Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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With these band members, the third line up of The Mothers of Invention, the next 1975 albums "One size fits all" and "Bongo Fury" were recorded, while more live recordings with this band appeared in 1988 as "You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. II". When after the 1975 tour most band members decided to go on with their own career, Zappa stopped using the name Mothers of Invention and went on just as Zappa on the next "Zoot Allures" album.

1. Inca roads

George Duke "One size fits all" contains several melodies that are set throughout, like the themes from "Inca roads", "Sofa", "Florentine pogen" and "Evelyn". The fluid melody of "Inca roads" gets broken more sharp and abrupt than the "Florentine Pogen" theme from above, namely at the section between 0:57 and 1:10 (included below). It's probably this interruption that made George Duke complain to Zappa in a Frank Scheffer documentary (see also the What's next section) saying "This is such a beautiful melody, do you have to mess it up". But then Frank would simply reply "Yeah, but it needs some messing up" (quoted from memory). The interrupting bars are indeed weird. Their only purpose is to break the melody completely and cause confusion. On the other hand, when you've listened to "Inca roads" often, you get thus used to their presence that removing them would be strange as well. "Inca roads" begins with a vamp of two bars. These two bars are minor variations upon each other. George Duke plays a synthesizer solo over the vamp. The transcription begins at the point where the main theme gets sung. Here the key is vacillating between C major and C Lydian via the keyboard harmony chords you can hear in the background, like at points:
0:38  D.
0:41  F.
0:42  C-D.
0:45  F#m-5.
0:52  Fsus4.
The 1988 execution has this similarly, like an F# for the bass at 0:30 and an F for the melody at 0:41. In 2012 another guitar book from the Hal Leonard series appeared, this one by Addi Booth with all of "One size fits all". It has the guitar chords much more detailed in it than as I just indicated, about a chord per note. I don't know if he actually managed to hear these chords from record or whether it's a proposed arrangement. It sounds okay if you play it in that manner and then the melody would tend more towards polyscale. Bars 13-19 above contain the interruption (Addi Booth has it written out in details with all off the spoken words in it). Bars 20-22 include two variations upon the opening bar, the first simply by being in 5/4, the second is an acceleration via triplets. It's the point from whereupon the melody starts to modulate more clearly: the sung F from bar 10 becomes F# in bar 22.

Above to the right: George Duke during his keyboard solo from "Inca roads". Source: Dub room special DVD.

Inca roads, opening theme (midi file).
Inca roads, YCDTOSA II, solo section (midi file).

Inca roads, opening theme (transcription).
Inca roads, YCDTOSA II, solo section (transcription).

"Inca roads" is one of a series of Zappa songs that's made up of recordings from different live recordings plus studio overdubs, so that he could combine the parts that he thought had worked out the best. Usually you get the information about how it's done via the album liner notes or what's been said about it in interviews. Here you have a unique situation in which you can check everything out yourself. In the eighties Zappa released the two live recordings, that formed the basis of "Inca roads", integrally and unaltered. The first one is "Inca roads" from the "Dub room special", with the performance the band did before a studio audiance at KCET TV, good for the basic tracks. The other version is "Inca roads" from "YCDTOSA Vol. II/The Helsinki tapes", that delivered the guitar solo. Comparing these with the "One size fits all" version then makes it possible to identify the overdubbed parts as the remaining source. Zappa must have been pleased with the result and, it must be said, the final "One size fits all" version surpasses the two live recordings. He kept playing "Inca roads", but didn't include a later version in his live compilations until 1991. An earlier version from 1972 however appeared on "The lost episodes" from 1995. This one begins with what's a faster variation upon the opening theme on "Inca roads". Speaking for myself I got so used to hearing this part as a variation that it sounds illogic to open "Inca roads" in this manner. The reality is that it's the other way round. "The lost episodes" begins with the theme in its first form and the opening on "Inca roads" is in fact a slower variation, added later on. From the later "Inca roads" performances, a couple of solos were taken out and released as individual pieces, most notably on "Shut up 'n' play yer guitar". The "Inca roads" solo is a I-II alternation in C Lydian. Bootleg collectors, and sometimes interview information, make it possible to positively identify other C Lydian solos as stemming from "Inca roads". Zappa shortened the original Helsinki solo for "One size fits all" (OSFA below) on three spots, that can be located in the above mentioned guitar book as follows (YCDTOSA sections as mentioned in the site):
- Page 18, transition from bar 5 to 6 (OSFA point 3:51): YCDTOSA 3:55 through 4:27 are edited out.
- Transition from page 18 to 19 (OSFA point 4:14): YCDTOSA 4:50 through 5:25 are edited out.
- Page 20, bar 4, transition from beat 2 to 3 (OSFA point 4:36, end of the solo): YCDTOSA 5:47 through 6:05 are edited out.
The second example above represents the YCDTOSA solo from 3:51-4:34, thus some bars from "One size fits all" plus the first block that got edited out. The two cutting points are indicated with an arrow. Another thing you can hear is that Zappa can change the sound of the guitar and make notes from guitar effects vanish. The YCDTOSA sound is rawer and contains more additional sounds from guitar effects, whereas the OSFA sound is brighter. You can see this for instance in a simple form by comparing bar 22 in the transcription above and the one by Addi Booth: the lower D and A are missing, not because Addi didn't notate them, but because Zappa made them largely disappear.

