Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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After the 1984 tour Zappa stopped touring each year, which he had by then done for twenty years. 1988 saw what would become his last "Broadway the hard way" tour. In 1990 it was already a public secret that he had cancer, and when its irrevocability had become clear, it was officially made public in 1991. The 1988 tour had a large band as well as a large program. The new material with politically inspired lyrics appeared on the "Broadway the hard way" CD from 1989; most of the other "cover" material of his known compositions from the tour appeared on two 2 CD releases, "The best band you've never heard before" and "Make a jazz noise here". To the right the five piece brass section of the 1988 band (still from the RTVE Barcelona live registration).

BarcelonaIt's sometimes said that Zappa's music contains parodies. It's difficult to say when something becomes a parody and when it's sincere. On "Cruising with Rubin and the Jets" the parody effect on doo-wop lies in the outspoken simplicity of the songs and the use of higher voices as of young teenagers. Zappa calls these songs parodies in "The real Frank Zappa book", but on the other hand, as he writes in the album liner notes, he really likes them. The parody effect is stronger when certain clichés are used out of context, as the traditional waltz motif at the end of the atonal composition "Pedro's dowry" on "Orchestral favorites" and "The London Symphony Orchestra". It sounds as a joke at this place. This effect is also present after the orchestral "Tuna sandwich" block on "200 motels", when "Lonesome cowboy Burt" starts with a country and western cliché. The lyrics of "Lonesome cowboy Burt" confirm the parody intention: they let Burt sing his about his unmannered and down to earth life. Zappa liked the brief use of clichés for their comic effect. "Lumpy gravy" contains some of them, like the stereotype parallel fourths Chinese tune included in that section.

Rhymin' man

Next is a section of another country and western song, "Rhymin' man" from "Broadway the hard way". This comic song is all about the use of clichés. Its first theme is a typical country and western tune. The second theme is a melody beginning with a motif comparable to the opening of "Lonesome cowboy Burt". Every two bars the melody gets interrupted by two bars, that each time contain another familiar sounding tune remindful of the showbusiness world. The song includes three of such blocks. "Rhymin' man" is in A and straightforward 4/4 for the lead melody. The interrupting bars can deviate from this by using altered notes and moving through various forms of syncopic figures. Showbusiness is also the subject of "Any kind of pain" and maybe the reason for the title of the CD.

Rhymin' man, section (midi file)

Rhymin' man, section (transcription).


The last musical trend Zappa paid attention to was rap. Because of its speech influence, rap has some stylistic characteristics of its own. The singers are arguing as in a sort of indictment, using only small intervals and keeping pace with a severe steady beat. Zappa contributed with "Promiscuous" on "Broadway the hard way", having Ike Willis arguing against the Aids speculations of Surgeon General Dr. Koop. It's entirely following the conventions of this style, but without a parody intent. The song is in D Mixolydian and begins with hammering the I 7th chord for beat 1 of bars 1-4. Next the singers enter into the picture with only a drum beat to accompany them.

Promiscuous, opening (midi file)

Promiscuous, opening (transcription).

Welcome to the United States

"Welcome to the United States" from the 1993 CD with the Ensemble Modern features an intro with traditional fanfare music. It sounds as a parody because of its context. The Ensemble Modern only plays modern music, also in case of Zappa, so let them play some fanfare music here sounds funny. It's standard fanfare music in Eb, beginning with a bar in 6/4 and next continuing in 4/4. The theme lasts eight bars. It gets repeated a couple of times in the backgroud, when the narrator starts to talk (bars 9-13, staff 1). The intro in total lasts till 1:08. At this point the composed score starts. So the intro was added to this piece during rehearsals. The composed part leaves a lot of space for improvisation. The text to be told by the narrator is set (Hermann in the case of the Ensemble Modern): it's the literal text from the immigration form, you have to fill in when you enter the U.S. as a non-resident. Neither the pitches or the rhythm are prescribed. Only the outlines of the accompaniment are indicated. On the CD you hear how the ensemble worked out the sample of the score, that's reproduced in the CD booklet. The sample coincides with 1:08-1:46 on the CD.

Welcome to the United States, 0:01-0:19 (midi file)

Welcome to the United States, 0:01-0:19 (transcription).
Welcome to the United States, 1:08-1:46 (score).

Many songs on "Broadway the hard way" have little parody effects in them. Like "the big old cadenza" in "Planet of the baritone women"; the parade music that follows upon "Do you believe in the invisible army?" in "When the lie is so big"; the striptease music that introduces "What kind of girl?", etc.

Any kind of pain

"Any kind of pain" however is about all conventional and has none of these effects. It's the most commercial song on the CD, but still has some complexities as changing keys and the adding in of two 7/8 bars. The song opens with a II 7th - I progression in F. In bar 15-16 it has arrived at B flat minor. The 7/8 bars cause an acceleration effect, a little stretto they would say in classical music. The set-up of "Any kind of pain" is the following verse - refrain construction, with a guitar solo functioning as the bridge:

0:00 Instrumental intro (bars 1-4 in the transcription below, the key is F till bar 8).
0:08 Motif 1 (bars 5-8).
0:19 Motif 2 (bars 9-10, modulation to G).
0:23 Motif 3 (bars 11-14, C minor).
0:33 Motif 4 (bars 15-17, Bb minor).
0:40 Main theme, played twice (bars 18-25, F Lydian).
0:59 Variation upon the main theme (bars 26-30 (with the little stretto), first with a chord alternation of Am-Bb, in its tail ending in A minor).

Any kind of pain, opening (midi file)

Any kind of pain, opening (transcription).

