Frank Zappa's musical language
Frank Zappa's musical language
A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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On the "Does humor belong in music" DVD "Hot plate heaven" gets interrupted by an interview section and the solo isn't included (screenshot to the right). The song's lyrics and the interview part are about Zappa's aversion of the Republican Party and his political ideas would become more and more present on his albums and in his other activities. In 1985 he opposed the idea of parental advisory stickers on rock albums, doing many interviews on the subject, and the 1988 tour had an outspoken anti-Republican character. During the turnover in Eastern Europe he was seen by various people as a herald of intellectual freedom, among them the newly elected president Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia. He visited Russia several times, trying to interact for business deals. The zenith became his encounter with Havel, that reached the international press. In 1991 he talked a while about the idea of running for president in interviews and doing a feasibility study. It was expressed at a time when the Republicans were in office for quite a while and the Democrats failed in presenting an appealing alternative. Zappa considered Reagan a moron and abroad Reagan was indeed seen by many as a caricature of the presidency rather than as someone with political insight. Eventually no real steps were taken, nor any program items spoken of. His ill health at that time would have ruled out campaigning anyway. Probably he was more interested in the publicity effect, than that he thought he had any chance. The Libertarian party however had contacted him if he was interested in becoming a candidate on their behalf.
"Frank Zappa meets the mothers of prevention" contains a large collage piece, called "Porn wars". It includes several passages from the Senate's committee hearing about lyrics on rock albums, with Zappa being one of the artists being interviewed. Apart from Zappa himself you can hear some of the senators speaking. Zappa recorded the event himself with a tape recorder he had brought with him in his handbag. The ZFT would later on release the whole interview on a separate CD, called "Congress shall make no law", the opening words from the first amendment to the constitution of the U.S.A.

1. I don't even care

Johnny Guitar Watson "The mothers of prevention" originally had different U.S. and European LP versions. Luckily it's all united on the current CD version, because it's all worthwhile. The "porn wars" issue was American politics, but understandable for everybody, and similar discussions are raised elsewhere as well. The CD was clearly compiled for the occasion. It's a mix of unreleased recent material from Zappa's closet without being related, but with enough quality per item. The opening piece "I don't even care" for instance has nothing in common with the two synclavier examples from below.

I don't even care, opening (midi file).

I don't even care, opening (transcription).

It features Johnny Guitar Watson on a Zappa album for the third time. Zappa admired Watson as a guitar player. He was one of his examples when he started to learn to play the guitar. On Zappa's albums however Watson was invited for his voice. He could improvise in a funny agitated way and gets credited for the lyrics on this one. He's singing and talking over a vamp all through, in this case made up of a bass movement and a chorus (bars 6-8, staff1). It's E Mixolydian, accompanied by an ongoing E chord in 16th notes. Photo to the right of Watson downloaded, source unknown.

2-3. One man, one vote - Little beige sambo

The A-B-A construction from "G-spot tornedo" (see the Jazz from hell section) is also used in "One man - one vote" from "FZ meets the mothers of prevention". Whereas "G-spot tornado" is fit for human performance, this applies less to "One man, one vote", because it's deliberately using the synclavier for creating odd rhythms. This piece begins with a bass theme lasting 34/16, with an uneven subdivision, over which the opening theme is played. The opening B in staff 2, the returning B in the lead melody and the constant present Bsus2 accompanying chord in staff 3 can be seen as setting the scale to B Mixolydian.

One man, one vote, fragment (midi file).

One man, one vote, fragment (transcription).

The synclavier pieces based upon note entry can be printed out from the machine, so it's kind of useless trying to transcribe much of this material in detail. This fragment from "One man - one vote" is a transcription by myself and not 100% accurate. I also don't have a good reason to subdivide the bass theme that lasts 34/16 in total, the dashed lines are sort of arbitrary. "Little beige sambo" is another synclavier piece, as well as the next track. Several prints have already been handed out to orchestras (see the CDs and scores section).