The general outlines of "Inca roads" can be readily followed, using the Hal Leonard guitar book:
0:00 Main theme as described above. The vamp uses only the note combination C, D and G. So the other four notes of a diatonic scale can determine what scale is used. By altering notes Zappa let's the melody and harmony vary between C major, C Lydian and C minor.
1:44 Motif I, a string of mostly 16th notes, played four times. Both F# and a lower E are used as pedal notes. The F# indicates F# Locrian, but on E it's E Minor, a more normal scale.
2:00 Guitar solo (see above), beginning as a I-IV alternation in A Dorian, but soon turning to a I-II alternation in C Lydian.
4:37 Motif II. This sung motif stems the opening of Holiday in Berlin solo from 1970, being a variation upon it. See the Bootleg and archive recordings section from this study.
5:09 Motif I returns.
5:27 Variation upon sections from the main theme. So far "Inca roads" has been in 4/4. Here the meters start to vary.
5:41 Instrumental variations upon the main theme. It's at this point where the earlier version on the "Lost episodes" CD starts. Thus historically this is the original statement of the theme and the opening on "One size fits all" was added to it later on. It looks like this also applies to the opening vamp. The "Roxy by proxy" version does not yet include this vamp (see the Roxy section). Rip Rense cites Ian Underwood for saying that this earlier version should not be seen as a merely a prototype for just learning this piece ("The lost episodes" booklet). It just got bigger and got played in different manners during time. The "Roxy by proxy" version confirms this. According to Rip Rense many Zappa songs with lyrics can be played instrumentally just as well. The 1972 and 1975 versions of "Inca roads" illustrate this. See also the "Let's make the water turn black" paragraph from the Make a jazz noise here section for more examples.
6:05 Keyboard interlude in 7/16 with a through-composed melody. This melody gets led through a number of Lydian and Dorian keys, changing per bar.
6:23 Motif III, a descending sequence in 6/8, leading to a repeated figure in Bb Lydian.
6:34 Keyboard solo in 7/16, alternating Ab Lydian and G Dorian.
7:52 Variation upon the previous keyboard interlude. The melody is mostly the same, but the meter and rhythm are different.
8:08 Main theme variations once more, followed by an outro.
8:44 End.

2. Can't afford no shoes

On pages 170-1 of his study W. Ludwig is presenting three examples from "Can't afford no shoes", while page 220 offers an overview of its structure (see the references for the Ludwig study). In this case Zappa is using his vocalists not only for singing in parallel octaves, but also for speach-wise commenting upon what's being said. During the opening it begins with singing "have you heard the news", immediately followed by the spoken text "news, what news?" as if a dialogue is going on. Parallel octaves are applied quite a lot on "One size fits all", making the sound voluptuous. This specifically goes for the "Florentine pogen" melody.
During his solo from "Can't afford no shoes", Zappa is using E Dorian and E Mixolydian next to each other by switching between a G natural and a G sharp. This is a recurrent feature in his music (see the Guitar section for a series of examples).

3. Sofa no. 1

The distinction between "Sofa no. 1" and "Sofa no. 2" on "One size fits all" lies in the addition of vocals to the tracks during "Sofa no. 2", while "Sofa no. 1" is all instrumental. Both version are also present on a couple of live CDs. On "Zappa in New York" from 1978 this song returns in the shape of "Sofa no. 1". A smaller example is included in the Weasels ripped my flesh section from this study. See also track no. 9 below.

4. Po-jama people

The subject of "Po-jama people" already existed at least a year earlier and Zappa used it for his Helsinki concerts from 1973, the ones you can find on "Road tapes, venue #2". Two examples of this "Pojama prelude" are included in the Roxy and elsewhere section. The music is at that point totally different from what "Po-jama people" came to be on "One size fits all". While at first a vamp, that got improvised along, the song is now a larger regular composition containing a lenghty guitar solo in D Dorian.

