Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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The unlimited popularity of the tonal system in western music has a lot to do with its capacity, combined with instrumentation and the way music is performed, to translate emotions into music in a for everybody recognisable form. It's also the way most people like to talk about music, often giving highly subjective interpretations of what the music means in their opinion along with it. Sections of music can express feelings of joy, sadness, anger and relaxation. Why this effect exists is usually not very clear. Dissonants and shouting can be associated with anger or tension, but why some melodic lines have the effect of joy and others don't is hardly explainable. It's better to take it for granted that the three downwards played notes of a minor third have the effect of sadness, and composers looking to maximize recognisable emotional impact probably have a good catalogue in their mind of melody types and their effect (compare "Debra Kadabra" from "Bongo Fury" from 2:44 onwards for a minor third effect).
Music can also be on a more emotionally abstract level, but certainly not less emotional, where it becomes difficult to translate the emotions into words other than "expressive" or "intense" and where the emotions seem to rely more on the pleasure of the listening to the music itself. Zappa prefers the more abstract level, confirmed by his unwillingness to take his personal life as the subject of his lyrics. He may talk about his lovely wife and children in "The Real Frank Zappa book", but never on his albums. Zappa's music can be very expressive, but speaking for myself I have no idea how I could describe for instance the guitar solos on "Shut up 'n play yer guitar" in emotional terms as happiness or tension.
In Zappa's music the whole palette of emotions occurs in such a manner that it gets undefinable in easy terms. This is related to his attitude towards music, being that he can use any chord in any scale as well as atonal music. He can, but does not specifically look for progressions that express drama in a classical sense. I'm continuing with this subject with my comment upon the "San Antonio" guitar solo from "Guitar" (1988). The more abstract level of musical expression is possibly indicated as a piece of poetry by Zappa himself in "Packard goose":
"Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST"
Specifically this last sentence has become well-known, because Zappa frequently used it as a slogan ever since the appearance of "Joe's garage" (next to "Don't forget to register to vote."). As I'm interpreting this, it means that one can listen to music as a goal entirely by itself.

Related to this is his instrumentation, that is functional for the composition, meant to make the notes audible in a clear way and not to create ornamental atmospheres or to overwhelm the listeners through sound building. Some exceptions do exist like the ornamental harp and percussion part at the end of the "Zoot Allures" guitar solo, that have a relaxing effect. There are also compositions that are specifically about sound effects, like "N-lite" from "Civilization Phaze III". In general Zappa chooses instruments that are unrelated in their sound so that they can play separately as well as together in different combinations, and always remain clearly distinguishable. Alternation of sound is the issue rather than the creation of an overall sound. Furthermore he doesn't raise or bend his voice while singing and he doesn't dance on stage, which is for pop music standards unusual. Zappa during the Larry King Live interview on this topic (CNN, 1989):
- LK: "How would you describe to someone, who had never heard it, the Zappa sound?"
- FZ: "Well, I do a lot of different kinds of music, and uh, you know, ranging from orchestral music to big band music to fuzz tone music, so...".
- LK: "There's no Zappa sound then?".
- FZ: "There are many Zappa sounds and you could specialise in one if you want to listen to only guitar type stuff, then I can give you a list of albums that have that. If you like orchestral music, that's another list, so it's a variety."


Paris As far as I'm concerned most note examples presented in this site are of the emotionally abstract kind. With the ones in this section and the previous Ruben and the Jets section, we're getting at songs with a better translatable emotional dimension. Most of them can be found on "Freak out", "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" and "Joe's garage". Of the infinite range from deepest inner sorrow to sound related expressions as feeling the groove, I've taken out some basics below.

