Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Zappa composing Three of the tracks from "Sleep dirt", released in 1978, stem from the same period as the "Zoot allures" sessions, namely the ones with the large guitar solos. Zappa for a while thought about making "Zoot allures" a double album, including these takes. The other four songs on "Sleep dirt" stem from 1974-1975. He had written them in 1972 as part of the "Hunchentoot" opera. They first saw the world in instrumental versions, but when Zappa re-released "Sleep dirt" on CD, he had asked Thana Harris for overdubbing the lyrics he originally had in mind for "Hunchentoot".

Zappa putting a melody on paper in an airplane, late seventies. Wherever he could, he carried a notebook with him. Source: screenshot from the Overnite sensation/Apostrophe (') DVD.

1. Filthy habits (1988)

We now turn to the opening piece on this album for looking at the use of a vamp. It's called "Filthy habits", presented below in the 1988 version as released on"You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. IV". Zappa used vamps most often for his solos (see the Guitar section), but sometimes also for his compositions. On this occasion a 5/4 vamp is used for the composed section as well as the guitar solo part.

Filthy habits (1988), opening (midi file, tempo change not included).

Filthy habits (1988), opening (transcription).

After three bars of the vamp being introduced solo, the theme sets in in bar 4, lasting through bar 10. Then an Arab styled melismatic melody passes by in bars 11 and 12. This Arab effect is stronger on the original "Sleep dirt" album, where the choice of instruments is closer to an Arab ensemble, that doesn't use the brass instruments of the 1988 version. This little interlude is followed by bars 15-18, that are specific for the 1988 execution. This changing upon his compositions was characteristic for Zappa's career; some more on this subject in the YCDTOSA section. After this composed part the vamp returns in bar 19, now a fourth lower, and Zappa starts soloing. Notable is the fact that Zappa at the beginning uses a Gb for the vamp, while the lead melody has a G natural. In this manner Zappa is mingling F minor (with a G) and F Phrygian (with a Gb). The same happens with the Db versus D natural during the solo. The transcribed bars 19-20 have a Db for the solo and the vamp, corresponding with C Phrygian, but you can also hear a D natural for the solo at 1:49 minute (C minor).

2-3. Flambay - Spider of destiny

Thana Harris "Flambay", "Spider of destiny" and "Time is money" are now performed with lyrics, giving form to the re-emergence of "Hunchentoot". At least part of it. It's pleasent to hear "Sleep dirt" in this new CD shape. Not only are the lyrics of interest, they are very well sung by Thana Harris (downloaded photo to the right, photographer unknown). Female singers have frequently contributed to Zappa albums, but this one not only has a female singer as protagonist, but as the only singer. As a vocalist you can hardly wish any better repertoire. "Flambay" is jazz, "Spider of destiny" is relatively normal pop music and "Time is money" can be called modern. It gives Thana the opportunity to sing in varying styles and to let her use her vocal range in full. The Ludwig study (see the references) contains the opening bars from "Flambay" on page 271 (lead melody). Analytically and in abstract these new versions create no real differences. Almost all sung notes are also played by the instruments on the original vinyl album. They still can be heard in this manner on "Läther", the quadruple album Zappa had it mind when his problems with Warner Bros. came to a head.

4. Regyptian strut

"Regyptian strut" is of interest for this section both because of its harmonies and its use of vamps. It starts with a little intro, moving from C Lydian to just the Bb add 2 chord. It's similar to the tail of the Variant I transcription (see the Wazoo section for "Variant I processional march"). Next the main theme block begins. The melody keeps gliding through varying scales, while the bass is making a counterpoint movement.

Regyptian strut, 1:42 till 2:10 (midi file).

Regyptian strut, 1:42 till 2:10 (transcription).

With its reprise at 1:42 (first example), the harmonies get extended, becoming more complicated. During bars 5-7 the lead melody is played three times, each time harmonised in a different way. Bar 5, beats 1-2, are still relatively consonant with the E2 chord. At beat 3 you get F# next to G of the bass and things are getting more and more dissonant. Bar 6 opens with B+C#+D and bar 7 opens with B+C+D#. At 2:28 the finale begins with the band playing over two vamps. Here the use of keys finally becomes stable.

Regyptian strut, 3:10 till 3:44 (midi file).

Regyptian strut, 3:10 till 3:44 (transcription).

