Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Orchestra In 1975 Zappa hired a group of session musicians to form the 37-piece Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Orchestra with Michael Zearott conducting (photo to the left taken from the "Quaudiophiliac" DVD by the ZFT). He did two live concert evenings with them including himself on guitar and the rhythm section of his rockband. The recordings landed mostly on "Orchestral favorites", but some sections also on "Studio tan". Their release got delayed because of his clash with Warner Bros. (see the New York section). "Studio tan" appeared in 1978 and, when he was back in business again in 1979 with "Sheik Yerbouti", Warner Bros. released these last "Orchestral favorites" tapes they had in their closet with a non-informative low budget album cover, four years after their recording. Zappa himself called the album "ill fated". With this CD he mostly returned to earlier compositions from "200 Motels" as he would do again later on with the "LSO Vol. II" album of 1987. "Orchestral favorites" never has received much attention, partly because the compositions all returned on later albums with a higher sound quality (except for "Duke of prunes"). But by itself there is nothing wrong with this album, quite the contrary.

1-2. Strictly genteel - Pedro's dowry

In the "200 Motels" closing piece "Strictly genteel" the variations form is used with "Lord have mercy..." as the central theme. See the London Symphony Orchestra section for a number of variations upon this theme (harmonically as well as using counterpoint). "Strictly genteel" re-appeared on the "Orchestral favorites" and "L.S.O. vol. II" albums. "Pedro's dowry" also returned on the "L.S.O. vol. I" album. An excerpt is also presented in the L.S.O. section of this study.

3. Naval aviation in art?

"Naval aviation in art?" knows two versions, one on "Studio tan" and one on "The perfect stranger" from 1984. They are pretty different regarding their details. Both versions are being dealt with in the Them or us section of this study.

4. Duke of prunes

On "200 Motels"/"Orchestral favorites"/"LSO Vol. II" there are some examples of the use of forms that you might call "classic". We'll take a look at a sonata movement, a rondo and the variations form. The term sonata form can either refer to a piece for one or two instruments made up of several movements or to the construction of a single movement. Zappa didn't do the first, but "Duke of prunes" ultimately developed into something of a sonata movement in the second meaning of the word in three stages. Theme A of the 1975 movement is the "Original duke of prunes" from the "Run home slow" soundtrack for a small chamber ensemble. In this soundtrack it's played over the I 7th and II 7th chords of A Dorian alternating. "Duke of prunes" returned twice. On "Absolutely free" in a rock band version with additional themes and lyrics like the section below, that represents half of the B theme in E Dorian. Then in 1975 it's turned into an instrumental sonata movement with some freedom. Here it's played by wind instruments, brass and a rock combo of four persons (guitar, bass, percussion and drums). The third section below is from this 1975 execution, beginning with one of the guitar intermezzi from the block in the middle, followed by the orchestra playing.

Original duke of prunes, 1963 (midi file).
The duke of prunes regains his chops, 1967, section (midi file).
Duke of prunes, 1975, 2:55 till 3:20 (midi file).

Original duke of prunes (transcription).
The duke of prunes regains his chops, section (transcription).
Duke of prunes, 1975, 2:55 till 3:20 (transcription).

The construction of the 1975 version goes as:
- 0:00 Theme A
- 0:41 Theme B
- 1:16 Theme C
- 1:28 Middle section, guitar solo
- 2:07 ,, , orchestra and guitar intermezzi
- 3:24 Theme A returns
- 4:03 Coda

