Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Wolfgang Ludwig's book was published in 1992 by Verlag Peter Lang as an academic study to obtain a musicological degree at the Free University of Berlin. It's a lengthy publication of 300 pages containing a lot of analysis with many note examples and almost 50 pages of transcriptions. The study is in German and doesn't have a summary in English, so I'm giving it a try here. The book concentrates on Zappa's more regular pop- and jazz music. Zappa's modern music and the modern music elements integrated in his pop music are sometimes mentioned, but very little is done with it in the analysis. So luckily for me it doesn't cover the whole of Zappa's oeuvre, leaving enough for me to analyse. I've also tried to avoid duplicates.
After an overview of Zappa's career and some background information, Ludwig gets to the main body of his study in chapter IV, called stylistic research. It's subdivided into 5 chapters, that I'm giving here with the main conclusions:

1) Meters. Two aspects draw our attention. The first is the frequent change of metres during a song, that is often related to the thematic structure of the song. The second is that, though 4/4 is the most often used metre, Zappa applies a lot of metres with odd numbers. They can be multitudes of three, like 3/4 or 6/4, but also additional metres as 5/8, that can be subdivided as 3/8 plus 2/8 or vice versa.

2) Rhythm. The most ear catching aspect of Zappa's music is his rhythmic differentiation. Examples are given of the ways he's achieving this like by using irregular rhythmic groupings as triplets, shifting accents through syncopes or pauses at the bar accent point and the rhythmic variation of motifs and themes in his music.

3) Melody and harmony. Ludwig concludes that it's difficult to give typical Zappa melodies, but notices that there are some preferences. They are for instance the more than average use of intervals larger than a third, that can move into opposite directions. Some examples of unharmonic fourth and fifth movements are given. Further there are the frequent use of sequences, note repetitions and the inclination to adapt the melody to the syllables of the lyrics.

4) Instrumentation. Zappa's desire for an electronically amplified orchestra, using acoustic and amplified instruments, was postulated at the beginning of his career. Especially the many types of percussion and wind instruments applied catch our attention. In the arrangements melodies that are played unisono by two or more instruments are characteristic, as well as large distances between bass and descant, the mixing of more than one voice and several kind of sound effects, like bubbles, that illustrate the lyrics.

5) Recording techniques. Zappa has shown great interest in the latest developments in recording techniques, producing all but the first of his albums himself. Often used is the building of songs on albums through the combining and overdubbing of separate tracks that have been recorded at studios and different concerts on tour. Also characteristic is the frequent double channelling of his voice and guitar, making them sound as two instruments in the stereo surrounding.

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