Joe's garage

Relaxation and the building up of tension are present in the title track of "Joe's garage". It opens with a slow I-IV intro in E and then, as the sung melody begins, proceeds with I-IV-V. This movement continues in several shapes, alternated with divers interrupting bars, all in slow tempo. The ease of the I-IV-V progression expresses Joe's fine memories of the good old times when he was playing a tune like this with friends in his garage. At the end of the song, when Joe is complaining about all the new fashions in rock music, the comfortable I-IV-V environment is left and the tension starts to rise, ending with police interference. In the transcription below I've combined the opening and some sections, the last bar containing the start of tension. In the last two bars beats 1 and 2 of the first one still contains the I chord from E; on beat 3 this chord gets enlarged to I 9th. In the following bar the D# and F# are altered to natural and the whole harmony becomes an 11th chord over A. To the right FZ and Ray White singing "Joe's garage" (Paris 1980 show as broadcasted by Antenne 2).

Joe's garage (midi file)

Joe's garage (transcription)

Fembot in a wet T-shirt

The opposition of tension and relaxation is more directly present in the "Run home cues #3" example from the Movie scores section and the chamber music section at the end of "Lumpy Gravy, part I". After the dissonant notes in this section a little dialogue follows with one saying "not okay" and the other one complaining in response "no, man, no, I can go through this again?". After this some charming consonants follow. Happiness has already come by. Controlled in "Jelly roll gum drop" and "Deseri" from "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets". Euphorically in "What will this evening bring me this morning" from "200 Motels". Here's one from "Joe's garage":

Fembot in a wet T-shirt, opening (midi file)

Fembot in a wet T-shirt, opening (transcription)

The harmonic basis in bars 1-4 is a I-IV alternation in E. Staff 1 in bar 1 adds in extra passing through chords: the II chord over I and the V chord over IV. These passing through chords are responsible for making the opening sound so cheerful. Bar 5-6 have something of the VII-I cadence of E Mixolydian.

Lucille has messed my mind up

"Lucille has messed my mind up" is one of many examples of Zappa doing something one time only. In this case a sentimental ballad, a slow love song following easy patterns. It's yet another example of him doing exactly what he himself claimed to dislike. See the Real FZ book, chapter IV, section "purely a mistake", about his dislike of love songs. Stating for instance: "When they start lingering about love as a romantic concept - especially in the lyrics of the sensitive singer/songwriter type - we're even one step closer to total mental decay". This is a recurrent factor in his output, that can be confusing. This particular song is also an example of reggae.

Lucille has messed my mind up, opening (midi file)

Lucille has messed my mind up, opening and main themes (transcription)

"Lucille has messed my mind up" is in A minor. The instrumental opening, bars 1-7, is using a subset of six notes from this scale. It's made up of A-B-C-D-E-G, thus avoiding the F. You have to wait till bar 9 to know that the song is in minor for certain. The song displays a simultaneous use of 4/4 and 12/8, a very mild form of polyrhythms. Four beats can get subdivided into two or three ticks. The basis is the reggae rhythm by the bass and the two rhythms guitars. They are consistently playing in 12/8, so I've notated this song in 12/8. W. Ludwig, page 273, transcribed the lead melody of the two themes, that I've added to the example to show the polyrhythms more explicitly. These sung themes are in 4/4, so it's logical that he chose 4/4 for his transcription. The keyboard players and the drummer alternate between 4/4 and 12/8. Since 4/4 is the standard in pop-music, you've also got some authors who prefer to avoid notating in 12/8. Then you get triplets all the time or - when applicable - a note that two eighth notes should actually be played as a triplet (a fourth and an eighth note). These are all valid notational variants, but what's more simple than noting that four times three is twelve. The reggae rhythm, that Zappa is using here, is standard. There's a weak downbeat and a stronger accent on the third beat. The rhythms guitars are playing two ticks on beats two and four. The outlines of the song go as:
- 0:00: Bars 1-7 contain the instrumental opening bars, introducing the reggae rhythm. The keyboard players are improvising during the intro.
- 0:15: Main theme. Bars 8-13 feature most of theme 1. It's sung over a chord progression. C mingled with Am (or Am7), Dm mingled with F (or Dm7), G and Am. So it comes to rest upon the tonic at the end, rather than at the beginning.
- 0:49: Second theme, phrase 1 (bars 18-20 from the Ludwig transcription).
- 1:13: Second theme, phrase 2 (bars 21-24 from this transcription).
- 1:19: Main theme.
- 1:53: Second theme.
- 2:24: Playing around the main theme till the end of this song.
- 5:42: End. On the original vinyl album the "Scrutinizer postlude" was part of this song. They got seperated on the CD version.

