Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Garrick Theatre In 1967 the Los Angelos freak scene was completely overrun by the world wide spreading Flower Power movement, that had its origins in San Francisco. Zappa wasn't fond of their ideas, certainly not their positive attitude towards drugs. His music already needs concentration playing it sober, so the idea of musicians on drugs while he was paying for their time was unacceptable for him.

The Mothers playing at the Garrick Theater, New York 1967. Source: Overnite sensation/Apostrophe (') DVD.

On his contrary album "We're only in it for the money", he reproduces their ideals while at the same time adding demeaning remarks to it ("forgive me because I'm stoned"; "flower power sucks"). Because the Flower Power movement lost its innocence and impact with the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1970, "We're only in it for the money" has with hindsight become a reflection upon the sixties. Zappa still found himself kicking at remnants of the movement in his eighties songs "The blue light" and "We're turning again". The music on the album is, regarding chord progressions, less complicated and it is an example of the more commercial side of Zappa. The construction of the songs on the album however can be sophisticated. "Flower punk" is as a progression relatively easy. "What's the ugliest part of your body?" below deals with rhythmic complexities. In "The Real Frank Zappa Book" of 1989 Zappa uses three pages arguing against the "hateful practices" of traditional harmony, especially the chord progressions that are played over and over again in pop music and the chords of resolution you had to write down to pass a harmony course (The Real Frank Zappa Book, chapter 8, section "hateful practices"; Zappa!, page 32). Zappa's attitude towards traditional harmony is ambiguous however, because he applied common chord progressions with just as much ease as he liked to deviate from them. See the Joe's Garage section for Joe's love declaration to I-IV-V. He even had a weakness for deliberate simplicity, represented in the teenage love songs from "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" (1968). Sections from "Absolutely free" and "Mother people" are included below as examples of uncomplicated chord progressions (all 5th chords unless indicated). The Cruising with Ruben and the Jets section contains some more of such examples.
It's a commonplace in rock 'n roll history that "Sergeant Pepper's lonely hearts club band" by the Beatles is the first concept album, usually without explaining what then this concept is. I guess it's the packaging, the instrumentation and maybe the quality of each individual song. Some Zappa fans have argumented that the Mother's first two albums could then be considered concept albums as well. Indeed all Zappa's albums each have some form of a conceptual idea behind them. It can be in style, it can be in the lyrics and it's about always present in the sound of an album. For the two albums this section is about the concept is outspoken and obvious, in the music and the lyrics. "We're only in it for the money" is about the hippie era with relatively main stream music combined with some experimental tracks.

1-2 Are you hung up - Who needs the Peace Corps?

The album opens with "Are you hung up", one of a number of collages of spoken texts and sound effects, frequently mutated. On the ZFT release "Lumpy money" you can find instrumental recordings from a number of songs from "We're only in it for the money", among them "Who needs the peace corps?". This release also contains a 1984 re-mix of this album with a newly recorded bass and drum part. Zappa did the same for "Cruising with Ruben and the jets". What happened is discussed in the corresponding section in this study for the latter CD. Quite some fans felt undignified by this step, so Zappa decided to revive the original 1968 recording for today's CD version of "We're only in it for the money".
In "Who needs the Peace Corps?" you can hear a couple of different modal scales coming by, which is common practice in Zappa's music:
- 0:00 Intro with a C and B chord alternation in C Mixolydian.
- 0:08 Theme 1 beginning with a C and F#m chord alternation. These two chords don't belong to the same scale. Combined with the melodic notes, the implied scales are C Lydian and F# minor.
- 0:20 Theme 2 in A Mixolydian.
- 0:26 Theme 1.
- 0:38 Theme 2, extended instrumentally.
- 0:57 Theme 3 in F Lydian.
- 1:14 Variation upon theme 1.
- 1:24 Theme 3.
- 1:42 The chord alternation from theme 1 is maintained to the end.
- 2:43 End.
See the Burnt weeny sandwich section for an overview of the use of scales in all examples in this study.

3. Concentration moon

The set-up of "Concentration moon" is as follows:
0:00 Theme 1, phrase 1. This section is in Bb, the meter being 3/4. The chord here is another easy going one: I-IV-I-V 7th-V and back to I. The first example below is the opening of the song, showing this progression in bars 1-4 and bars 5-8.

Concentration moon, theme 1, phrase 1 (midi file).