5. Florentine pogen

From the "One size fits all" album I would like to give the lengthy theme of "Florentine pogen" as another example of a melodic line set throughout. Most pop music as well as classical music has a thematic structure, where the music can be divided into two or more themes, that alternate each other, in pop music normally without the elaborate variations of the themes, which can be found in classical music. A clear example of the regular pop music two theme structure is "Camarillo Brillo" from "Overnite sensation":

- 0:00 Instrumental intro
- 0:18 Theme A ("She had that camarillo brillo...")
- 1:05 Theme B ("She had a snake for a pet...")
- 1:25 Theme A
- 2:12 Theme B
- 2:33 Theme A (Fading out instrumentally)

Ruth Underwood Zappa is also using other forms like variation forms where one motif or a melody is played several times with variations and compositions with a continuing melody, that have no clear division into separate themes. In early classical music pieces with continuing melodies were sometimes called fantasies or toccatas. In the 19th century, when this method of composing became applied in songs and opera's, the words "through-composed" or "set throughout" were introduced to describe it. The "Uncle meat main title" theme from above is an example of a melody set throughout. It is true that this melody can be divided into sections, but the melody as a whole is not formed by alternations of these sections. On the "Uncle Meat" album, as well as on the chamber orchestra version on "The yellow shark", the theme is played several times with slight variations, ending with a coda, in this way becoming a variation piece.

Right: Ruth Underwood and Chester Thompson playing "Florentine Pogen". Source: Dub room special DVD.

Florentine Pogen theme (midi file).

Florentine Pogen theme (transcription).

The theme from "Florentine Pogen" is by itself just as the "Uncle meat main title" theme through-composed. "Florentine Pogen" as a whole is a variation piece, with the theme repeated several times with lyrics and many alternative bars. The descant melody of the main theme as played at the opening is given beneath in its whole length. A base guitar and a synthesizer bass are playing parallel with it at varying interval distances. When the structure of such a melody cannot be described as something like A-B-A, there have to be other structure building elements, if the piece sounds coherent. In this case such elements are:
- The key is E Minor (Aeolian) during the first half of the theme. In the second half changes to related keys are made.
- The returning use of strings of eighth notes.
- The frequent accenting of the E note.
- The instruments and vocalists are playing and singing the whole melody either unisono or in parallels.

Very intentionally this pattern is broken in the two bars with sixteenth notes. The first one has a figure using notes of A flat. The figure is repeated a second lower in the second bar using notes of G flat. These two figures have nothing in common with the other parts of the melody. Zappa loved to add such pattern breaking or opposing figures to his melodies.

6. Evelyn

The melody from "Evelyn" is a speech-influenced example of a through-composed melody. It follows the syllables of the words, here all strictly divided over eighth notes. The accent syllables of the words determine the here notated metres, except for the instrumental bars 9 and 10, which are regular 4/4. The melody is about always using the smaller intervals; the majority are seconds movements. You might call "Evelyn" a poem set to music, engendering a belletristic and eloquent application of English, which can stultify non-native English babblers like myself.

Evelyn, a modified dog, first half (midi file).

Evelyn, a modified dog, first half (transcription).

Zappa used melodies, which are composed throughout, most often for his instrumental music, for instance the above-mentioned jazz albums and the London Symphony Orchestra recordings. We'll get to some more examples taken from instrumental pieces in the following sections.

7. San Ber'dino

"San Ber'dino" is an example of a song with an unconventional structure. It has one short central theme, that gets varied upon, various side themes and passages, as well as solo bars:

Block I
- 0:00 Instrumental opening #1 in country and western style.
- 0:08 Main theme, "She lives in a ...", with as basic characteristic a melody going up and down again.
- 0:14 Instrumental passage #1, following the idea of a melody going up and down again, now with larger intervals.
- 0:18 Main theme, "His name is ...".
- 0:22 Instrumental passage #1.
- 0:27 Instrumental passage #2.
- 0:34 Main theme, "She's in love ..." plus a vocal variation.
- 0:44 Instrumental passage #3. This is a pattern breaking riff with biting quintuplets.
Block II, mostly following block I
- 0:50 Instrumental opening #2, used during the song to reintroduce the main theme.
- 0:59 Main theme, "He got stubbering ...".
- 1:03 Instrumental passage #1.
- 1:07 Main theme, "They gave him ...".
- 1:12 Instrumental passage #1.
- 1:16 Instrumental passage #2.
- 1:24 Main theme, "Well there's 44 ..." plus a vocal variation. Here the transcribed section below is taking off (bars 1-4). The key is A Dorian for most of the bars till bar 12.

