Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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1. Billy the mountain - Penis dimension - Number 7

A sequence can mean any following order of notes or more specifically in the classical sense a melody with one or more motifs that get repeated starting on a different pitch. Zappa's biggest sequence in the classical sense is the keyboard interlude from "Easy meat" on "Tinsel town rebellion", called classical by Zappa himself in the liner notes. Next are two examples of atonal sequences. The first is included in the opening of "Penis dimension" from "200 motels", where in bars 10-14 the intervals of the sung melody are repeated in a chromatic set up. "Billy the mountain" from "Playground Psychotics/Just another band from L.A." is one of the lyrically oriented live pieces. It's a normal tonal piece, except for one occasion where it shifts into some atonal bars. After a clarinet introduction, Flo and Eddie sing the opening theme, beginning in D flat Lydian (the bass pedal note is D flat at the opening). The transcribed section at the part "(Postcar)-dy mountain ..." till "... Rosamon" has become atonal. As in the "Penis dimension" sequence from above, in the high voice the intervals are chromatically repeated. It's transcribed from "Playground psychotics" with Howard Kaylan singing the high voice along with the clarinet and Mark Volman singing sometimes the same notes and sometimes the lower notes.

Penis dimension, opening (midi file).
Billy the Mountain, Playground Psychotics, 0:14 till 0:45 (midi file).
Number 7, opening (midi file).

Penis Dimension, opening (notes).
Billy the Mountain, Playground Psychotics, 0:14 till 0:45 (transcription).
Number 7, opening (notes).

Zappa wrote several pieces of chamber music that only got general titles as "Exercise #4", "Numbers 6 and 7" and "Opus 5", the latter being part of the "Mount St. Mary" program from 1963. They could get incorporated in songs with regular titles, others are possibly still resting in Zappa's archive. "Numbers 6 and 7" are (or were) on the Barfko Swill list with available scores at Both were premiered after Zappa's death. "Number 6" can be found on a CD by "Prophetic attitude". A piano reduction of the opening of "Number 7" is present in an article in the Dutch magazine "Mens en melodie" by Barend Tromp (June 2000). It's played on the "Music by Frank Zappa" CD by the "Omnibus Wind Ensemble" (1995). All tracks on this CD are arrangements that sometimes follow the notes of the original quite literally, at other instances it's done with an amount of liberty. Because of that I can't tell for sure what the composition as a whole was intended to be by Zappa himself. The lead melody in staff 1 is a sequence, following the diatonic scale descendingly. For that reason it's included in this section (it's unknown when Zappa wrote this piece). It's made up of cells of two and three notes, thus avoiding that the movement becomes too much linear and creating odd meters. Of the other three voices the bass sounds as a counterpoint line and the two middle voices create a harmony with the main melody. They are not in the diatonic scale of staff 1, so the composition becomes atonal. The harmonies keep shifting via 5th, 7th and 9th chords. It's the combination of the bass line and these harmonies that make this piece an interesting miniature. The original instrumentation is for wind quintet, thus one of the four parts gets doubled. The rhythm is using the eighth note as a time unit all through and the piece is played slowly. For Zappa standards that's rather static and uncharacteristic of his music. The set up is also such that it could be played on a church organ by one person, with some notes transposed an octave.

Very roughly "Billy the mountain" can be subdivided into five blocks, with the times from "Just another band from L.A.":
- 0:00 Block I: opening as described/transcribed above.
- 0:43 Block II: Billy the mountain vamp (0:43-0:46) and central theme in Ab (3:05-3:42), followed by and alternated with a number of side themes and narrative episodes.
- 11:16 Block III: Studebacher Hoch part.
- Not included is Block IV, solos by band members. These can be heard on the "Playground psychotics" version and the "Carnegie Hall" edition by the ZFT. On both occasions they're accompanied by a I-II alternation in C Lydian.
- 21:20 Block V: Finale.
- 24:46 End.

Studebacher Hoch

Sample from Zappa's script for "Billy the mountain" with Studebaker Hog being spelled as "Studebacher Hoch".

Billy the Mountain, 20:02-20:29 (midi file).

Billy the Mountain, 20:02-20:29 (transcription).

The narrative parts tend to dominate the piece, making it a mixture of literature and music. There are some sections, where the music stands central for a longer period. The example above stems from the section from 19:39 through 21:20 with a number of themes. The transcribed bars comprehend:
- bar 1: instrumental bar in 4/4 and G Mixolydian.
- bars 2-5: four times a bar in D with the lyrics following the same rhythm. In this case Flo and Eddie are mostly singing the same notes. See above and below for how they can differentiate.
- bars 6-9: two times a phrase of two bars in D Mixolydian. The harmonies are a mixture of I and VII, as triads and sus-chords.
- bar 10: a pattern breaking bar in 13/8. Here the rhythm follows the syllables of the lyrics with exact eighth notes. This is between musical and speech-wise singing. Musically the lyrics are normally written to be able to be adapted to the rhythm of a song. Zappa could also compose speech-wise, where the music adapts itself to the rhythm of spoken language. This is a third approach he applied only a few times. The text determines the 13/8 meter, but the syllables of the words are pronounced as eighth notes in a rather mechanical manner. It starts as if still continuing in D Mixolydian, but ends chromatically.
- bar 11: return to the phrase from bars 6-9.

