Frank Zappa's musical language
Frank Zappa's musical language
A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Ike Willis In 1983 Zappa was again debating with his record company, now CBS, about sales figures and their unwillingness to distribute "Thing-Fish". He switched CBS for EMI and "Thing-Fish" got released at the fall of 1984. It's a theatre piece in the form of an opera, with the libretto added to the CD, but musically more remindful of a Broadway musical. The 22 pieces are made up of dialogue sections with basic accompaniment, the re-using of earlier material, adapted for the opera, and seven new songs.
A play as "Thing-Fish" doesn't stand by itself in Zappa's oeuvre. On various occasions he was busy writing plays and movie scripts as there are:
- "I was a teenage maltshop". This idea for a mini opera stems from 1964. It didn't get any further than a demo, but can be reconstructed about halfway. See the Mystery disc #2 section.
- "Captain Beefheart versus the Grunt people". A science fiction movie script, existing as an unpublished 94 page text from 1969 and photos of cardboard backdrops from 1965. Zappa once mentioned "Duodenum" as its opening theme.
- "Uncle meat". A movie project completed in three phases. Because of budgetary problems and people withdrawing themselves, Zappa almost had to rewrite the script on the instance.
- "200 Motels". Only a third of the 100 pages of script got actually filmed, again due to the limited budget and people leaving the set.
- "Hunchentoot". A science fiction musical Zappa wrote in 1972. No budget could be raised; most music would be used on later albums, most notably "Sleep dirt", that today also has the original lyrics.
- "Joe's garage". This triple album/double CD follows the outlines of a play.
- "Them or us", the book. This writing has the set-up of a screenplay, revisiting the earlier pieces and "Thing-Fish" (the whole "Hunchentoot" libretto is included).
In the case of "Thing-Fish" Zappa typed out the blueprint during the Christmas days of 1982. Though an actual performance of "Thing-Fish" couldn't be brought together, this time Zappa had the means and contractual freedom to get the whole piece on album exactly as he wished. It's unlikely that "Thing-Fish" will ever be performed on theatre stage in full on a commercial basis. For that its content is too much far-fetched and musically it has little news to offer. Imagine how absurdistic stage directions as "Opal rides the bull while Francesco gives her an enema" should be executed. The opera has become much more palatable by its re-release on CD. Now you can select the new musical songs far more easily, listen to the textual pieces once in a while and include the recycled pieces when you're in the mood for them.

Above to the right: FZ and Ike Willis singing "He's so gay" (Does humor belong in music DVD). Ike helped creating Thing-Fish's old southern accent and sings more than half of the libretto.

1.1-2 Prologue - The mammy nuns

The entire show is hosted by the mammy nun "Thing-Fish", a part sung by Ike Willis, who first appeared as Joe on "Joe's garage" and continued working with Zappa through the last tour of 1988. During the "Prologue", Thing-Fish introduces the play, accompanied by an ongoing bass lick in A Mixolydian. A guitar plays the A/A7 chord and you can hear keyboards chords gliding over it. From 2:21 onwards Thing-Fish gets supported by the chorus.

The mammy nuns, 2:29 till 2:45 (midi file).

The mammy nuns, 2:29 till 2:45 (transcription).

The mammy nuns introduce themselves in the chorus singing of the second song. The transcribed section from "The mammy nuns" has its basis in F# Mixolydian. In staff 1, bars 1-2, Zappa lets two major 5ths chords follow upon each other, rather than doing I-III, thus moving to an A chord instead of A#m-5. The A# thus alters to A natural doing so. Staff 1 mostly proceeds via 5th chords. See also the Freak out! and YCDTOSA vol. II sections (at "The idiot bastard son") for more about parallel chord types. Staff two is a melody sung against it in parallel fourths. The bass makes its own movement. The combination of these three part makes it another example of Zappa creating harmonic fields that mingle about all notes of a scale.

1.3 Harry and Rhonda

The pieces, where the lyrics stand central, is the following set:
- "Prologue".
- "Harry and Rhonda".
- "That evil prince".
- "Harry as a boy".
- "The massive improve'lence".
- "The crab-grass baby".
- "The white boy troubles".
- "Brief-case boogie".
- "Drop dead".
In some cases the background music is pretty interesting, making one wish it could also be listened to with the lyrics mixed to the background. In other cases the music is clearly subservient to the text. A few outtakes are shown below, while the other tracks get briefly described.