San Ber'dino, section (midi file).

San Ber'dino, section (transcription).

- 1:33 Instrumental passage #3 (bars 5-7).
Block III
- 1:39 Instrumental opening #2 (bars 8-11).
- 1:48 Sequence of vocal variations upon the main theme (bars 12-19).
- 2:05 Side theme #1, "They don't care.". Modulation from E Mixolydian (bars 16-19) to F# Minor (Aeolian) by moving the bass pedal note up a second (bars 20-22). Thus far the transcription.
- 2:14 Instrumental passage #4 followed by soloing with the bass continuing the riff of the first bar of this passage.
- 2:55 Sequence of vocal variations upon the main theme.
- 3:12 Side theme #2, "Real good deal-o.".
Block IV
- 3:25 Instrumental opening #2.
- 3:33 Outro with Johnny Guitar Watson improvising lyrics and the others improvising over a bass variation upon the main theme.
- 5:42 Closing bars.
- 5:56 End of the song.

8. Andy

The construction of "Andy" gets dealt with in the Wolfgang Ludwig study from 1992, pages 97-100. He also transcribed all the lead melodies (pages 240-244). He subdivides "Andy" into the themes as given below, with details based upon the Addi Booth guitar book added to it by me:
- 0:00. Theme A in 4/4. Bars 1-4 start with the bass A going up and down again with the chord progression Asus4 - Am7#5. Next these bars turn into a I-II progression in A Lydian. A little repeated melody gets played over it. Wolfgang notates the first beat of it with a quintuplet, but I think the Addi Booth version with 2/16 plus a triplet is more accurate.
- 0:34. Theme B. First theme with lyrics, sung flatly. The meters are varying with strings of 16th notes and an occasional 8th note. This sung theme with odd meters gets interrupted a couple of times with a bar with a chord in more even meters. Wolfgang is using other meters than Addi. Mostly they are notational differences, but sometimes there's a little real difference. Other than Wolfgang, Addi lets the first two words, "is there", start in the last 4/4 bar of theme A, which is correct. This is as far as I have checked differences. This block you can either identify as multiscale or chromatic.
- 0:57. Theme C in 6/8 in basically E, but with altered notes as well.
- 1:16. Theme A returns, now with some lyrics ("something").
- 1:34. Theme D. Here the example below starts. This theme D can be seen as a character variation upon theme A. First you have the plain A chord with bass pedal A (bars 1-4 in the example below). The bass and drum are together giving the specific partially syncopic rhythmic figures as in theme A. In bars 5-8 the I-II alternation returns. Specifically interesting sounds bar 6 because it's mingling chords. The main guitar chord is B (staff 2). The bass is first giving B pedal, but soon returns to A (staff 3). The piano plays a chord progression over it: E-B-A-E-B-A-B-(A) (staff 1). It's only played exactly this way on "One size fits all". On the other two official versions it's more just the B chord ("Buffalo") and a variation upon it ("The best band you never heard in your life").
- 1:51. Theme E in 4/4 ("show me a sign" etc.). It's sung over a C#m7 - F# alternation in C# Dorian.
- 2:08. Theme F. A string of 16th notes over D pedal. Here the difference between Wolfgang and Addi is merely notational (5/16 + 5/16 becomes 10/16 in the guitar book and 5/16 + 6/16 becomes 11/16).

Andy, section (midi file).

Andy, section (transcription).

- 2:19. Theme A returns once more.
- 2:31. Theme D. From point 2:39 onwards a slower organ melody is played over it. At 3:23 it evolves into a little guitar solo.
- 3:48. Theme F returns, now with lyrics.
- 4:02. Theme A returns once more.
- 4:11. Theme D with no specific features this time. Just A pedal with the rhythmic figures.
- 4:19. Theme E, variation 1 (different accompaniment and guitar riffs).
- 4:51. Theme E, variation 2 ("Oh Andy..., Andy...").
- 5:08. Theme G. The lyrics continue ad lib. An outro riff enters that gets repeated till the end with a second guitar solo played over it. The outro is in F# minor or Dorian (the D/D# isn't used to determine which one it is).
- 6:03. End

9. Sofa no. 2

As mentioned above "Sofa" returns at the end of "One size fits all" with lyrics. This is the way Zappa originally composed "Sofa" for his fall tour from 1972. It explains why "Sofa no. 2" has its lyrics in German. See the Playground psychotics section at the Once upon a time paragraph, for more about this topic. The sofa, there described as floating through the universe, is also prominently present on the album cover of "One size fits all".