Concentration moon, theme 1, phrase 1 (transcription).

0:24 Theme 1, phrase 2. The progression here is VI-II-IV-V, still in Bb, followed by four more bars with only an F pedal.
0:41 Theme 2, phrase 1. The bass pedal note switches to C. The set of notes remains the same, thus the scale becomes C Dorian. Here you've got a single vocal line, instead of the close harmony group from the first example. The melody goes downwards, while the pass plays a simple figure upwards, thus creating a light form of counterpoint (bars 1-2 of the second example). The harmonies now are less common: I-III-VI 9th (no 3rd, no 7th)-VI 9th (no 3rd).
0:52 Theme 2, phrase 2. This part doesn't follow a single scale, nor a single pedal note. As shown in the second example:
- bar 3: Bb pedal plus a Dm chord.
- bar 4: Bb pedal plus Am-5.
- bar 5: Dd pedal plus Fm7.
- bar 6: chromatic movement.

Concentration moon, theme 2 (midi file).

Concentration moon, theme 2 (transcription).

1:05 "Tomorrow ...". Whispering voices.
1:13 "Hi boys and girls ...". The famous Jimmy Carl Black line.
1:17 Themes 1 and 2 repeat.
2:22 End.

4. Mom & Dad

The structure of this song can be readily followed, using the arrangement in the FZ Songbook vol. I, pages 84-87:
- 0:00 Two instrumental bars in E Dorian are used as a transitional element all through this song. This is their first appearance as a little instrumental intro.
- 0:04 Theme 1 ("Mamma ...") with a chord progression, not belonging to one specific scale.
- 0:21 The instrumental bars.
- 0:24 Theme 2 ("You'll sit ...") in C.
- 0:34 The instrumental bars.
- 0:39 All of the above from theme 1 onwards gets repeated.
- 1:10 Theme 3, phrase 1 ("Ever take a minute ..."), in F Lydian.
- 1:21 Theme 3, phrase 2 ("Ever tell your kids ..."), with a Bbmaj9 - Abmaj9 chord alternation. What you hear are major sonorities, not attributable to one or two particular scales (I earlier referred to these bars as Bb Mixolydian, but that was too hastily). Combined you've got A natural next to Ab and individually these chords with their melodies don't generate enough notes to be sure about a scale.
- 1:30 Theme 3, phrase 3 ("Ever wonder why ..."), in D Dorian.

Mom & Dad, sample from the score.

- 1:40 The instrumental bars and theme 1 return.
- 1:57 The instrumental bars, followed by a variation upon theme 2 as the coda of this song. With the final sentence ("they killed her too"), the song neatly modulates back to the E Dorian tonality from the beginning. The latter you could call "by the book" as it comes to classical tonality.
- 2:16 End.
The meter of this song is 4/4 without rhythmic difficulties, on three occasions interrupted by a bar in 2/4.

5-6. Telephone conversation - Bow tie daddy

"Telephone conversation" is a recorded telephone call between two of Zappa's friends, with one woman warning the other about her father looking for her. So the lyrics of the next track must be meant as Zappa's reaction to this situation. This song, "Bow tie daddy", is musically in an interbellum style for a change. It has its basis in C (most specifically bars 1, 4 and 5), but keeps changing scales frequently. From bar 8 onwards the modulations start to dominate. The lead melody is rhythmically characterized by its alteration of on beat notes and various forms of syncopes. The syncopes are created via triplets, bows and dotted notes. See also the Lumpy gravy section for "It's from Kansas" for another example of such music.

Bow tie daddy, opening (midi file).

Bow tie daddy, opening (transcription).