The couple Harry and Rhonda from the audience gets integrated into the show. They discuss what they've seen thus far, first whispering but soon talking and sometimes singing a little. The musical basis is a bass movement of two bars in Ab Mixolydian. It keeps being varied upon. The central element is Ab moving to Gb in the first bar and Ab moving to Eb in the second bar.

Harry and Rhonda, 0:00-0:16 (midi file).
Harry and Rhonda, 2:30-2:48 (midi file).

Harry and Rhonda, 0:00-0:16 (transcription).
Harry and Rhonda, 2:30-2:48 (transcription).

The first example shows this bass theme as played at the beginning with Rhonda starting to talk to Harry (the text isn't included in the example). The second example demonstrates how the piece evolves. It's the section between 2:30-2:48 where Rhonda is both singing and speaking a series of notes. The phrase "I want fairies on the string" is clearly sung (bar 1, beats 3-4), while "... real Broadway entertainment. I want spot-lights, guilt..." etc., is spoken in an aggressive manner (bar 2, from beat 2 onwards). The bass theme gets accompanied by a slow chord progression (Ab7-Db-Ab) and an improvised descant melody.

1.4 Galoot up-date

"Galoot up-date" is the first of a number or recycled songs from preceding albums, adapted for the play. Zappa didn't record the musical tracks anew, but these songs are different because of their vocal parts. In this case the song got a new title as well. The original song, "The blue light", gets dealt with in the Tinsel town rebellion section of this study.

1.5-6 The 'torchum' never stops - That evil prince

David Letterman In "The 'torchum' never stops" the evil virus experimenting prince sings a lengthy aria, also released as an individual piece, "The evil prince", on "You can't do that on stage, vol. IV". It's in 3/4. It's sort of a newly composed intermezzo within the returning material from "The torture never stops" from "Zoot allures". Like the original it's in G Dorian. You can see the characteristic bass motif return once in bars 4-5, the motif that's used all through in staff 5 of the transcription of the opening from the Zoot allures section. The evil prince curses gay people and everybody creative. While the evil prince sections seem to be sympathetic of the gay community, most of "Thing-Fish" is quite opposite. Gay people are ridiculed as men unable to deal with liberated women. It culminates in Rhonda's severe feminist monologue in "Drop dead".

The 'torchum' never stops, Evil prince aria (midi file).

The 'torchum' never stops, Evil prince aria (transcription).

During "That evil prince", Harry and Rhonda discuss the scene with the Evil prince in his dungeon, eating raw chitlins (pig intestines). It contains the first appearance of the melody from the later "Amnerika" track from "Civilization phaze III" (1992).

Above: Still from one of Zappa's appearances at the David Letterman show, talking about his upcoming Thing-Fish project. CBS Television, 1983.

1.7-8 You are what you is - Mudd club

With the "You are what you is" title track we're getting at a sequence of three songs from the "You are what you is" album. The title song, "Mudd club", and the next track below follow the same following order as on the original album. These three songs are included to give the opera some more body. They are only lightly adapted for "Thing-Fish". The main theme from "You are what you is" can be found in the corresponding section from this study.

1.9-10 The meek shall inherit nothing - Clowns on velvet

A section from "The meek shall inherit nothing" is included in this study as well. Purely from the musical perspective, the recycled titles function better in their original context. They remain strong songs on "Thing-Fish", but the overdubbed texts by Thing-Fish are more literary focussed than the refined chorus singing from the original recordings. "Clowns on velvet" is new material, in fact a little instrumental, played twice. It's both used as background music, with Thing-Fish talking, and as an independent interlude.

1.11 Harry-as-a-boy

The juvenile Harry enters the show, confessing he decided to turn gay as a reaction upon women becoming executives, looking like males. There's a drum pattern played in a loop (bars 1-4 of the transcription). The chords played over it are led through various scales and sound very interesting as a composition by themselves. The section below runs from 1:36 through 1:51. It contains broad chords with slow melodic fragments played over them, that further widen the harmonic fields you can hear.

Harry-as-a-boy, background music (midi file).
Harry-as-a-boy, album mix (midi file).

Harry-as-a-boy, section (transcription).

It's played in the background and it's hard to hear the exact notes from the chords and their positioning. There are no clear key notes; the Bb and F# pedal notes in the bottom staff are more part of the entire harmony than individually audible, functioning as key note. When you're looking at it as if in major, three scales would be passing by: Ab (bars 1-5), Bb (bars 5-8) and D (bars 8-9).
The transcription above contains both the accompaniment and Harry's text. The first midi file above presents the background music by itself. The second one is mixed as on record with Harry's line in the foreground, but it's hard to get a spoken text properly represented in a midi file (here by a sax following the pitches of the lyrics).