1:14 Instrumental intro.
1:23 Motif 1.
1:33 Motif 2.
1:38 Motif 3.
1:48 Motif 4.
1:55 Main theme, played twice.
2:13 Variation upon the main.
2:28 Guitar solo in F Lydian with the main chord progression I-VII. The bass is alternating F and E.
4:18 Instrumental intro.
4:27 Motif 1.
4:37 Motif 2.
4:41 Motif 3.
4:51 Motif 4, repeated three times in the form of a sequence, moving up a major second each time (in total a diminished fifth).
5:11 Main theme, played twice (following the previous sequence, the main theme also gets transposed up a diminished fifth, thus going from F Lydian to Cb Lydian).
5:30 Variation upon the main theme.
5:42 End.

Jesus thinks you're a jerk

The closing song of "Broadway the hard way", called "Jesus thinks you're a jerk", opens with an outspoken cliché theme. It sounds as a joke, as if a vaudeville show might begin. The entire song is a sequence of four blocks. The connection between the blocks is made by some cross references and, of course, the lyrics.
Block I:
During the first block the opening theme is repeated several times. Zappa keeps it interesting by adding extra phrases to this theme and varying it via different settings. The notes of the basic melody remain unaltered. The first example below is in C and one of these instances with the main theme being played. At 3:16 a second theme turns up before the main theme gets played one more time.
- 0:00 Theme A, instrumentally, lasting 13 seconds.
- 0:14 Pick up notes ("There's an ...").
- 0:17 Theme A, sung. Zappa inserts two little add-ins at 0:26-0:32 and 0:34-0:37. Combined these 10 seconds explain, why this instance of theme A sung lasts 23 seconds in total. The tempo has remained the same.
- 0:40 Theme A, instrumentally, with a different instrumentation.
- 0:53 Theme A, sung.
- 1:07 Theme A, instrumentally, similar to 0:40. Here's where the first example beneath starts.

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #1, 1:08-1:22 (midi file)

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #1, 1:08-1:22 (transcription)

- 1:20 Theme A, sung.
- 1:32 Variation upon theme A.
- 1:43 Theme A, instrumentally. The accompaniment and bass are now playing at double speed while the lead melody remains the same.
- 1:56 Theme A, sung, a little cut off at the end.
- 2:07 A longer add-in becomes a side theme ("To the bank..."), in some of its aspects related to theme A.
- 2:25 Theme A, instrumentally, with several of the repeating notes skipped. It thus sounds as slowing down, while at 1:43 it sounded as an acceleration. The same number of bars is still played during 13 seconds as at the beginning.
- 2:38 Theme A, sung, a little faster.
- 2:49 A repeated second side theme, also still being related to theme A. A couple of times the sung bars alternate with instrumental bars.
- 3:16 Theme B, sung ("Convinced they are..."). This is truly a new theme, played over an alternation of Em7 and Dm7. It's sung four times, the last time with some rhythmic variation in it.
- 4:02 Theme A, sung, no brass or keyboards this time.
- 4:12 The second side theme from 2:49 returns twice. Bars 1-6 from the second example below contain its tail with Zappa preparing the transition to Block II ("And now, ladies and gentlemen, ...").

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #2, 4:19-4:35 (midi file)

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #2, 4:19-4:35 (transcription)

Block II:
- 4:28 After Zappa has introduced Eric Buxton, this second block continues with Eric doing a little speech in a gloomy atmosphere. This surrounding is created via dissonants, a chromatic bass line and a diminished 5th chord in the background (if I hear it right). It follows a pattern lasting four bars with the bass lick of one bar returning every four bars and pausing in the other three. One might call this theme C. The midi file sounds a bit crappy here; it's hard to represent someone talking in midi format. Bars 7-12 from the second example are the opening of this block with Eric taking over from Zappa from bar 9 onwards.
Block III:
- 5:48 Theme D. When Eric has finished his speech, a more regular pop block follows. It begins with the main theme of this block, played over an alternation of Em7 and Fmaj7, the bass switching between C and F underneath it. In this block II this Em7 and Fmaj7 chord alternation, later on Am/Am7 and G, is more a constant factor than the pedal notes, that keep changing position.
- 6:11 Variations upon theme D.
- 6:30 Reference to block II.
- 6:33 Theme D returns as presented below, again with a reference to block II. This time the original Fmaj7 chord gets played before the Em7 chord and both chords get reduced. Without the F and E as root they become Am and G. Material from the second block returns in the interrupting bars 11-12 and 15-16.

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #3, 6:33-7:01 (midi file)

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #3, 6:33-7:01 (transcription)

- 6:55 Theme D once more, now with Am7 and G alternating and the bass switching between F and D as pedal notes.
- 7:07 Side theme ("Then surely...").
- 7:31 Variation upon theme D with the original Em7 and Fmaj7 alternation as at the beginning. At the end of the second repetition you shortly get to hear one of the many vaudeville like instrumental passages.
- 7:42 The side theme from 7:07 returns, followed by a coda for this block.
Block IV:
- 8:04 Theme E. At 8:04 a fourth block starts, again with a vaudeville like theme ("there's an old rugged cross"). This part thus refers to the opening as it comes to style.
- 8:15 As a closing for theme E, one of the various quotes of the "Louie Louie" progression can be heard, also mentioned in the Absolutely free section. Zappa liked to include this progression every once in a while in his compositions.
- 8:32 Coda.
- 8:56 Intermission of the show starts.
- 9:17 End

Other tracks from Broadway the hard way

- "Dickie's such an asshole": the original 1974 performance is included in the Roxy section of this study.
- "Why don't you like me?": this song is the "Tell me you love me" track from the Chunga's revenge section, with its lyrics adapted to Michael Jackson.
- "Outside now": the theme from this specific version is included in the Joe's garage section.
- "Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel": the theme from the 1984 version is included in the Does humor belong in music? section.

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