Compared to other rock composers Zappa's inclination to use non-traditional harmonic patterns is one of his distinctive features. We'll see a lot of it in the coming sections. It is understandable that Zappa liked to put the accent on this in his interviews, but if he didn't apply normal patterns as well his albums would never sell and Zappa would never have reached the status and financial independency as he has done. Apart from "We're only in it for the money", we have albums as "Apostrophe (')", "Sheik Yerbouti" and "You are what you is", that show Zappa's commercial side and sold well for Zappa standards. As he himself has remarked the London Symphony Orchestra recordings would have been financially impossible without these albums.
One of the things that bothered Zappa for a while was to get his music played on the radio and the production of a hit single. Why some singles become hits and others don't is a territory that has many haphazard elements in it. It certainly helps to write a catching melody, that has the effect on people of "gee, I'd like to hear this again", also when only half listening. But fashionable aspects in the sound building and a direct emotional appeal get in the picture as well. Zappa had no specific sense for writing hits and besides that he refused to adapt his lyrics to a level that wouldn't offend anybody. Eventually Zappa did get two hits when has name was already well known. "Bobby Brown" from "Sheik Yerbouti", an example of a song with a catching melody, hit the charts in two European countries, where the lyrics formed no real problem, and "Valley Girl" from "Ship arriving too late for a drowning witch" sold well in the U.S. The latter due to a gimmick in it, with his daughter Moon portraying a spoiled west coast teenage girl. See the Does humor belong in music and Drowning witch sections for more about these two songs.

7. Harry you're a beast

The score of this song is or used to be available via in an arrangement by Jon Nelson. You could try to contact the ZFT for a copy. The song has lyrics on "We're only in it for the money", but can be heard in an instrumental version on "Make a jazz noise here" and "Lumpy Money". It's a short song with the following harmonic basis (times from the "We're only in it for the money" version):
- 0:00 Piano intro with the chord progression F#m-Bm-D-E as arpeggios, continuing with playing through E7-9.
- 0:12 Theme 1 in A Mixolydian.
- 0:30 Theme 2, phrase 1. Chromatic parallel movement of major triads, F-F#-G.
- 0:38 Theme 2, phrase 2. Two more major triads, G-A.
- 0:44 Snorks with some atonal accompaniment.
- 0:51 Theme 2, phrase 1, some more.
- 0:59 Theme 3 with C#7-B7.
- 1:06 Theme 4. Instruments: first an Ab+Eb - Db+F alternation, followed by a second B+F# - E+G# alternation. Vocals: an Ab-Bb alternation, followed by a B-C# alternation. The second formation is a transposition of the first one.
- 1:13 The progression F#m-Bm-D-E from the opening is now used as a coda.
- 1:21 End.
With the exception of theme one, this piece is very much composed as a progression of chords, unrelated to an overall scale. Instead, these chords seem to imply a scale each by themselves. It's diatonic with scale fragments. Only theme one is stable in A Mixolydian, with a melody with a standard accompaniment. This matter is also discussed in my "The idiot bastard son" analysis in the YCDTOSA Vol. II section of this study.
I seem to have miswritten myself in the table from my discussion with Clement, where I put the tonic A in the Aeolian column instead of the Mixolydian column (and the C# Locrian remark doesn't belong there). The song is obviously in A Mixolydian, as also Clement indicates.

8. What's the ugliest part of your body?

"What's the ugliest part of your body?" is a returning song on "We're only in it for the money" in the shape of a collage. Here things are getting more complicated. The chords are standard, but rhythmically it's complex: changing meters, including odd ones, a tempo change and various syncopic forms in the lead melody. It's made up of three themes as presented in the following block of transcribed bars:
- Theme A, bars 1-12: the main theme in doo-wop style. The bass is giving the root notes of the basic chord progression, being I, VI 7th, IV and V in G. This four bar bass progression gets repeated three times. The doo-wop element lies in the accompanying vocal harmonies in the second staff.
- Theme B, bars 13-20: the second theme in 7/8 falls in abruptly. In fact it has nothing in common with theme A. The meter is different, the tempo is different and the keys are different, so you could just as well say that a new song is starting here. It's using more than one scale, the chord progression in rock notation being C, A, Am7 and D.
- Theme C, bars 21-24: a third theme in the same tempo as the previous one. This one is doing a little sequence gliding through scales as well. The progression here is three minor chord going down following the chromatic scale followed by one major chord: Bm, Bbm, Am (plus a vague D in the bass) and Ab. In staff 2 a second voice a singing a quarter note behind the lead vocal, somewhat softer in the background, thus creating an echo effect.

What's the ugliest part of your body?, section (midi file).

What's the ugliest part of your body?, section (transcription).

The collage construction of this song is set up via two means:
- The song itself can be split into two halves as indicated.
- The A theme is just sung once and doesn't return in the song itself. It returns much later on on the CD, namely 9 tracks further in the form of a reprise. During this second track the theme does get varied upon, though in an unconventional way by speeding up its phrases.