Comments on the various ways in which Zappa gave structure to his songs turn up spread out over this study. I'm ending this section with an overview of various examples dealing with structures and the forms of variations you can encounter (not intended to cover all I've said on this topic). It mentions section, songtitle and very briefly summarizes the subject:

- Zappa's teens: "Sleeping in a jar" (central theme, intermezzo, outro).
- Movie scores: "Holiday in Berlin" (changing the structure over time).
- Idem: "Run home, slow main title" (varying a theme).
- Pal records: "Why don'tcha do me right" (varying a theme over time).
- Absolutely free: "Plastic people" (main theme, intermediary theme, interlude).
- Idem: "Brown shoes don't make it" (scheme of the general set-up).
- We're only in it for the money: "What's the ugliest part of your body" (collage structure).
- Lumpy gravy: "Foamy soaky" (motifs).
- Uncle meat: "King Kong" (sequences and variations of motifs).
- Idem: "Dog breath variations" (varying a composition over time).
- Idem: "Uncle rhebus" (medley via playing two songs simultaneously).
- Hot rats: "Peaches on regalia" and "Little umbrellas" (classicism).
- Burnt weeny sandwich: "Kung Fu" (deliberate irregularity).
- Idem: "My guitar wants to kill your mama" (verse-refrain with a bridge of three sections).
- Weasels ripped my flesh: "What will this evening bring me this morning" (canon).
- Chunga's revenge: "Tell me you love me" (multi-theme structure).
- Idem: "Rudy wants to buy yez a drink" (three themes with interlude).
- Quaudiophiliac: "Twinkle tits" (scheme of the general structure).
- Fillmore east: "Latex solar beef" (two appearances of the main theme).
- Idem: "Bwana dick" (multi-theme in combination with tempo changes).
- 200 Motels: "Magdelena" (three themes with tempo changes).
- Waka/Jawaka: "It just might be a one shot deal" (three themes, two intermezzi).
- Overnite sensation: "Fifty-fifty" (modulation schedule).
- Roxy and elsewhere: "Approximate" (little themes alternating with improvised sections).
- Idem: "The be-bop tango" (two versions).
- One size fits all: "Camarillo brillo" (standard two-theme structure).
- Idem: "Florentine pogen", "Inca roads" and "Evelyn" (through-composed melodies).
- Idem: "San' Berdino" (main theme, side themes, instrumental passages).
- Idem: "Andy" (multi-theme with variations).
- Bongo fury: "Debra Kadebra" (sequence of motifs in varying meters and tempi).
- Idem: "200 years old" (blues scheme).
- Orchestral favorites: "Duke of prunes" (development over time).
- Idem: "She painted up her face" (rondo).
- Idem: "Bogus pump" (variations).
- Idem: "RDNZL" (themes and ways of indicating solos).
- In New York: "The black page" (same complex rhythm for two different melodies).
- Idem: "The purple lagoon/Approximate" (combining compositions).
- Läther: "Bowling on Charen" (combining types of soloing).
- Sheik Yerbouti: "Mo' mama" (stream of motif variations).
- Idem: "Flakes" (riff and themes).
- One shot deal: "Occam's razor"/"On the bus" (effect of xenochrony).
- Tinsel town rebellion: "Easy meat" (building up a song over time).
- Shut up 'n play yer guitar: "Five-five-FIVE" (sequence).
- The LSO: "Mo 'n Herb's vacation" (variations over a long distance).
- Idem: "The girl in the magnesium dress" (use of "digital dust").
- Drowning witch: "Marque-Son's chicken" (riff, themes, sequence).
- Idem: "Naval aviation in art" (sequence).
- The man from Utopia: "The radio is broken" (blocks and intermezzi).
- Idem: "Tink walks amok" (motif variations).
- Idem: "The torture never stops (1980)" (sections and solos).
- Thing-Fish: "No not now"/"Won ton on" (effect of backwards playing).
- Mothers of prevention: "Alien orifice" (different harmonizations).
- Guitar: "Sexual harassment in the workplace" (blues scheme some more).
- YCDTOSA: "Honey, don't you want a man like me?" (variations over time).
- Broadway the hard way: "Rhymin' man" (interruptions of a melody).
- Idem: "Any kind of pain" (verse-refrain-bridge).
- Idem: "Jesus thinks you're a jerk" (four blocks and relations between them).
- The best band you never heard in your life: "Zomby woof" (themes, riffs, solo).
- The yellow shark: "Strictly genteel" (classical variation piece).
- Idem: "9/8 Objects" and "T'Mershi Duween" (layers).
- Idem: "This is a test" (variations).
- Idem: "Ruth is sleeping" (interval exercise for seconds).

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