2. Call any vegetable

"Call any vegetable" begins in bar 3 with a fast string of 16th and 8th notes, that always strikes me as Zappa, not because he's using them that often, but because I seldom hear them with other artists. The movement from beat 1 to 2 is syncopic, the remainder is on beat. This song first appeared on "Absolutely free". The version here is from "Just another band from L.A.", that has an extra theme in normal rock time, beginning in bar 18. Bars 1-17 are in E minor or E Dorian (there's no C or C# in this part to confirm which one it is). From bar 18 onwards in the transcription the song is in F# Dorian.

Call any vegetable (1971), opening (midi file)

Call any vegetable (1971), opening (transcription)

"She painted up her face" is one of the themes Flo and Eddie are singing on "200 Motels". It's the opposite of the fast string from the "Call any vegetable", going slowly with notes lasting over bars. See the next "200 Motels" section for its opening.

3-4. Eddie are you kidding? - Magdalena

Between two new renditions of earlier Zappa songs, "Eddie are you kidding?" and "Magdalena" are two more comedy acts with Flo and Eddie standing central. They claim to have contributed to these songs. "Eddie are you kidding?" is innocent humor, making fun of double-knit clothing. "Magdelena" is a pretty different form of humor, somewhere between entertaining and shocking an audience.

Magdalena, opening (midi file).

Magdalena, opening (transcription).

"Magdalena" is one of the many Zappa songs that include tempo changes (see the meters table in the Roxy section for an overview of examples of songs with tempo changes). In this case these changes are essential. If you would leave them out it would spoil the song. In the transcribed section bar 19 offers a variation upon bar 11 via a tempo change. The rhythm is also different, but if you would skip the tempo change, the variation effect would mostly be gone. In the second half of the song a "walk, walk, walk" vamp starts. The vamp gets accelerated till the end of the piece, emphasizing the sick horniness as expressed in the lyrics. At the end a siren enters the scene, before everything calms down for the introductory rock bars for "Dog breath". The transcribed section contains the three themes of the first half of the song.
Bars 1-10: Theme I. The opening bars of "Magdalena" are in the vaudeville parody style with a fourth movement in the bass, often used in various forms of folk music and country and western music. It goes similar to the opening of "Lonesome cowboy Burt" on "200 Motels". See also the Broadway the hard way section for this topic. Flo and Eddie are singing a string of notes, about as fast as possible if you still want to be able to distinguish the words of the lyrics. The song begins in standard 4/4. The key is D Mixolydian, modulating to A Mixolydian from bar 9 onwards.
Bars 11-22: Theme II. This theme of four bars is sung three times. First two times in 6/4 with a regular repetition. The third time offers a variation via a tempo change, as mentioned, for the first two bars of the theme. Then the other two bars are sung in 12/8 in the original tempo.
Bars 23-29: Theme III. Again in 6/4, now in a slower tempo.

5. Dog breath

The different appearances of "Dog breath" and the "Dog breath variations" are getting amply dealt with in the Uncle Meat section. The Ludwig study (see the references) contains an example, specifically transcribed from "Just another band from L.A.". I've included some bars below. My own transcriptions concern four other renditions of these titles.

Dog breath, 1971, 0:44-0:55 (midi file).

Dog breath, 1971, 0:44-0:55 (transcription).

These bars deal with the divergence between the vocal parts Flo and Eddie are singing. The higher line sings the full text. The second lower line sings slower, in a different rhythm, with only the first words of the two sentences involved. It uses different pitches as well, offering harmony notes for the first line.
The accompaniment is a D-Em alternation. By itself one would say this (second) theme is in D, but in a wider context it can also be seen as step V of G Lydian or IV of A Mixolydian. See the Uncle Meat section for more about this topic. In this version the accent lies on G Lydian. It has a coda of its own in F# Dorian, including a guitar solo over a chromatically descending bass movement (F#-F natural-E-D#). This coda starts at 1:29.


Carnegie Hall In October 2011 the ZFT released a large archive recording from the next year as "Carnegie Hall". It contains most of the two concerts the Mothers of Invention gave at this location, October 11th 1971, a one time only event (photo to the left by Charles Hu). "The subcutaneous peril" from "Finer moments", a ZFT release from 2012, is another track that stems form these two concerts. Every once in a while Zappa played an early and a late show during a single night. The two shows are entirely different. As usual you've got differences in the versions played, compared to the already released ones.

Who are the brain police? (1971)

The opening riff of "Who are the brain police?" for instance is much different from the one played a year ago. See the previous Fillmore East 1970 section for "Who are the brain police?" from 1970. This time it's used during several of the sung bars as well (bars 5-6 and 16-17). The rhythm, with its many triplets, has the same basis, but the riff is now moving through it in a syncopic way using a melodic line throughout.