9-10 Absolutely Free - Flower punk

Next is a section of the melody from "Absolutely free". The chords here are first in F Mixolydian, I-II-I-V (bars 1-8), then in A flat, I-IV-V-VII (bars 9-12), followed by two closing chords in F Mixolydian, I-VII (bars 13-15). Hereafter the song rolls back into I of the opening theme.

Absolutely free, opening (midi file).

Absolutely free, opening (score/transcription).

There's also an instrumental version of "Absolutely Free" to be found on "Lumpy money", disc III (chords, bass and drum). The complete score of this song is available in the Frank Zappa songbook vol. I, pages 90-95. They are transposed, comparing them to each other. The above begins in F Mixolydian, the Songbook in G Mixolydian and the instrumental track in D Mixolydian. "Flower punk" contains a repeating chord progression, it's structure being relatively easy compared to the songs from above. The overdubs at the end however give this song a quite unusual character: on one channel you hear a hippie dreaming about achieving his ideals while on the other channel a manager talks about how to invest all the money that comes from it.

11-12 Hot poop- Nasal retentive calliope music

With these two tracks Zappa continues with the idea of adding collages to this album. MGM objected to some sentences Zappa had recorded and forced him to disguise or eliminate them. Because of this there are small version differences between some releases, as discussed in the Cosmic Debris book by Greg Russo, son of revisited version, page 62. This applies for instance to "Hot poop". Zappa describes "Nasal retentive calliope music" as the overture to side two of the original vinyl album. This side contains a series of songs he had in stock, not specifically addressing themselves to the hippie movement.

13-14. Let's make the water turn black - The idiot bastard son

An instrumental live version of "Let's make the water turn black" from 1987 is included in the Best band you never heard in your life section.
Three versions of "The idiot bastard son" get dealt with in the YCDTOSA II section: the first 1967 recording, a 1974 live version and the re-mix from 1984 with newly recorded bass and drums part. The current CD features the original 1967 recording, while the 1984 re-mix is available on the ZFT release "Lumpy money". See also the Ruben and the Jets section for these re-mixes

15. Lonely little girl

Zappa frequently sped tapes up for his CDs. Sometimes this conclusion can be derived directly: by speeding a track up arbitrarily, you can get at frequencies that are out of tune with keyboard frequencies. This is for instance happening on the current CD issue of "You are what you is". Sometimes the speed is thus going up, that it's getting to sound unnatural if humans were to play it like that. Quite obviously this is happening in "A vicious circle" from the next section of this study. In case of "Lonely little girl" Zappa sped up the tape, causing a transposition of exactly a minor third. In such instances you can only indirectly draw a conclusion that the pace has been changed, namely if you get the chance to listen to the original track. This is the case for "Lonely little girl". The theme structure, chords and timing go as:

"We're only in it for the money" version:
- 0:00 Intro with an Ab-Ebm in Ab Mixolydian alternation, ending with C#-B.
- 0:10 Theme 1 with the Ab-Ebm alternation.
- 0:22 Theme 2 with Bbm-Eb-Cm-F, played twice.
- 0:32 Theme 3 with Gm-Ab.
- 0:40 Theme 4 with Cm-Bb-Fm-Eb.
- 0:44 Theme 5 with Gm7-C, ending with improvising over Gm.
- 1:08 End.

"Lumpy money", instrumental version on disc III:
- 0:00 Intro with an F-Cm in F Mixolydian alternation, ending with Bb-Ab.
- 0:11 Theme 1 with the F-Cm alternation.
- 0:22 Theme 2 with Gm-C-Am-D, played twice.
- 0:37 Theme 3 with Em-F.
- 0:47 Theme 4 with Am-G-Dm-C.
- 0:52 Theme 5 with Em7-A, ending with improvising over Em plus A, in the position B-E-G-A.
- 1:26 End.

The duration relationship can also be calculated. Speeding up a track to double-speed multiplies frequencies by 2 or an octave. With 12 minor seconds in an octave you get the 12th root of 2 = 1,05946 as multiplying factor per minor second. The transposition above is with a minor third or three times this multiplying factor. For the starting point of theme 5: 0,44*(1,05946)³ = 0:52. The end got lightly edited, so this doesn't go for the whole song.