4-5. Aerobics in bondage - We're turning again

"Aerobics in bondage" opens with two melodies that are alternating each other rapidly (that is when one staff holds a note, the other staff takes over the melody). In the last three bars in the example the two melodies are getting to play more jointly, thus becoming more polyphonic in style. This example apparently has no constant meter, and I can't guarantee what meters Zappa used typing it in. Below I've followed the returning high E note to start a bar.

Aerobics in bondage, opening (midi file).

Aerobics in bondage, opening (transcription).

The eighth note is used as the time unit all through these bars. Harmonically it’s another example that you can interpret either as made up of scale fragments or as atonal/chromatic altogether. With "We're turning again" we're getting at a recording with Zappa's regular rock-band. It's one last time kicking at remnants from the hippie era. In his biography you can read why Barry Miles finds the lyrics of this song particularly tasteless.

6. Alien orifice

"Alien orifice" belongs to the series of scores that the ZFT offers (or used to offer) for rent to ensembles that want to perform Zappa's music. For private persons the availability of these scores has become more and more difficult, which leads to the awkward situation that for this study I'm sometimes forced to transcribing something that some other people already must have lying on their shelves. In this case the lead melody from the opening is present in the Ludwig and Clement studies. I've transcribed the remainder rather detailedly from the performance on "FZ meets the Mothers of Prevention". There are obviously version differences between this execution and the 1981 live version that got released on YCDTOSA vol. VI, though the sections below are relatively similar. There are also differences with the sheet music (see below at this paragraph). "Alien orifice" is made up of five instrumental blocks, with the final block being a reprise of the opening block followed by a coda. The opening block contains the main theme, played twice. It's made up of four phrases of four bars each, that every time begin with the same rhythmic figure for their first bar. What makes this theme interesting is that all phrases get harmonized in a different way. To be sure I have the scales identified correctly, I had to transcribe the slow arpeggio-like figures in the second example as well. The opening block has something of a triple tonality. The theme itself has A as its central note (in the Ludwig study it's presented as an example where Zappa is repeating notes in a melody). Next you've got an ongoing Gsus2 chord by the rhythm guitar. The bass follows a jazz-type walking bass, thus the pedal notes are relatively weakly present. Taking these pedal notes as tonic you get:

Opening block, first statement of the central theme:
- Bars 1-4: Eb Lydian. Apart from the Gsus2 etc. chord for the rhythm guitar, no other chords are used. It's audible lightly in the background, and you have to listen carefully to notice that it changes a couple of times. The harmonic climate, that surrounds the melody, is thus more determined by the bass line.
- Bars 5-8: E minor (Aeolian).
- Bars 9-12: C Lydian.
- Bars 13-16: G Dorian.
Repetition of the central theme:
- Bars 17-20: Eb Lydian. The melody now gets played in the form of a series of 5th chords. The A now appears as the highest note of the F chord. The transcription stops at bar 19. I'm continuing below with describing what you can hear on album.
- Bars 21-24: E Dorian. During bars 5-8 the C appears only once as natural. Here the A becomes part of the F#m chord with a C#, thus here it's E Dorian.
- Bars 25-28: C Lydian. The A becomes the D chord.
- Bars 29-32: G Dorian. The A becomes the F chord at first, but at its off-beat second appearance in bar 29 immediately turns over to Faugm, where it stays till bar 31, beat 1. Next you get the progression F-Em-Fm-Bb-C-D-F#m etc.

Alien orifice, opening (midi file).
Alien orifice, section (midi file).

Alien orifice, opening (transcription).
Alien orifice, section (transcription).

Return of the central theme during the final block (2nd example):
- Bars 1-4: G minor (Aeolian). The Gsus2 chord does not return. The bass is now more clearly playing pedal notes. Here you've got chords/scales as strings in the form of arpeggios, and some uncommon wider chords. In bar 1 it's II 7th (or Am7-5). In bars 2-3 it's VII 9th.
- Bars 5-8: Bb minor variant. The series of notes used here is Bb-C-Db-Eb-Fb-G-A, thus not a standard diatonic scale. In bar 8 the F, as played by the bass, becomes natural again.
- Bars 9-12: A Mixolydian. Some chromatic elements are added: the Eb in the figure from staff 1 in bar 10, and the Bb in staff 2 in bar 11.
- Bars 13-16: C Dorian. Again a chromatic element turns up by the F natural switching to F# in bar 16.
After this bar the coda begins. "Alien orifice" and more specifically "Aerobics in bondage" have wild codas. Since both pieces are multi-scale, there is no standard coda to end with. It could end in every manner and Zappa takes advantage of this by also letting the coda jump through a number of scales. At the end it looks likes Zappa wants to close this piece in E minor, but the final chord is simply the D chord (VII in E minor or moving over to I from D Mixolydian).