At the beginning theme A is played over a little vamp with G and A alternating as bass pedal notes. These two alternating bass notes return as the accompaniment basis for the guitar solo, one of Zappa's favorite undergrounds for playing a solo (see also the Shut up 'n' play yer guitar section). Other examples that relate the middle block to the opening themes are for instance:
- The motif E-G sharp-F sharp of theme B ("And I know,...") returns at 2:45.
- The opening motif of theme C (F-G-A flat, "And so my darling...") returns slowly at 3:05, followed by a downgoing fourth, that's so characteristic of theme A.
- The triplet time at 0:59 returns at 3:17.
The transcribed section begins with a little solo section of 8 bars over a bass lick playing around a G#-B-D movement. The key is G# minor or Phrygian (there's no A or A# to determine which one it is). Next the brass re-enters and the guitar starts feedbacking for some bars. The band modulates to a different scale. The bass pedal note in bars 10 and 16-17 is F, so you could say this part is in F minor. Or with the first chord being Bb you could say it starts in Bb Dorian, but the changing bass notes don't let any note really function as key note. In bar 18 the piece modulates again, now to E. The incomplete ending bar of the transcription marks another transition to C Lydian.

On "200 Motels", disc 1, tracks 14-18, the rondo set up is used with "She painted up her face" as the central theme (see the 200 Motels section for this theme). Musically as well as lyrically this is a clearly rounded off story about a groupie preparing herself for going out (numbers are the track numbers):
- 14. 0:00. Theme A: She painted up her face.
- 14. 1:06. Theme B: The secret stair she could use.
- 15. 0:00. Theme C: Janet's big dance number.
- 16. 0:00. Theme A: The clock upon the wall.
- 16. 0:45. Theme D: Half a dozen provocative squats.
- 17. 0:00. Theme E: Mysterioso.
- 18. 0:00. Theme A: She chooses all her clothes.
- 18. 1:00. Theme F: Shove it right in.

5. Bogus pomp (1975)

In the "200 Motels" closing piece "Strictly genteel" the variations form is used with "Lord have mercy..." as the central theme. See the counterpoint section for a variation with counterpoint upon this theme. "Strictly genteel" reappeared on "Orchestral favorites" and "LSO vol. II" albums, as well as the "Tuna sandwich" suite (disc I, tracks 4-8 from "200 Motels"). The latter in a new jacket with additions and a different sequence. It got renamed as "Bogus pomp"; the LSO version also includes the "Overture" and "Centerville". I'm taking some sections from this composition to give some examples how Zappa could use variations. The main theme below, "This town is a sealed tuna sandwich (prologue)", is introduced slowly with lyrics as song 4 on disc I of "200 Motels".

This town is a sealed tuna sandwich, prologue (midi file).

This town is a sealed tuna sandwich, prologue (transcription/score).

There are some differences between the sheet music and the album version. Zappa notated the "Prologue" in 2/4 with the eighth note as basic time unit. It has in its header a tempo indication "Slow, rubato". The piece is indeed performed in a rubato way, the tempo isn't constant all through. I've added the metronome tempos at various points in the transcription all above according to how it's performed on record. Again, as in "Nun suit" from the earlier "200 Motels" section, during the actual recordings for "200 Motels" some modifications upon the score were made. The holding of the notes "We get a ..." and "I think we ..." was skipped, they are sung as normal eight notes. On the other hand the ritenuto effect wasn't prescribed. The held fourth and eighth notes for "Glued", "Tour" and "(Be-)fore" are notated via normal half notes in my transcription, but that duration could very well be a coincidence, in the sense that holding them augmented them to more or less the duration of half notes. Due to the rubato it becomes difficult to say what's the best notation. Notable is that on record a Db and a Bb in the bass were added as pick up notes for restarting singing after the held notes. The actual accompaniment is less elaborate than as notated. Maybe I'll look into this again and include a literal midi file of the original score version as well in a future update.

This main theme gets varied upon on several occasions. Beneath are three of its re-appearances in "Bogus pomp": first its reintroduction, then an atonal piano variation and thirdly how it's used during the coda.

Bogus pomp, tuna sandwich theme (midi file).
Bogus pomp, tuna sandwich piano variation (midi file).
Bogus pomp, tuna sandwich coda variation (midi file).

Bogus pomp, sections (transcription).

