..."), step IV or C Mixolydian.
- 0:48 Phrase 3 ("I get ..."), D Mixolydian.
- 0:50 The melody modulates back to G Dorian.
- 0:52 Phrase 1 ("Later I ..."), G Dorian.
- 1:09 Phrase 2 ("I get ..."), step IV or C Mixolydian.
- 1:14 Phrase 3 ("I crawl ..."), D Mixolydian.
- 1:18 Section 1. Bar 1 of the transcription below is the last one from the previous verse. It gets followed by a bridge of three instrumental sections, that are unrelated to each other and the central themes, thus forming a little collage. Only a few of notes/chords facilitate the transitions. From bar 1 to 2 only the bass D pedal note continues for letting the interlude segue. Here it gets atonal and very irregular with intervals changing all the time (it's sometimes hard to hear the exact notes). Rhythmically it begins off-beat in bar 2, moving over to mostly on-beat for the next three bars. Two instruments are playing fast in high registers, so it has to be sped up to double speed.
- 1:27 Section 2. A melody in B minor. Due to the fact that the last two chords from the previous theme are relatively long held, this theme can begin as good as overnight. It's another example of a short irregular through-composed melody that can be following both traditional and untraditional chords. Beat 1 of bar 6 could for instance be interpreted as VII 9th and beat 3 as I 7th.

My guitar wants to kill your mama, 1:16-1:34 (midi file)

My guitar wants to kill your mama, 1:16-1:34 (transcription)

- 1:36 Section 3. Guitar solo in A Mixolydian.
- 1:53 The verse repeats like at 0:52.
- 2:19 The refrain repeats like at 0:34.
- 2:36 Guitar solo in G Dorian.
- 3:32 End.

The little house I used to live in, main theme

The examples above represent the three atonal works on "Burnt weeny sandwich". The remainder of this album contains music that uses diatonic scales. Next is the main theme from "The little house I used to live in". It starts of in D Mixolydian with the chord progression I-VII. The central theme last four bars and is played in two variants, that only differ from each other by one note: the first variant ends on C, the second on D. It's played four times in different setting. The whole - melody, bass and harmony chords - becomes a blending of I and VII. Bars 13-16 for instance are the VII 9th chord held for four bars. Whereas bars 1-23 are in standard 4/4, bars 24-31 of the transcription are rhythmically complicated. The main meter is 11/8, over which a second theme in 12/8 starts to glide (Ludwig study, page 122). The chord here is I 9th in F# minor (F#sus2 in staff 1 plus mostly the A in staff 2). The bass makes a chromatic countermovement: F-G natural.

The little house I used to live in, main theme (midi file)

The little house I used to live in, main theme (transcription)


This last example is one of the many examples that demonstrate that Zappa treats Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian as equally important as major and minor. Maybe even more important given the fact that he seldom plays a solo in major or minor. The following is an overview of the number of times types of scales are used in all examples in this study:

- Major/Ionian92
- Dorian122
- Phrygian14
- Lydian56
- Mixolydian115
- Minor/Aeolian54
- Locrian4
- Varying rapidly/floating76
- Pentatonic3
- Gypsy scale1
- Indian scale1
- Whole-tone scale3
- Self-created scales2
- Atonal/chromatic78

Table of keys per song (Html page).
Table of keys per song (Excel sheet).

It doesn't lead to big conclusions. There's a tendency to prefer Dorian over minor, both for Zappa's music in general and for the guitar solos. These are the two regular modal scales with a minor third. The uncommon Phrygian scale gets used every now and then, but not frequently. As it comes to the major type of scales the following order is Mixolydian - major - Lydian. For the solos Mixolydian and Lydian approach each other, while major moves to the background. The table contains the keys per song in the following order as they appear in in this study. It deals only with the keys in the transcribed bars. In a few instances Zappa is indecisive about a note being natural/sharp/flat or about the pedal note, so for a couple of cases one might choose for a different scale. It wouldn't affect the general idea. The keynote in Zappa's music is often determined by bass pedal notes, to a lesser extent via harmonic cadences. In many cases the scales are changing thus rapidly, that I didn't assign the corresponding bars to individual keys. It can be opened as a normal html webpage or as an Excel sheet.

Other tracks from Burnt weeny sandwich

The "Overture to a Holiday in Berlin" and "Holiday in Berlin", full blown, get dealt with in the Movie scores section. "Aybe sea" is an instrumental for piano and guitar. Zappa wrote little music for piano solo. The introductions from "Aybe sea" and "The little house I used to live in" are the only examples on CD from his early career. The later works "Ruth is sleeping" and "Piano" are synclavier music executed as piano pieces. "WPLG" and "Valarie" are covers.

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