The number of examples in this study, that compare the sheet music with the albums, show that it is more a rule than exceptional that album versions differ from the sheet music (see also the Uncle Meat section). "Alien orifice" seems to be yet another example of the score and CD going differently. In the study by B. Clement you can find two examples from what must be the score the ZFT has for rent. During the reprise Clement found examples of what Tommy Mars has referred to as the "minor Lydian" chord. Upon C he describes it as the Cm chord mixed with the D chord (Clement 2009, p. 207). The chord you're then getting at is C-D-Eb-F#-G-A. The minor third explains the "minor" part of the term, while the augmented fourth is typical of the Lydian scale. The score version appears to have pedal notes/chords as follows (pages 368-9 of the Clement study):
Initial statement of the theme:
Phrase 1 (bars 1-4 of my 1st example): EbM7, the scale-chord combination then becoming Eb Lydian.
Phrase 2 (bars 5-8): Em11 and E Dorian.
Phrase 3 (bars 9-12): CM7 and C Lydian.
Phrase 4 (bars 13-16): Gm and G Dorian.

Alien orifice, reprise (score).

Reprise of the theme:
Phrase 1 (bars 1-4 of my 2nd example): G-C-Eb-F-Bb-D-A.
Phrase 2 (bars 5-8): Bb-F#-G-C#-D-E-A or the G minor Lydian chord in a different following order with an additional F#.
Phrase 3 (bars 9-12): A-C-D#-E-G-B-F# or the A minor Lydian chord in a different following order with an additional G.
Phrase 4 (bars 13-16): B-C-Eb-G-D-F#-A or the C minor Lydian chord in a different following order with an additional B.
As you can see the pedal notes and scales of the initial exposition of the theme are (largely) the same, but the chords being played on "FZ meets the Mothers of Prevention" are different. Phrase one of the reprise goes similar in both versions. The use of the minor Lydian chord during phrases 2-4 is specific for the score version. Its root notes are still returning as pedal notes on album for phrases 2-3, but here the harmonies are forming figures, that are moving more freely. For phrase 4 the album version is using a C as pedal note instead of a B.
Why Clement calls phrase one of the reprise C Dorian gets explained on page 212 of his study: "For the accompaniment of the reprise, Zappa provides both chord symbols (not given) and pitch-space realizations of these symbols. As can be seen, these realizations are all seven-note Chord-Bible harmonies. Of these, only the chord accompanying phrase 1, the diatonic D[5-3-2-5-4-7], is unconfirmed. Though the lowest note of this chord is G, Zappa’s chord symbol (not given) indicates C as its true root." The D[...] notation stands for the pitch-space realizations (number of minor seconds intervals between the subsequent notes). Apparently Zappa also used chord symbols, indicating the root notes, which Clement used for writing out the chords in the first bar of each phrase. See his own study or the left menu of this site for what he means by Chord-Bible harmonies.

7-8. Yo cats - What's new in Baltimore?

The music of "Yo cats" was co-written with Tommy Mars, credited under his official name Mariano. It's sung by Ike Willis with basic accompaniment. The lyrics (by Zappa) are using that many slang expressions, that in this case some explanation as in the Slaven and Russo books is welcome. It appears to be about session musicians seeking ways to maximize their income at the expense of others. "The mothers of prevention" album sleeve hardly gives any information about the recording dates. The personnel stems from both the 1982 and 1984 tours. Apparently Zappa didn't feel like including live material from the 1984 tour, for which he already had a CD in mind.