Outside now - Packard goose

On "Joe's garage" Zappa depicted what can go wrong if you decide to start a career in the rock 'n roll business, with the accent on sexual abuse. It's also an example of the always present two-sidedness in his ideas. On the album sleeve we are warned that people exist who would like to make (rock) music illegal, but the so called central scrutinizer presenting and commenting the little play on the album, gives you some reasons why it should be. Whatever the purpose (if there is any), the play ends with the main character Joe winding up in prison, being able to play his music and guitar solos only in his imagination. He wails:

Outside now (1987), theme (midi file)
Packard goose, section (midi file)

Outside now (1987), theme (transcription)
Packard goose, section (transcription)

"Outside now" is in Bb Lydian, determined by the bass movement in staff 3. It alternates bars with Bb and C in two different meters (6/8 and 5/8). Otherwise the rhythm is even: a straight string of eight notes. The lead instrumental melody of the riff moves freely through the scale, avoiding any attempt to form a traditional 5th or 7th chord: the first seven notes are all the notes from the scale played once. The interval jumps between the notes keep varying. The sung staff 1 on the other hand does to some extent follow the Am chord. The brass in bar 4 is specific for the 1987 execution. "Outside now" returns in the Perfect stranger section of this study in a version for synclavier, called "Outside now again".
In the case of "Packard goose" the direction of the emotions lie mostly in the lyrics. The melody itself is fluid diatonic material, that you could just as well use for a love song. Subtle and effective is a chord change in bars 5-6 compared to bars 7-8, returning in bars 9-10 compared to bars 11-12. It's just the A# going to A natural, but it changes the climate in bars that are otherwise mostly the same. Here it's sung by Joe for fulminating against imaginary reviews of his guitar solos. Touching is also the re-appearance of Mary, just the soft intonation of her voice makes an impression. Her little speech includes Zappa's favorite phrase "Music is the best". It's also the non-imaginary Zappa himself, who once referred to rock journalists as people who know nothing about music, who write for people who know nothing about music. His irritation stems from the time "Absolutely free" was released. The album was for a rock album unprecedentedly complex and its details went unnoticed in reviews. There is more to this remark however. He also knew that it would get quoted by these same journalists, who can always comfort themselves with the thought that it's about their colleagues and not about themselves. Rock journalism is a strange business indeed. It's the only type of journalism I know of where it is considered normal to have no technical knowledge about the subject you're writing about whatsoever. Their articles are mostly about the lives of the artist, the music gets only vaguely described by naming styles and mentioning who's influenced by whom. It leads to bizarre individual reviews that don't contain any specific information about the music itself. Only when you're looking for a common denominator and average things out, something more sensible comes out. Another song in which the lyrics are responsible for the impact is an unreleased tribute Zappa wrote for his wife, called "Solitude". It was rehearsed in 1981 and premiered by the Band from Utopia. It's known by fans via a bootleg copy, indeed a touching piece, still waiting for an official release.

Watermelon in Easter hay

Zappa's two most famous vamps have probably become the two ones from "Joe's Garage", that are thus touching by their emotional impact. The "Outside now" vamp from above he himself was much fond of, because he used it so often. For the 1984 solo on "Guitar" (1987) he returned to the wailing "Watermelon in Easter hay" theme. Beneath are the theme in its 1984 phrasing and the closing bars of the 1979 version. They go as:

Watermelon in Easter hay, theme (1984, midi file)
Watermelon in Easter hay, coda (1979, midi file)

Watermelon in Easter hay, theme (1984, transcription).
Watermelon in Easter hay, coda (1979, notes).