The second example is a section taken from this finale, where the band moves from the first to the second vamp. The first vamp (bars 1-4) is a figure in B Dorian, the other (bars 5-10) is in G# Dorian (the transcription presents the E from G# minor in bar 10, but for the harmonies it's an E# (as at 3:48-3:50)). Harmonically this whole block is characterised by its freedom and formation of mostly untraditional chords. This goes for the two vamps and the lead melody separately, thus the more so for their combination. The lead melody is played via parallel fourths and thirds alternating, except for bar 10. It looks like Zappa overdubbed the brass section an octave higher as well, because they can get exceptionally high. From bar 5 onwards in the transcription the higher registers dominate.

5. Time is money

The following is a combination of a transcription and analysis by me and the presentation in the Ludwig study (see the references). Ludwig transcribed the lead melody of the entire song (pages 247-9). His analysis deals with the construction of the song and its use of meters (pages 102-4). It has been complemented by me with the harmonies and a transcription of all parts of the opening (except the drum part). It's a complicated and multi-facetted piece in a number of ways.

Time is money, opening (midi file).

Time is money, opening (transcription).

Its structure goes as:
- 0:00 Bars 1-3. Theme A, the main theme. The song starts in 4/4, at this point mingling A minor and A Phrygian. Both B and B-flat turn up, without a real argument to call one of the two only passing. The chords used are:
Bar 1: Gsus2 - Am7 - C7.
Bar 2: Em7- Dm7 - A.
Bar 3: Bb - A - Gm - Bb.
While bar 3 is using standard triads, the first two bars are more complicated with non-resolving 7th chords. It even takes a while to exactly hear what's going on.
- 0:09 Bars 4-12. Theme B, a series of phrases:
Bar 4: The music moves over to E minor, playing around the Fm7 chord.
Bar 5: The pedal note switches to Bb and the key becomes Bb (major or Lydian; the Eb, that makes the difference, is absent). The chords used are Bb and F, so at this point it's a normal sequence with triads.
Bar 6: This apparent turnover to regular pop-music is immediately left in bar 6. This is a chromatic bar with a sequence of mostly minor thirds by the keyboard (staff 4). The lower notes are following the whole-tone scale during beats one and two, doubled by the guitar (staff 2). Here you've got the first meter change, namely to 3/4.
Bar 7: Diatonic again in 4/4. Gb Lydian with Ebm7 and Fm7-9.
Bar 8: Switch to D Locrian. The Ab triad in from staff 4 gets combined with a D pedal by the bass, creating the uncommon Locrian key. The D sounds a bit as a dissonant stranger towards this Ab chord. The total harmony becomes Dm7-5 plus minor 9th. The meter is 13/16, subdivided as 4+3+6.
Bar 9: Continuing in D Locrian. The meter is now notated as 4/4, only because it lasts 4/4. It's subdivision is 6+6+4. One might just as well notate this bar in 16/16 or split it into three smaller bars.
Bars 10-12: Now the music gets monodic, being played with parallel octaves. Bar 10 can be seen as a pick-up bar for this phrase of two bars in 2/4. It's in C minor (or Dorian).
- 0:28 Bars 13-14. Theme C.
Bar 13: The music returns to 4/4. This bar contains mainly two held notes plus the Eb chord. There are also some notes only lightly audible in the background. The Db on beat two of bar 12 suggests a modulation to Bb Dorian, but one of the background notes in bar 13 is a D natural. Bar 13 by itself thus is in Bb Mixolydian. The only difference between these two scales is the Db versus the D natural and a certain ambiguity about the exact scale some bars are in is common in Zappa's music. As also the opening bars don't really choose between minor and Phrygian.
Bar 14: This bar is chromatic and deliberately irregular. The insertion of such bars is something Zappa does more often. See my discussion of "Inca roads" for more about this. There's a light inequality between the parts at the beginning of bars 13 and 14, causing my 11-tuplet notation in bar 14 with the newly recorded drum part by Chad Wackerman. The original, with Chester Thompson drumming, can be found as a bonus track on "Läther".
- 0:34 Bars 15-16. The first half of the main theme returns. Now it's harmonized differently, namely with the Bb and Ab chords in Bb Mixolydian.