What's new in Baltimore (1982), 0:32-0:57 (midi file).

What's new in Baltimore (1982), 0:32-0:57 (transcription).

"What's new in Baltimore" exists in three versions. One from the 1982 tour, one from the 1984 tour and the one on "The mothers of prevention". According to the bootleg collectors this last version is the way the band played the song during the 1981 tour. There are also two musical reasons for why this version precedes the other two. First it's played closer to the draft score as Zappa probably wrote it down. That is a lead melody, bass pedal notes and chord indications. The Ludwig study includes a transcription of the "The mothers of prevention" version in this form. The 1982 version, transcribed here, already includes an amount of freedom that you can take when you're playing it for a while. The bass opens a bar with a pedal note, the vibes take care of the lower notes of the melody and the keyboard has its accents on the higher notes. For the remainder the parts don't have to be in exact parallels. Secondly the 1982 version is played a bit faster and the 1984 version considerably faster. The metronome tempos of a quarter note are approximately:
- The mothers of prevention (1981): 150.
- YCDTOSA V (1982): 155.
- Does humor belong in music? (1984): 175.
The song is made up of two almost unrelated halves. The opening part is a sequence of various shorter melodies in meters and keys that keep changing. The transcribed part shows the use of 5/8, 4/8, 3/4 and 7/8. The opening melody (bars 1-6) is in E Dorian. Bars 7-8 are making a transition. The second theme (bars 9-16) is in E. Bars 17-20 offer an atonal/chromatic variation upon the opening theme, now including counterpoint lines. Bars 21-22 get repeated. They are diatonic again, but without a clear key note. The second half of the song on the other hand is a guitar solo in normal 4/4 with only the last chord of the first half making a link.

9. Porn wars

Porn wars "Porn wars" is the centerpiece of the album, lasting 12 minutes. It's a collage, constructed with the aid of the synclavier. You can hear a number of senators speak during the Senate's committee hearing, addressing the issues the PMRC had brought up. This PMRC, the Parents' Music Resource Center, was headed by a number of wives of politicians. Elizabeth "Tipper" Gore being the most prominent member. Both she and her husband are among the people listed in the album liner notes. The statements by the senators aren't directly commented upon, but indirectly mocked at by putting their words in a loop mingled with synclavier samples.

Above: Zappa addressing the Senate's committee for Science, commerce and transportations, September 1984.

Very roughly the outlines go as:
0:00  Senator Danforth: "The reason for this hearing ..."
0:21  Senator Hollings: "I've had the opportunity ..."
1:32  Collages #1, "Rape, incest, it's outrageous filth ..."

Porn wars, 1:32-1:41 (midi file).

Porn wars, 1:32-1:41 (transcription).

The example above is the opening bars of this collage section #1. The synclavier starts normally in 4/4, but the spoken parts are put on top of it in a deliberate irregular way. They are made up of snippets of some words from the senators testimonies, sped up and slowed down at will, while the rhythm of the spoken words is superimposed upon the 4/4 basis irregularly. It's meant to create a chaotic atmosphere with people speaking through each other, while the sustained notes of the synclavier offer some relative calmness. It's difficult to catch spoken words in midi format, so the two midi examples in this paragraph sound less recognizable than elsewhere in this study. When composing on the synclavier, Zappa typed in the drum part too. In this case I've included this part in the transcription, being an essential element in the written composition. Literally putting the collage parts on paper is terrible. What you can see happening here is two text parts, reciting the same words, but in a different manner. The pitches are unequal and the rhythm is uneven most of the time. In bar 3 the words "of such lyrics" start equal. In bar 4 everything is uneven, not just the two voices among themselves, but also their relationship with the synclavier part. In bar 5 the words "it's outrageous filth" get sped up. This is getting more and more exaggerated throughout the piece, to the point of making "maybe I can make a better rock star" sounding like some sort of a disco jingle between at 6:40 and 7:22.