"This town is a sealed tuna sandwich (prologue)" is atonal. The first and third variation below are diatonic however, in E and D respectively. In the third example the D by the bass guitar dominates the lower register for “Orchestral favorites”, but there’s also a G chord in the background. It’s hard to hear how this chord is positioned straight from record. On the LSO version the D dominates less and it looks like the B of this chord is the pedal note, or possibly the G. The piano variation is also present in this study in the shape of a re-orchestration for strings as the "Bogus pomp" (1983) example in the L.S.O. section. "Dance of the just plain folks" is another section from "Bogus pomp", that I'm dealing with in the Fillmore East 1970 section.


1. Greggery Peccary

From the start of his career Zappa was interested in combining music and literature in the shape of opera's, movies and stories set to music. In 1964 he was busy with the little opera "I was a teenage maltshop" and the "Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt people" movie. Both projects remained unfinished. Such ideas of combining music and texts exist in classical music in various forms as for instance in symphonic poems, but are rare in rock music. Zappa did two stories put to music as one bigger piece, namely "Billy the mountain" from "Just another band from L.A." and "Greggery Peccary" from "Studio tan". Both have one ongoing story, but musically they are constructed completely different. Whereas "Billy the mountain" has central returning themes, "Greggery peccary" is a sequence of some 25 short individual compositions, which are mostly unrelated. Both pieces have their advantages and disadvantages. "Billy the mountain" is the better unity, but "Greggery Peccary" has far more music to it. There are quite some things that Zappa did once and only once in his career and "Greggery Peccary" is one of them. Included below are three transcribed fragments. The first one is the opening theme, that returns two times. The second one is modern atonal music in 7/8 with two and three part counterpoint. Both are a mix of diatonic material from various scales and chromatic movements. The last one includes the New brown clouds central theme in G, that lasts 10/8 and gets repeated three times over a two bar vamp in 6/8. So you get these two melodies gliding over each other.
The sequence of the little compositions in this piece generally goes as below, and can roughly be grouped into four blocks. That is to say if you follow the musical styles and themes on "Studio tan". In 2007 the ZFT released "Wazoo" with a booklet, written by Zappa himself, that includes the plot as it existed in 1972. "Greggery Peccary" was first designed as a little ballet, divided into six scenes. Zappa at that time give it little chance of being realised. In this particular form "Greggery Peccary" indeed didn't get staged, though it needs little imagination to visualise the narration from "Studio Tan" in your mind. For the Wazoo tour he took out four pieces of music separately. Doing so it has thus become entirely instrumental on "Wazoo" and the correspondence of the four movements on that CD with "Studio tan" is added below. The "Swifties, such big swifties..." part originally stems from "Farther O'blivion", another 1972 composition, as released on "Imaginary diseases". See the corresponding Imaginary diseases section for the brass band set-up of this piece from that year.

Image to the right: part of the 1995 drawing by Gary Panter for the current CD release, copyright ZFT.

drawing by Gary PanterI    Greggery on his way to office. This block opens with the "Greggery Peccary" theme, that returns twice.
It's about all modern music in this block.

- 0:00     "Greggery Peccary" theme (Wazoo: Mvt. I, 0:00-0:17).

Greggery Peccary, opening bars (midi file).

Greggery Peccary, opening bars (transcription).

- 0:18     Introduction of "Greggery Peccary" with modern music (Wazoo: Mvt. I, 0:18-1:29, only some motifs correspond).
- 1:08     Modern instrumental section I.
- 2:28     "Greggery Peccary" theme, variation I (Wazoo: Mvt. I, 1:30-1:38).
- 2:38     Modern instrumental section II (Wazoo: Mvt. I, 1:39-2:38).
- 4:08     "Greggery Peccary" theme, variation II.
- 4:15     Narration about trendmongers with modern music.
- 4:49     Narration about trendmongers continues with a medley.
- 5:19     Modern instrumental section III.

Greggery Peccary, modern music fragment (midi file).

Greggery Peccary, modern music fragment (transcription).

II    Big Swifty and associates. This block is rock music throughout.