Brain police variation (Carnegie Hall, 1971), theme (midi file)

Brain police variation (Carnegie Hall, 1971), theme (transcription)

According to Gail Zappa's writing in the CD booklet the recordings from this 1971 tour are complete. Gail and Joe Travers continue with commenting upon the equipment used and the format of the tapes, the latter posing a problem to play them for years since Joe became "vaultmeister". Apparently Zappa didn't have the best equipment at hand for every concert - this one is in mono - which might explain why he himself focussed on only three venues for all of his own live recordings from 1971. It looks like the recording conditions were the best on these occasions.

It is known that Zappa had considered both the "Fillmore East" and "Just another band from L.A." albums to become double albums. "Fillmore East" would have included "Billy the Mountain" and the John and Yoko jam, but this failed because Zappa didn't feel like negotiating with Lennon's manager Allen Klein. This is clear because it got mentioned by Flo and Eddie in interviews. The fact that "Just another band from L.A." was at first constructed as a double album is also clear, but its content less. According to, among others, the site, the album at first contained solos from for instance the Carnegie Hall concerts. "The subcutaneous peril", mentioned above, gets listed as an included track (outtakes only, because it lasts much shorter). I can't verify this, but seen the quality of Zappa's solos in it, it's possible. For the later "Playground psychotics" release from 1992 Zappa himself returned to material for what might have been sides 3 and 4 of "Fillmore East", but apparently not to the double album version of "Just another band from L.A.". The liner notes by Gail Zappa on "Finer moments" are, as usual, cryptical, vaguely suggesting that Zappa, in 1972, had been working on material from this CD to be included in a later release. The CD certainly has its finer moments. "Uncle Rhebus" got dealt with in the Uncle Meat section. The couple of guitar solos on this CD are fine. "Sleazette" is, like "Get a little" from "Weasels ripped my flesh", a solo in E Dorian and similar in its sound. "The old curiosity shoppe" has its speed changed (it's out of tune with keyboard frequences). It's the same type of solo as the 1970 "Holiday in Berlin" solo from above, to my knowledge the first time Zappa applied a I-II alternation in Lydian. Internet pages however attribute it to "Billy the mountain", which means that Zappa had transferred this type of playing to another song. He would return to this alternation a number of times during his career with several examples included in this study (see the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section for an overview). "Uncle Rhebus" contains the "Baked-bean boogie" solo, with a section taken from it to be found in the Weasels section from this study.

The subcutaneous peril

Here we continue with the two guitar solos from "The subcutaneous peril". Both have elements in them that are common for Zappa's solos, but also features that happen less often. The first section is the opening solo in D Dorian. The bass is giving a plain D pedal note, but the keyboards in staffs 2-3 are playing a chord progression. It's done in a refined, rather delicate way, gently in the background. With a central chord per bar this progression is I-II-(III)-IV, next I-IV-V-IV-(III) and next I-V-I. This type of accompaniment is unusual in Zappa's output. Mostly it's a free improvisation instead of a progression like this when Zappa is playing a solo over a pedal note. For the solo itself you can see that Zappa is using the B as central note for bars 1-6. The solo begins with the descending motif D-C-B, to be varied upon at the beginning of bar 2. B is also the central note in bars 5-6, giving these opening bars a sense of a double tonality. As if Zappa is playing in B Locrian, while the bass indicates D Dorian. This is something that happens quite often in Zappa's solos. See the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section at the Heavy duty Judy paragraph for Zappa's comment upon this. In bar 7 the solo turns to an altered note, Db, to end on D natural in bar 8.

The subcutaneous peril, opening (midi file).
The subcutaneous peril, section (midi file).

The subcutaneous peril, opening (transcription).
The subcutaneous peril, section (transcription).

This first guitar solo gets followed by a synthesizer, a keyboard and a drum solo. The drum solo begins with playing a three-note upgoing motif on the toms: G-Ab-Eb (6:50-7:06 minutes). It also ends with it at 10:54 and Zappa picks up this motif as the starting point for his second guitar solo. At 10:56 he plays his three-note upgoing motif: A-B-F, in the same tempo. He couldn't use the same pitches as the toms because he would continue in D Dorian as at the beginning. The transcription starts at 11:32 where this motif has been extended to a little theme: A-B-D-D-B-F-D. Bars 2, 3, 5, 13 and 17 are variations upon this theme. Bars 9-10 are more direct variations upon the original three-note motif itself. Now you've got three upgoing notes doing D-E-Ab and D-E-Bb. The altered notes Ab and Bb come out sharply because they are in dissonance with the A by the bass (the bass is continuing here as indicated in bars 2-3). This second solo at the end of this instrumental piece can be seen as exceptional in the sense that Zappa keeps varying this A-B-F motif over a very long period. Varying motifs is standard in Zappa's solos. See the "Mo' mama" example from the Sheik Yerbouti section for some comment upon this. But here Zappa sticks to varying one motif for over a minute and a half. Only at 12:31 new motifs/themes get into the picture and Zappa continues soloing as we are used to. Still the impact of the motif remains persistent: it returns at 14:37-14:45, 15:36-15:45 and 15:55-16:04.

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