16-17. Take your clothes off while you dance

Zappa first recorded "Take your clothes off while you dance" as an instrumental in 1961. An example is included in the Paul Buff section. This version is its first public release, this time with lyrics. Another instrumental version would appear as the album closing track on the next album, "Lumpy gravy". Track 17 is the reprise of "What's the ugliest part of your body?", as mentioned above.

18-19 Mother people - The chrome plated megaphone of destiny.

Next is a fragment of the melody of "Mother people" with the chords progression I-IV-V-VI-IV-V-I in D written beneath it (what you hear on the album is yet another sped up track, a minor third higher). Notable is that for the bass Zappa puts a C natural beneath it in bar 1 instead of a D. Rhythmically the three presented bars offer three different forms in 3/4. The first bar is on beat. The second is syncopic between beats one and two. The third bar is 3/4 subdivided into 4.

Mother people, opening bars (midi file).

Mother people, opening bars (notes).

The entire score of this song is available in the Frank Zappa songbook vol. I, pages 30-33. With "The chrome plated megaphone of destiny" the idea of creating collages has resulted in a full-blown piece of 6:25 minutes. The CD leaflet contains an instruction by Zappa, that, because it's printed over a photo, is almost illegible. Only the head with a reference to Kafka's book The penal colony in clear. The track can be subdivided into a couple of sections with sound effects and modern atonal music. No additional players are credited on the album, so it must be the Mothers themselves playing all this.

No matter what you do

In cluded in the "'Tis the season to be Jelly" bootleg is a love song parody called "No matter what you do", that the Mothers played in 1967. This bootleg got an official status for its inclusion in the "Beat the boots" series. "No matter what you do" is a collage of textual and musical conventions. The exact origins of this song are a mystery. Everything on it sounds thus familiar that the chances that Zappa is arranging material here from his fifties single collection are a lot bigger than that he wrote the (entire) song himself. Halfway the booklet of "MOFO" there's a sheet with a "must record" songlist in Zappa's handwriting, where this song gets mentioned by its opening lyrics as "I could be a slave". There are various other titles on this list, that aren't on Zappa's official albums. One that now has become known via "MOFO" is "Groupie bang bang". This last song is a mix of material by Zappa and "Not fade away" by Petty and Hardin (best known via Bo Diddley and The Rolling Stones). The purposes of this sheet remain uncommented upon. "No matter what you do" is made up of three blocks:
- Opening lick ("No matter what you do") in Bb Mixolydian (more or less, the bootleggers tampered with the speed) with as progression I-II-VII. The riff surprises by its joyful impact. Zappa also used it for "All night long", a song on the "Animalism" album by The Animals, that he got credited for as arranger. Apparently he didn't consider himself the writer of that specific song. The origins of "All night long" are a mystery just as well, thus not bringing a solution any nearer. There are at least three popsongs with the same title. One by Johnny Otis, one by Joe Houston and one by Lionel Ritchie. None of these correspond to "All night long" on the "Animalism" album. Biographer Kevin Courrier states that "All night long" was written by Harris Woody, turned into a big hit by Chuck Higgins back in the fifties. It looks as if he's mixing things up. Harris Woody gets wrongly credited for "All night long" on the "For real" album by Ruben and the Jets (that's the one Joe Houston played). Zappa was indeed a fan of Chuck Higgins' biggest hit "Pachuko hop/Motorhead baby", but I couldn't find anything about an "All night long" by him.

No matter what you do (Trad./(Arr.) Zappa), opening bars (midi file).

No matter what you do (Trad./(Arr.) Zappa), opening bars (transcription).

- Second theme ("I don't care how you treat me"). Though the music of "No matter what you do" is comparted into three blocks, this is not the case with the lyrics. Regarding the text "No matter what you do" is consistent. The lyrics of the opening lick however would fit less into "All night long", where the lick is played as an instrumental intermezzo. On "No matter what you do" the opening lyrics go as: "I could be a slave for the rest of my life, if only you could be my matter what you do, can't hide my love for you". This is not specifically related to the text of "All night long", whereas in "No matter what you do" the follow up with "I don't care how you treat me" is quite logical. The question then who is behind the music goes for the lyrics just the same.
- Third spoken block, that is using the slow theme from the 1st movement of Tschajkovky's 6th symphony in the background. The lyrics, with the "big tits" punch line, are undoubtedly Zappa. "I married Joan" is a reference to a fifties TV series, but the music from the title track from that series isn't used here.

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