- 5:52     A normal rock vamp with Zappa talking.
- 6:23     "Swifties, such big swifties...", pop themes.
- 7:42     Second rock vamp with Greggery taking over the narration.
- 8:06     "We've got the little answers...", pop themes.
- 8:31     Third rock vamp with a text about inventing the calendar.

III    The response to the calendar. This part has no specific musical tendencies; it's the story about how people are affected by the calendar with all kinds of styles.

- 9:07     "Sunday, Saturday...", narration with modern music (Wazoo: Mvt. II).
- 10:21    "Unfortunately some people...", narration with a medley of rock phrases.
- 12:37    Modern instrumental section IV mixed with jazz (Wazoo: Mvt. III).

IV    New brown clouds. This part has a central "New brown clouds" riff and theme.

- 14:52    "New brown clouds" riff with narration (Wazoo: Mvt. IV, 0:00-0:38).
- 15:32    "New brown clouds" main theme (Wazoo: Mvt. IV, 0:39-0:52).
- 15:48    Rock progression with Greggery calling a philosopher (Wazoo: Mvt. IV, 0:53-1:22).
- 16:22    Zappa takes over introducing Quentin Robert Denameland.
- 16:45    Quentin speaks with some modern music (Wazoo: Mvt. IV, 1:23-2:35, only some motifs correspond).
- 17:07    "New brown clouds" riff with a mix of modern music and jazz (Wazoo: Mvt. IV, 2:35-3:28).
- 18:00    Modern instrumental section V, the riff has vanished and the modern music continues (Wazoo: Mvt. IV, 3:28-4:28).
- 19:04    "New brown clouds" variations (Wazoo: Mvt. IV, 4:28-6:05, coda has some extra bars).

Greggery Peccary, New brown clouds fragment (midi file).

Greggery Peccary, New brown clouds fragment (transcription).

- 20:34    End.

2. Music for low budget orchestra

Music for low budget orchestra"Studio tan" was recorded during 1974-1975 with pieces by the rockband and sections with the above orchestra. The next examples stem from the introduction to "Music for a low budget orchestra". The chronology of this piece goes as follows:
- Composed in the late sixties at the time of the "Lumpy gravy" sessions.
- Premiere recording on a Jean-Luc Ponty album of 1970 (Jean-Luc Ponty plays the music of Frank Zappa).
- In 1971 the intro was part of the touring program with Ian Underwood playing the melody on clarinet.
- The score of the intro is published in 1973 in The Frank Zappa songbook, vol. I (1971 touring version).
- In 1975 it was recorded in total in the studio by a small orchestra plus some electric instruments (the same ensemble that did the "Orchestral favorites" tracks).
- This 1975 recording premiered on the 1978 release "Studio Tan", the official Zappa version.
- The 1971 live version of the intro in 1992 became included in "Playground psychotics".
- The complete score is nowadays available via Barfko Swill (see the scores section). The Ensemble Modern included this piece in their 2003 CD "Greggery Peccary and other persuasions".

Music for low budget orchestra (Orchestra version), bars 1-10 (midi file).
Music for low budget orchestra (Playground psychotics), bars 9-15 (midi file).

Music for low budget orchestra, bars 1-10 (notes).
Music for low budget orchestra, bars 12-14 (notes).

The opening bars of "Revised music for low budget orchestra" contain a lead melody, played over enlarged chords. In the Songbook these chords for bars 1-14 are notated as the following progression (with the bass pedal notes as tonic):
- bars 1-6: Bb Mixolydian with Bb13.
- bars 7-8: B minor with B11(-13).
- bar 9: C Mixolydian with C13.
- bar 10-11: C# minor or Dorian with C#m7add6.
- bars 12-14: D Phrygian with D+7(b9).
They are played in the manner of the second example above (on CD: the "Playground psychotics" version). Zappa's handwritten orchestra version (sample of bars 1-6 to the left) spreads these same chords out over the orchestra. This orchestra is made up of 22 parts, a normal size. The term low budget can be explained by the fact that there's only one member per part instead of sections. So you don't hear a string section on "Studio tan" but a string quartet. The score to the left was auctioned on internet recently and probably stems from the "Orchestral favorites" sessions. It's in Zappa's handwriting. For the actual performance on the album however, he eventually decided to strip down the score to its basics, being the lead melody plus drumset. So this sheet version in this specific form hasn't been available on album yet. It really sounds orchestral this way. The version that the Ensemble Modern is playing comes nearest (included in their "Greggery Peccary and other persuasions" CD from 2003). That one however is an Ali Askin arrangement of the original score, done specifically for this ensemble. The second example stems from "Playground psychotics". The bars here contain two ninetuplets; it's a jazz styled figure with the piano playing eight notes just behind the third beat of the accompaniment. These bars are the 1971 version from "Playground psychotics" as printed in the Songbook (Ian Underwood on sax and with the keyboard accompaniment).