These last two midi files lack the richness and warmth that is on the album. Not only because of sound quality (at least on my pc), but also because my midi editor can't do things as crescendo, decrescendo, glissando and vibrato.
Both "Outside now" and "Watermelon in Easter hay" are unusual solos in their use of meters. Zappa normally plays over 4/4 in his solos, but these two have odd additional metres, namely 6/8 + 5/8 and 4/4 + 5/4. Apart from the phrasing, the 1984 version of the theme also deviates from the 1979 execution in its rhythm. The "Joe's Garage" one places the A of the theme on the fourth beat of the vamp, whereas the "Guitar" version does this on the fifth beat. The vamp is a string of nine fourth notes, moving from C# downwards to E over an octave and then going up again to D#. The chords formed by the vamp in the two bars are IV 7th and I 9th of E. The E, being the lowest note of both the vamp and the bass, takes the weight of being the key note, more than the first A of the bass. This gets confirmed by the coda at the end. The core of the guitar motif, played over it at the beginning, is a D#-B-A-G# movement. The D# and B of bar 3 aren't part of the IV 7th chord of the vamp, thus extending the harmonic field to almost the whole scale. Likewise the A of the second bar isn't part of the I 9th chord. The guitar coda, that's eventually played over the vamp on "Joe's garage", is much more in line with vamp (which makes it functioning as a coda so clearly recognizable). It only has an extra V chord added between the two vamping chords. It goes as IV (5th)-I (5th) -V (both 5th and 7th). The closing bar contains I held (the E chord).
An earlier version of this composition is coming by as "Watermelon in easter hay (prequel)" in the "Hammersmith Odeon" section. Other instances to raise our tears are the classical broken heart song "How could I've been such a fool" from "Freak out" and the fragment from "You didn't try to call me", included in the "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" section.

Tush-tush-tush - A token of my extreme

"A token of my extreme" is a relaxed song, part of a set of three such songs following closely upon each other. The others are "Lucille has messed my mind up" and "Sy Borg", these last two with a slow reggae rhythm underneath them. With differents lyrics you could call these songs ballads. For "Joe's garage acts II & III", Zappa could return to a number of unreleased songs he had in stock as well as guitar solos from the last tour. See the One shot deal section for the "On the bus" solo. "A token of my extreme" draws upon a 1974 concert opener, called "Tush-tush-tush". This predecessor got released itself on the later 1988 "YCDTOSA Vol. II" release. "Tush-tush-tush" is built over a I-VII alternation in F# minor (E-F# when the pick-up bar moves over to bar 1; from bar 1 onwards you've got two bars with F#, followed by two bars with E). A bit later on, starting at 1:38, you can also hear a II-I progression being used at the pick-up point, G#m-5 - F#m). Both Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke had the ability to improvise lyrics combining understandable parts with meaningless and strangely pronounced text blocks. It creates an illusion of an interesting story being told and you're blaming yourself for not understanding it to the full. You can listen to it again and the same thing reiterates. George Duke and Napoleon Murphy Brock also do this on "Smell my beard" and "The booger man" from "YCDTOSA Vol. IV", for which songs they get most of the credit. Zappa makes fun of this with his introduction to "Dupree's paradise" on "YCDTOSA Vol. II", another such example ("... confronted with a partial - how shall we say this - language barrier here. We don't want to press the issue too much folks, but the chances that you figuring out what he [George Duke] is going to say during the song are nill."). In the midi file below the lyrics aren't included except for the three returning "Tush-tush-tush" notes that George and Napoleon jointly sing.

Tush-tush-tush, opening (midi file)
A token of my extreme, themes (midi file)

Tush-tush-tush, opening (transcription).
A token of my extreme, themes (notes).

