Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

Main menu


This study has been looking at the musical component of Zappa's output through note examples, trying to find out what some of its characteristics are. Examples in this study all across Zappa's career have dealt with the following topics:


- Zappa uses all types of scales. He applies the normal major and minor scales, as well as their modal variants and occasionally the pentatonic scale or a self-created one. He allows all kinds of chromatic passages. The Burnt weeny sandwich section gives an overview.
- In various compositions the scales are changing rapidly ("Sleep dirt", "Punky's whips").
- The tonal structure ranges between easy continuingly repeated progressions ("Cheap thrills") and completely atonal music ("Mo 'n Herbs vacation").


- For his melodies he uses the regular 5th and 7th chords as well as larger unusual ones like 11th chords. The Zoot allures section gives a short overview. Some examples of conventional chord progressions are "You're probably wondering why I'm here", "Cheap thrills" and "Doreen". Progressions via larger chords are for instance "It must be a camel", "Duck duck goose" and "Five-five-FIVE".
- The same applies for chords formed by melodic lines. "Put a motor in yourself" is an example of a piece where strings of notes form enlarged chords. The opening of "Why Johnny can't read" represents a 13th chord in the form of an arpeggio.
- Some examples of harmonic fields are given, where Zappa is mingling as good as all notes of a scale ("9/8 Objects", "The mammy nuns", first bar of "Uncle Meat"). Such examples resume Zappa's attitude to harmony: I can do whatever I want without any restriction.
- Examples of atonal chords can for instance be found in the "Mo 'n Herbs vacation", "The perfect stranger" and "Sinister footwear I" examples.


- Apart from the standard 3/4 and 4/4 meter, Zappa uses a wide variety of odd meters. They range between 7/8 in "The legend of the golden arches" and very uncommon ones like 33/32 in "Punky's whips". The Roxy section gives an overview.
- His use of meters can be either stable throughout a song, changing every now and then, or changing frequently.
- The Ludwig study, chapter 4.1, gives some examples of how Zappa uses meters as an element to give structure to a song (not included in this study).
- The Roxy section lists some examples of simultaneously using two meters.


- A desire for rhythmic variation is very persistent in his music. The Roxy section gives some general outlines.
- Part of his music follows normal rhythmic patterns. Another part demonstrates complicated syncopic figures within a meter ("Another whole melodic section", "Down in the dew").
- Some of his compositions are full of irregular groupings. "The black page" has become his best known effort in this area.
- Zappa himself described his rhythms as speech influenced. "The ugliest part of your body" (bars 13-16) and "Wild love" are two of the examples in this study.


- Part of his output contains the standard pop-music thematic structure in the form of a two or three time alternation with a solo in between.
- There are examples of songs that have a scent of classicism (see the orchestral favorites section).
- Some of his songs contain a multitude of themes ("Brown shoes don't make it", "Bwana dick").
- Part of his output is through-composed.
- The variety in structures can be demonstrated via the list at the end of the One size fits all section.


- The guitar solos constitute a body of work by themselves. Other than his written compositions the solos are more forming a stylistical unit.
- In some cases Zappa used a transcribed solo as the basis for a composition ("While you were art II", "Sinister footwear III").
- For his guitar solos, contrary to his other compositions, he likes to keep using the notes of one scale, of which the keynote is given by the accompaniment. His solos are mostly in Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian.
- He likes to play over two alternating chords, pedal notes and vamps. Solos over chord progressions are less frequent.
- His preferred meter for soloing is 4/4, though uncommon ones as the 9/8 and 12/8 alternation in "Trance-fusion" happen too.


- The variety in styles and sound in Zappa's music is flabbergasting. He wrote for smaller and bigger rock groups and jazz ensembles, chamber orchestras and larger orchestras. The same composition could be arranged for any of these categories.
- Zappa's styles cover as good as all regular styles from the 20th century, ranging between jazz, main stream pop and unconventional rock music, as well as between tonal and atonal chamber music and orchestral works. Some styles are used frequently, others only touched upon, as tangos, disco and rap.


Some preferences in his music have been commented on:
- A lot of his music is based upon the single melodic line. In pieces as "Uncle meat", "King Kong" and "The black page" the lead melody is written out in detail. The chords to be used are indicated by their symbols and the bass is indicated via pedal notes. These harmonies and bass could be filled in in a different way for every tour anew.
- He doesn't apply a lot of counterpoint.
- He likes sudden changes.
- He prefers music on an emotionally abstract level, meaning not less emotional than other kinds, but difficult to translate into words.
- The instrumentation is functional for playing the notes of the music.
- Zappa uses different combinations of amplified and acoustical instruments.