3. Lemme take you to the beach

The lead melody of themes I and II from "Lemme take you to the beach" are present in the Ludwig study on page 269 (see the references), while I've transcribed part of the interlude with all parts in it. It's the only piece on "Studio tan" that you can call a pop-song. At some points it sounds as a pastiche work, at other points it can get pretty volatile. The romantic lyrics at the beginning with just la-la-la added to it are very unusual for Zappa.

Lemme take you to the beach, opening, lead melody (transcription).

Its construction goes as:
First exposition of themes I-III.
- 0:00 Instrumental opening with a I-II alternation in A Dorian.
- 0:06 Theme I, phrase I, with the accompaniment continuing with the I-II alternation (bars 1-4 from the first transcription).
- 0:13 Theme I, phrase II. The sung melody gets transposed a fourth higher. The accompaniment switches to a IV-II alternation.
- 0:18 Theme II. At this point the song modulates to C. The bass follows steps I-VI-II-V of C. At 0:30 theme II ends with evading to E Mixolydian (bar 16).
- 0:32 Repetition of theme I with different lyrics.
- 0:44 Theme III. This theme follows a modulation scheme, C-Ab-G-C, the scales thus being a parallel movement of major type of keys. Most of the time there isn't a complete scale being used. The scales could be called major, but at various points Lydian and Mixolydian just as well. Like theme II, theme III has a final bar evading to E Mixolydian.
Instrumental interlude.
- 0:57 Theme I, the sung melody now being played instrumentally.

Lemme take you to the beach, section (midi file).

Lemme take you to the beach, section (transcription).

- 1:09 Variation upon theme II. At this point the second transcription begins. This part is something you could call pastiche-like. The sung melody and the chords form a series of triads and the meter and rhythm are standard 4/4 with an even subdivision. The bass follows steps I-VI-II-V of C once more (bars 1-7), again ending in E Mixolydian (bar 8). Next to giving pedal notes, the bass can also play little melody lines by itself in a syncopic manner. There are singers, but with them singing just "la-la-la", it remains instrumental. This ordinary "la-la-la" accentuates the pastiche effect.
- 1:21 Theme IV with a I 7th - II 7th (plus E) alternation in A Mixolydian at first (bars 9-12). Rhythmically things are getting more complex. The meters become an alternation of two odd-numbered meters: 7/8 and 9/8. The parts can follow different subdivisions. During bars 13-16 the bass follows steps I-V-IV-V of A Mixolydian.
- 1:34 The modulation scheme with C-Ab-G-C returns. The final bar 24 modulates to E Mixolydian. This is where the transcription stops.
Return of themes I-II.
- 1:46 Themes I and II return as at the beginning.
Instrumental postlude.
- 2:11 Themes I and III once more.
- 2:33 Coda in C Lydian with a little guitar solo.
- 2:40 Once more the song modulates, now to B minor/Dorian.
- 2:44 End.