This is where my transcription stops. I'm continuing with the themes and meters from the Ludwig presentation:
- 0:40 Bars 17-18, played twice. Theme D. Ludwig doesn't double-count bars when they get repeated. In order not to create differences, I'm following the meters and thematic subdivision of Ludwig..
- 0:46 Bars 19-21. Variation upon the second half of theme A.
- 0:54 Bars 22-23. Variation upon theme C.
- 1:00 Bars 24-29. Theme E, using 6/8, 9/8 and 11/8.
- 1:08 Bars 30-33. Another variation upon theme C, extended with a 4/4 and a 9/8 bar.
- 1:20 Bars 34-36. Variation upon theme E with 8/8, 7/8 and 6/8.
- 1:26 Bars 37-40. Theme F with 7/8 and 5/8.
- 1:34 Bars 41-44. Theme G. Two different meters are used simultaneously. See the example below by Ludwig.

Time is money, section (transcription).

- 1:41 Bars 45-46, played twice. Variation upon theme G in 7/16.
- 1:44 Bars 47-48. Another variation upon theme A in 6/8.
- 1:48 Bars 49-50. Variation upon theme D in 9/16.
- 1:51 Bars 51-53. Theme H in 10/8 and 4/8.
- 1:58 Bars 54-56. Theme J in 10/8, 9/8 and 6/8 (Ludwig doesn't use the "I").
- 2:06 Bars 57-60, played twice. Theme K, continuing in 6/8.
- 2:20 Bars 61-75, fading out. Theme K for the third time, followed by an outro. This is one of the few instances where the vocal part adds new different notes on top of the original tracks.
- 2:48 End.

So you can see:
- All diatonic scales being used.
- Chromatic passages and an instance of the whole-tone scale.
- A wide range of chord types.
- A multitude of themes.
- A large number of meters.
- The "classical" contruction method of varying themes, giving the piece its coherence.
All this in 2:48 minutes.

6. Sleep dirt

"Sleep dirt" is a duet by Zappa and James "bird legs" Youman. Youman plays a progression of broken chords in 12/8. The chords in the transcribed bars go as (rock notation):
- Bar 1: Bm9.
- Bar 2 G#m-5.
- Bars 3-5 D and Gm.
- Bars 6-7 Dm-5.
- Bar 8 Bm9.
- Bar 9 C#m3rd add minor 9th as passing through note.
- Bar 10 Bm9.

Sleep dirt, opening (midi file).

Sleep dirt, opening (transcription).

Zappa only occasionally played solos over such progressions with some less common jazz type chords. "Sleep dirt" sounds quite exceptional in that sense. The soloing itself is unmistakably Zappa, the opening lick of bar 10 for instance is similar to the first "Black napkins" notes.

7. The ocean is the ultimate solution

"The ocean is the ultimate solution" originates from a trio jam session lasting over a half hour. Zappa selected 13 minutes from the tape and started overdubbing. Notable is the large amount of improvised chord progressions in it. Its outlines go roughly as:
0:00 Riff #1.The first fragment below is the opening lick in C Mixolydian, which starts off the interplay between acoustic bass and acoustic guitar.
0:12 Chord progression in C Mixolydian. Between 0:45 and 0:53 you find the second fragment below, a melancholic movement with a synthesizer overdub. The repeated chord progression in C Mixolydian in staff 1 at this point is VII 9th -III-IV-IV-V-VII. Staff 2 represents the synthesizer melody that plays slowly through this progression. Staff 3 is Patrick O'Hearn plucking the bass notes rapidly in an irregular way.

The ocean is the ultimate solution, opening lick (midi file).
The ocean is the ultimate solution, fragment (midi file).

The ocean is the ultimate solution, fragments (transcription).

1:05 Riff #2, chromatic.
1:16 Playing around the I 9th chord of C Mixolydian.
1:31 Riff #3 on D, repeated several times and each time followed by a chord progression. First on Gb, later on on F. The scales keep changing.
3:18 Playing around I-IV in C Mixolydian.
4:03 Chord progression in A Dorian.
4:43 Chord progression in F Dorian.
4:55 Chord progression in F Mixolydian.
5:16 Playing around I-IV in C Mixolydian.
5:39 Bass solo.
6:50 Guitar solo. The pedal notes are mainly Bb, F and C. The scales used are Dorian and Mixolydian, that differ by one note: a minor third versus a major third.
13:17 End.

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