3:18  1967 Piano people (see the Lumpy Gravy section): "This must be the end of the world ...".
3:27  Collages #2, "What is the reason for these hearings ...", "sex ...".
4:02  Collages #3, Senator Hawkins: "I might be interested what kind of toys your kids ever had."
5:50  Collages #4, Senator Gore: "I find your statement very interesting ...".
6:08  Collages #5, "Wait a minute ... maybe I can make a better rock star ...".
6:21  1967 Piano people: "They don't even understand their own music ...".
6:41  Collages #5 cntd.
7:23  Collages #6, "Rock, rock, porn rock ...".

Paula Hawkins Ernest Hollings

Senator Paula Hawkins holding up an album cover she deemed repulsive. The issue Zappa raised was not so much if such albums should be seen as offensive, but if forbidding such material belongs to the territory of legislation. He considered the idea in conflict with the U.S. constitution. Senator Ernest Hollings (to the right) clearly had a different approach, saying that if he could find some way constitutionally to do away with it he would. His statement turns up unaltered at the beginning of "Porn wars", offering most texts for the collages. Zappa strongly opposed the idea of censorship in any form, being the subject for the fictional works "Joe's garage" and "Thing-Fish". His arrest in 1965 for recording pornographic material and the actions by the PMRC showed that some of his suspicions could be real.

8:13  Thing-Fish: "We will get back to the whi(m)p ...".
8:27  Rock music, "I see some of y'all be frowning ...".

Porn wars, 8:27-8:37 (midi file).

Porn wars, 8:27-8:37 (transcription).

This is the only section, that you could call musically standard with a rock progression in 6/8, though not consistently so. As you can see, the bass part is using a subdivision into four during the second half of bars 2-4, as if playing in 4/4 at these points. For the lyrics Zappa is re-using lines from "Galoot up-date" from "Thing-Fish" unaltered, as he's also doing with the 1967 piano people. He lets these citations express his opinion, rather than using his own words from his testimony. Like above with the senators, the text by "Thing-Fish" is spoken and superimposed upon the rock theme in an irregular manner. He did give many interviews that expressed his ideas more directly and the ZFT has released his integral testimony on their release "Congress shall make no law". Harmonically this rock passage is a chord progression in F# minor. It begins with a F#m/F#m7 - D alternation, repeated a few times. The example above has this alternation two times. Next it gets followed upon by A - A (augmented 5th) - D - A progression over an A pedal by the bass, thus a modulation to A Mixolydian or major.

9:23   Collages #6, Senator Gorton: "Mr. Zappa, I am astounded ...".
11:42 Collages #6 cntd., "Mr. Zappa, thank you very much for your testimony ...".
12:03 End.

10. H.R. 2911

"H.R. 2911" is another collage, this time solely made up of synclavier samples. The title is the code for a law proposal that would tax blank recording tapes. This tax would be returned to the copyright holders of the music the people would probably copy on these tapes at home. By itself it had nothing to do with the PMRC proposals, but it was thought that a combination of regulations could make the record industry more receptive to the ideas of the PMRC. Eventually no laws were made, but parental advisory stickers did turn up for a while. To the right an outtake from the CD backside drawing by John Dearstyne.

H.R. 2911, 1:25-1:36 (midi file).

H.R. 2911, 1:25-1:36 (transcription).

This piece knows no themes in its standard definition. It rather sound as one big through-composed melody, hocketing with its notes popping up in quite a number of staves. Just 11 seconds already takes up a page. It's made up of motifs, note-strings and sustained notes. Combined you're getting at some sort of harmonized melodic line, accompanied by snorks and other undefined sound samples as well. Apart from these snorks it sounds as chamber music with a percussion section. I can't include these snorks in midi format, but I've indicated them at the bottom of the score. For this reason the midi file sounds less recognizable than I'd wish. The synclavier at this point had sounds imitating acoustic instruments, but not with the quality of how Zappa added them later on by sampling real acoustic instruments. Other collages as "N-lite" and "Beat the reaper" can contain regular themes (see the Civilization phaze III section). The constant factor in "H.R. 2911" are the bass drumbeats. Listening to the record it's impossible to discern downbeats, so I can't tell where Zappa may have put the meter lines. I've used dashed lines in the example just for readability, as if it's in 4/4.

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