Hardly any rules apply to his music and the preferences just mentioned have their exceptions:
- There are sections with an explicit role for chord progressions. They can be using regular chords as well as ignoring traditional harmony.
- Various examples have been given of different types of counterpoint.
- Some of his songs can be clearly emotionally identified.


So the picture we get is a very rich one, making it impossible to say what's typically Zappa. It is true that melodies that are rhythmically and harmonically irregular have the effect of sounding Zappa-esque, but in Zappa's music this can go into all directions without losing coherence and it doesn't apply to all of his music. He refused to let any stylistic or technical boundaries play a role in his music, thus bringing together the different directions music has been taking in the last decades. Apparently this was a natural process for him ( Zappa himself talked about a "conceptual continuity"). The early theme from "Run home, slow" of 1963 for instance already shows the combining of modern harmony with a jazz styled rhythm. It's not to say he has done everything: he has for instance never applied the classical sonata form with various movements. His conceptual continuity is not a musical style, but an attitude like another famous expression of his: anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all (AAAFNRAA).

This study doesn't lead to big conclusions or grand theses that position Zappa's oeuvre in music history. One may see this as superficial or a lack of insight, but that's really the outcome that keeps coming back whether I had transcribed 30 or 300 examples. If I was to postulate a thesis, it would be: any thesis about Zappa's music in general is doomed to fail.

Another statement would be that Zappa belongs to the big guys in music history, otherwise I wouldn't be spending so much time on it. Musical analysis in the last resort however cannot serve as proof for the quality of music. It can only comment on someone's technical capacities and from this study can be concluded that Zappa's technical abilities are high. Quality also comprehends the creativity and uniqueness by which someone is applying his technical components. That is more a matter of common opinion among music lovers, that takes some time to crystallize. I have the impression that Zappa's doing okay in this process.


In recent musicological studies and academic studies in general one is expected to come up with theses and theories. Just investigating and describing, as Ludwig did, doesn't seem to be enough anymore. Combined with the obligation of investigators working at universities to publish material, one might ask if things haven't been pushed too far. What seemed to be a good idea at first, this pressure has also led to feeble theories, biased presentations of facts and even fraud.
This study is of the old-fashioned descriptive kind, looking unacademic for its lack of associations with other composers, theories, movements etc. The reason for this is not that this couldn't be done, but because the outcome of this study is that Zappa didn't belong to a school, nor did he develop a particular style. His music is eclectic for its influences and unpredictable as it comes to adding new ingredients. The size of this study, being 1,000 pages, could easily be blown up to 10,000 pages by adding comparisons. Just to suggest a number of connections:
- Bach: ongoing variations of motifs (like Bach, preludes 1 and 2 from the well-tempered clavier book I, and Zappa, Marque-Son's chicken).
- Mozart, Beethoven: classicism (sonata-like constructions, variations of themes).
- Wagner: shifting through scales and chromatic passages, as well as through-composed music.
- Debussy: love of non-tradional chords within a diatonic environment and non-conventional means of structuring compositions.
- Stravinsky: love of changing meters and odd meters.
- Varèse: free atonality and instrumentation, in particular the importance of percussion sections.
- Duke Ellington and many more: arranging music for jazz ensembles.
- George Russell and his Lydian chromatic concept: see the left menu of this study, this one has been worked out.
- Johnny Guitar Watson and many fifties artists: interest in blues and doo-wop.
- The Beatles, Abba, Fleetwood Mac and many more: interest in mainstream pop music.
- Jimi Hendrix: soloing over vamps, as Hendrix did on the Band of gypsies.
- The Rolling Stones and many more: interest in rock and riffs.
I've largely refrained from doing this. It's unlimited. Anyone can decide for him- or herself if such comparisons are illuminating. If Zappa did belong to schools and when he did participate in movements, positioning him in a musicological-historical context via comparisons would make sense. If not, then unpolitely said it could also be called quasi-intellectual filler material. Apart from that it's not decisive. Bottom line is that composers aren't famous for their influences, it's based upon the merits of the music itself.

Back to the menu