When I'm calling something a modulation in this study is briefly described at the bottom of the Burnt weeny sandwich section. As it comes to modulations, one has to distinguish between three areas in Zappa's music:
- Written diatonic music. Here Zappa modulates often and fast. Sometimes a key is only maintained for one bar. The Burnt weeny sandwich section gives an overview of the keys being used in all examples in this study. These are just outtakes, not complete songs. Even then you can see that modulations are happening in most of Zappa's songs. The above "Lemme take you to the beach" example is just one of many. It can also happen that Zappa is switching that fast, often not using all notes of a scale, that it is getting difficult to identify this as modulations in a meaningful way. Situations with series of fragments from different scales happen in pieces as "Sad Jane". In this study I've resorted to calling this "multi-scale", rather than try to identify each little section.
- Improvised diatonic music. Most improvised examples in this study are guitar solos, with Zappa soloing himself. Other than in his written music, Zappa preferred to stay in one key when soloing. This topic is being dealt with at large in the Shut up 'n play yer guitar, Guitar and Trance-Fusion sections.
- A substantial part of Zappa's music is atonal. Here the term modulation by definition doesn't apply.

One can also distinguish between types of modulations in Zappa's output:
- The mingling of two closely related scales with the same key-note. This happens frequently. It's a subtle way of modulating that goes that smoothly, that listeners are probably hardly aware of this taking place. It's more something you notice when transcribing material. You've got a couple of combinations of scales, that differ only by one note. In many examples you can see that this note turns up as natural as well as sharp or flat, without a good reason to call one of these two appearances altered. So in this study I identify this as both scales happening. The Guitar section gives an overview of such examples. Related to this are situations, where the note that makes the difference is avoided or absent. Sort of a six-tonic situation. In the latter case it remains unclear which specific scale is being used. For lack of anything better I also list these as both possibilities taking place (the absent note could be natural, sharp or flat).
- Changing a key by changing the pedal note, while the same set of notes keeps being used. This is also a smooth, rather easy way of modulating, but one you can directy hear. This can be taking place within a song but also between different versions of a song.
- Modulating to relatively related scales by altering one or a few notes, often in combination with a change of the key note. This is the standard, classical way of modulating. In harmony classes you are teached how to make such modulations sound fluid. You can look for a pivot chord, a chord that belongs to two subsequent keys. Or you can alter a note in a chord and than continue with the scale that includes this altered note. This classical form is also in Zappa's music happening quite a lot, though he didn't find it necessary to look for the most fluid transitions.
- Modulation schemes. When a series of modulations returns identically during a piece, you can call this a modulation scheme. The last example above includes a C-Ab-G-C scheme. Other examples can concern schemes for how a band should improvise. This is happening in the "Fifty-fifty" and "Blessed relief" examples from this study.
- Modulating to relatively unrelated scales. Doing this overnight is in harmony classes seen as an error. You are expected to play a number of transitory chords, before you can continue with the new unrelated scale. Here Zappa's attitude can be called deviant. He does make such modulations in a blunt manner and apparently liked the harmonic surprise effect it causes. Examples in this study are for instance "Uncle meat" (transition from theme 1 to theme 2) and "Would you like a snack?".