The three pick-up notes with a VII-I progression in the "Tush-tush-tush" example form the starting point for theme I from "A token of my extreme". Its full melody is presented in bars 1-4. It's also played over an F#-E (I-VII) alternation by the bass, thus the same F# minor key is used again, but the chords in this case are played softly in the background and are mostly used for harmonic fill-in. The melody and the two bass pedal notes stand central. Bar 5, with just the Emaj7 chord gliding downwards, makes the transition to theme II. The drummer beats syncopically through this bar: four dotted eighth notes, followed by two normal eighth on beat 4. The remainder of the transcription is this second theme. It's made up of two phrases. The first, bars 6-9, gets played three times with variations. Bars 6-8 are in A minor. In bars 6-7 you have the minor variant with a major 7th (G#). In bar 8 you get the Aeolian variant with a minor 7th (G natural). For bar 9 the music modulates to D Mixolydian. Bars 10-13 are mostly identical, only some melody notes are different because the lyrics have a different amount of syllables. In bars 14-17 you get at a more serious variation. The notes for "cra-zy" are now B-G# instead of an only a G#. Notable is the chord used for the "-zy" syllable, namely Ab. Hence I've notated G# as Ab at this instance. It implies a modulation, but the bass persists in playing A pedal, so a modulation doesn't actually take place. Bars 18-22 form the second closing phrase of theme II. Bars 18-20 continue with D Mixolydian. Bars 19-20 contain improvised keyboard notes along the Dsus4 chord, played lightly. Bars 21-22 are in C# minor (or Dorian, the A/A# that makes the difference isn't used). The keyboard is now playing along Bsus2.

Other tracks from Joe's garage

- "On the bus" is analysed in the One shot deal section as an example of a solo where Zappa applied xenochrony.
- The lead melody from "Sy Borg" is present in the Ludwig study, pages 273-4 (see the references). The outlines of "Why does it hurt when I pee?" are sketched on page 227.
- The earlier live version of "Dong work for Yuda" is present in the Odeon Hammersmith section.
- The "Joe's Garage" version of "Keep it greasy" gets dealt with in the FZ:OZ section, next to the original 1976 version.
- Transcriptions of the guitar solos from "Outside now", "He used to cut the grass", "Packard goose" and "Watermelon in Easter hay" are available via the Frank Zappa guitar book. The Trance-fusion section contains a little sample of two bars from "He used to cut the grass".
- The original recording of "A little green rosetta" is present in the Läther section.


In 1979 Zappa produced L. Shankar's album "Touch me there" for his new Zappa Records label. Shankar had made some guest appearances during Zappa's 1978 US tour. See also the previous Halloween section and the YCDTOSA section for "Thirteen". The album consists of five instrumentals with Shankar soloing on electric violin and three songs for which Zappa wrote the lyrics. One of them, "Dead girls of London", is also known via YCDTOSA vol. V. The title track shows Zappa's flexibility. During the seventies he took an anti-love song attitude on his own albums, but this one is a sensitive song, sung by Jenny Lautrec. Apparently Zappa had no problems delivering the lyrics that go as "Touch me there, I like it. Touch me there, again. Touch me there, some more" with several repetitions. On paper rather simple, but in combination with Shankar's music it works.

No more Mr. nice girl

For "No more Mr. nice girl" Shankar and Zappa co-wrote the music, all other music on the album is by Shankar alone. The opening and outchorus are included in this section because it's such a merry feel good song. It opens with a syncopic disco type vamp in A Lydian, with the chord progression I 7th- II. It's followed by a melody in E, played consequently by various instruments. Then follows a violin solo, that ends with the repeated outchorus as presented below. The bass lick from the beginning returns, whereas staff 2 contains a repeated E2 chord. Over this the violins play a sequence of 5th chords, followed by the keyboards, doing a sequence of thirds. More about collaborating with Shankar in the Documentaries section with "Strat vindaloo".

No more Mr. nice girl, opening (midi file)
No more Mr. nice girl, outchorus (midi file)

No more Mr. nice girl, opening and outchorus (transcription)

Touch me there L. Shankar

Touch me there album cover and photo of L. Shankar.
Source: CD booklet, design by Carol Friedman.

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