"RDNZL" was written in 1972 and first released on "Studio Tan" in 1978, renamed by Warner Bros. as "Redunzl". An early studio recording is included on "The lost episodes" with Jean-Luc Ponty and Bruce Fowler doing a few solo bars. Later on the composition became more elaborate and usually included a guitar and a keyboard solo. For the first version on record (YCDTOSA II) the song got augmented with a long through composed melody, following upon the opening theme as included in the second transcription below. Because of its length it now serves as the main theme. The larger part of this second main theme got transcribed by Wolfgang Ludwig in his study. The note example below contains the opening of both the 1974 and 1975 versions. Trying to identify its scales positively is treacherous; it depends upon how you look at it. The 1974 version one would normally call C major, but since there's no F/F# in it, it could theoretically also be identified as C Lydian. In the 1975 version Zappa appears to be ambiguous about the F/F# because you can see a bass pedal F at first and an F# for the harmonies. The F is in dissonance with the opening E of the melody and the F# of the harmony, so when the bass pedal note becomes A in bar 5 the sounding effect is that of a resolving situation. The chord progression being Fmaj9 (bar 1) resolving as Am7 in bar 5 by removing the dissonant F. So the feel of it becomes A Dorian with an F# in its scale. The larger part of the main theme in 1974 is an ongoing stream of eighth notes in 3/4. Yet in 1975 Zappa changed things again. The melody for the first 8 bars are identical to 1974, but next he had George Duke improvise in a syncopic manner for eight bars with the originally written material as basis. See bars 9-10 in the transcription to compare things. After these eight bars the first six bars from the opening return, followed by two new bars to form another block of eight bars. In this instance the theme is transposed up a major second and the pedal note has become D. The F/F# ambiguity would lead to a G/G# one, but in the two new bars at the end you can hear a G at 0:46 (1974), so here the song is in D. The second section below contains the tail of this main theme, that precedes the guitar solo. Bars 1-8 are in Ab Major, mingled with Ab Lydian, ending with the Ab major scale being played downwards. The 12/8 is an irregular bar, both in its rhythm and notes. It's used to switch from the Ab major tail to the guitar solo part, setting the tempo a bit higher. The progression, that accompanies the solo, starts alone gently for 16 bars with the marimba gliding over it with held notes. It's one of Zappa's archetype progressions of two alternating bass notes/chords, this time in A Lydian combined with major. The accompaniment follows A Lydian, but when Zappa starts playing he alters the D sharp to D natural, thus using A major for his own solo.

RDNZL, 1975 main theme (midi file).
RDNZL, section (midi file).

RDNZL, 1974 and 1975 main theme (transcription).
RDNZL, section (transcription).

Little is known about how the various Zappa bands learned his songs. Not that it would have been a secret, the band members just seldom got asked. There a various side remarks in interviews on this topic though. The 1972 Wazoo band and the 1972-74 Roxy band were reading bands, so here Zappa scored out relatively a lot. Every once in a while you can encounter pages of handwritten scores that Zappa handed out being sold on internet. For his rock bands Zappa usually scored out a lead sheet with the main melody without instrumentation. The chords are sometimes written out in dots, sometimes indicated by their symbols. The bass can also be written out, but is mostly indicated by pedal notes. For the above first example from Greggery Peccary you can see that for the Wazoo band Zappa wrote his scores per instrument, as for an orchestra. The trombone part for Greggery Peccary, corresponding to the four 1972 movements, is one of the examples I found being auctioned at Christies.
Zappa didn't require that all of his band members could read scores, so the normal way of learning a song in rock music got applied just as well. That is learning a piece via demos, yet existing recordings and verbal instructions. The bigger and more elaborate a composition gets, the more difficult it becomes to use this pop method. It's virtually undoable to learn the lead melody of the "Black page" without reading notes. Even if there wasn't a "Drowning witch interlude" being sold by the ZFT, you'd know that the score must exist.
There must be hundreds of sheets with sketches and neatly scored out pieces in Zappa's closets. A bewildering thing to notice is that for the first executions of his music, he frequently started adapting the score. There are four examples in this study showing how the first recording can deviate from the original score: "Nun suit", "This town is a sealed tune sandwich", "Approximate #2" and the following example.

RDNZL, opening bars (draft version) (midi file).
RDNZL, opening bars (Lost episodes) (midi file).

RDNZL, opening bars (notes).

The differences between the two versions are:
- The opening bars 5-12 are two chords in a varying rhythm in the original score. On "The lost episodes", with the first 1972 execution, these opening bars are now an arpeggio chord with harmony fill in by Ruth Underwood on percussion.
- The whole opening melody in the original score is a sequence of enlarged chords. All chords are 9th chords or bigger, avoiding the minor second, so that they are never getting sharply dissonant. The opening bars are in D Mixolydian. From bar 13 onwards the scales keep changing per meter. On the "Lost episodes" these chords are reduced to three notes per chord, played via three individual parts. The descant plays the upper notes, whereas the bass guitar plays the lowest notes. The saxophone picks out one of the notes in the middle voices, though not consistently from the same position. Zappa could have easily had George Duke play the notes exactly as notated on keyboard as well, but apparently chose not to do so.
- The score indicates the tempo as fast without a metronome number. There are circumstantial indications that suggest that the opening is played faster than Zappa had in mind at fist. About the whole score is written in 3/4, the tempo going halfway from fast to slow, lyrical. The difference between these two tempos on record is thus big that two meters, 3/8 and 3/4, seem more logical. Secondly the tremolo in bars 29-32 is notated with 32nd notes. That's undoable with the tempo on "The lost episodes".
The notation in 3/4 for the opening theme, with all the dotted notes, may look awkward on paper. Zappa seldom scored out drum parts ("The black page drum solo" is an exception), his meters however indicate how the beats should fall for the drummer: 3/4 in this case. I made some notational mistakes at the beginning for not recognizing this in full, as in "Echidna's arf". From 1974 onwards it gets more to normal 4/4 for the opening bars with an original 3/4 bar becoming one beat. The drummer now beats 4/4. The tempo for bars 13-28 can get sped up this way from 10 seconds (1972) to 6 seconds (from 1974 onwards). Zappa starts counting as "one-one-one-one" on "YCDTOSA II". By not saying "one-two-three-four" you can still see that the band originally learned it as in 3/4.


Another topic is the element of improvisation. The example above with the opening bars stems from an eight pages "RDNZL" draft version, that I found on internet. The image above shows the first five pages on a small scale. It's all in Zappa's handwriting. The general set up of this version is identical to the 1972 execution (the time indications below follow the "The lost episodes" starting points). It has a lot of bars in it with room for improvisation, where Zappa indicates the environment to improvise in in different ways:
- 0:00, bars 1-4: Drum intro, only the number of bars is indicated.
- 0:02, bars 5-28: Opening melody.
- 0:16, bars 29-88: Violin solo, partly the accompaniment is precisely prescribed, partly only the chord.
- 0:46, bars 89-92: Transitional bars.
- 0:48, bar 93: The tempo goes to slow, lyrical. Bar 93 is notated in 4/4 for a solo of indefinite length, with only the accompanying chord indicated. On "The lost episodes" there's no actual solo, it's just the band vamping for four bars.
- 0:58, bars 94-109: The meter is 3/4 again. Second theme.
- 1:27, bars 110-141: Trombone solo over a chord pattern in the opening tempo. The bass is following a specific type of melody line, that got added during repetitions.
- 1:46, bars 142-173: Four bars of free improvisation by everybody (notated as a cluster of notes) alternate four times with four bars with only the trombone improvising alone, thus with the others pausing.
- 2:04, bars 174-189: The score indicates "Echoflex/modulate quiet weirdness under trombone solo fill". I don't know what Zappa meant with that. On the album you can hear a chord fading out with indeed trombone notes played over it.
- 2:14, bars 190-249: Piano solo over a chord pattern. The chord changes every four bars. On the album it's performed as standard jazz with a so called walking bass.
- 2:48, bars 250-253: Transitional bars.
- 2:50, bars 254-269: Second violin solo with only the accompanying chord indicated.
- 2:59, bars 270-285: Two bars with melody alternate with two bars of drum soloing.
- 3:08, bars 286-293: Third theme.
- 3:18, bars 294-301: Drum solo over a chord, played as an ongoing arpeggio by the vibes.
- 3:23, bars 302-333: Reprise of the opening melody, half tempo.
- 3:49: End.

RDNZL, notation for solo sections (notes).

You can't tell, unless you were present at the time of the recordings yourself, in what way Zappa interfered with the improvisations. The transcriptions in this study usually include the improvised element. This is done to avoid the discussion and to be sure that the midi files correspond to the album version the way Zappa wanted it. For a cover band it's a different matter. In the case of "Hot rats", the album version is a collaboration between Zappa and Ian Underwood, with Ian playing various layers over the main themes and chord schemes. When you would reduce a midi file here to what was probably the original draft version, you're leaving out all the grandeur of this album.

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