1.12 He's so gay

"He's so gay" is a newly composed title for "Thing-Fish". In the next section I'm dealing with both a section from the "Thing-Fish" studio version and the tail of the "Does humor belong in music" live version of this song. It's basically the same song, but with many detail differences. As usual in Zappa's output.

The libretto of "Thing-Fish" deals with several topics taken from actuality as:
- the spreading of aids,
- the fact that it had become known that the U.S. government had experimented with viruses upon its own population in the fifties beyond their knowledge,
- the women's liberation movement,
- the popularity of gay pop groups as The village people.
These subjects are combined into a weird piece of fiction that, just as in "Joe's garage", shows several aspects of more-sidedness. In it the idea is uttered that the government could have caused the deaths among its gay population by spreading viruses as well as that it is sponsoring gay life, because it halts population growth. Apparently Zappa liked toying with diverse ideas and considered their consistence irrelevant. He had developed a kind of distrust towards governmental institutions in his younger years, helped by the fact that he got busted in a set up in 1965 and his difficulties at schools. In fact he had some sort of paranoid attitude towards anything institutionalised, including churches, unions and schools. All designed to dumb people down in his opinion. He attacked them frequently in his lyrics and a scent of paranoia runs all through "Joe's garage" and "Thing-Fish". "Freak out!" opened with an attack upon American schools and how real this was came out in the eighties, when he wouldn't pay scholarships for his children himself. They could go to college, but on their own expense. Dweezil was indeed making enough money at the age of sixteen to do so if he wanted to. As children of a rock star Zappa's children got drawn into adult life rather fast. Moon and Dweezil were in their mid-teens when they got into the spotlight via "Valley girl" and the 1984 tour.

1.13-14 The massive improve'lence - Artificial Rhonda

In "The massive improve'lence" the teen-age Harry shows interest for starting a relationship with a mammy-nun, Artificial Rhonda it becomes. It's for over five minutes accompanied by a jazz type improvisation with only the upright bass and a drum set. "Artificial Rhonda" is "Miss Pinky" from the "Zoot Allures" album, being retitled. The song goes back to 1975. On "YCDTOSA vol. VI", Zappa introduces Miss Pinky as a lonely persons device. She's not a person but a sex toy, just the head, with her eyes closed and mouth wide open ... and washable.

Artificial Rhonda, 0:20-0:42 (midi file).
Artificial Rhonda, 1:13-1:24 (midi file).
Artificial Rhonda, 2:05-2:27 (midi file).

Artificial Rhonda, 0:20-0:42 (transcription).
Artificial Rhonda, 1:13-1:24 (transcription).
Artificial Rhonda, 2:05-2:27 (transcription).

Artificial Rhonda "Miss Pinky" is one of three Zappa songs, that are using only one theme. He was more inclined to write multi-theme pieces than to do something as simple as this. The others are "You are what you is" and "Stick together". All three have the standard verse-refrain set-up, but for the lyrics only. Their themes get played in the manner of a perpetuum mobile, like the Rolling Stones are doing in "Claudine". In order to keep your attention such a theme needs a good drive by itself and to maintain this drive variations upon this theme are necessary. "Miss Pinky" could fit in easily into the opera, only the name of Miss Pinky had to be changed to Artificial Rhonda. The rubber head being replaced by a rubber mammy nun doll. All instrumental tracks are from the "Zoot allures" recording sessions. In this case the overdubbed vocal parts actually add flavour to the song. Staves 5-6 of the first example are the first appearance of the main theme, with the verse part of the lyrics sung over it in bars 5-8. The chorus part is one line at first during bars 1-4, though not entirely sung synchronically. So I needed two staves to notate it. In bars 6 and 8 the chorus is forming chords. The second example is the first half of the harmonica solo by (probably) Don van Vliet. Nobody gets credited for playing harmonica during this song, but Don does get mentioned on the next track. A second acoustic guitar is added for the main theme with its chords positioned somewhat differently, most conspiciously in the shape of the diminished F#m triad in bar two. The C# turns up regularly as altered to natural during this song, giving it something of a mix of A Mixolydian (its basis) and A Dorian. Bars 1-4 of the third example contain the refrain as sung during the second half of the song. It goes the same as during the first half, but the bass is playing something you might call a character variation upon the central theme (the bass still moving from A to D and the A chord becoming A7). In bar 5 the theme returns in its original form. Bar 6 contains a deviating movement, again using the C natural. The chorus is functioning quite well in enriching the whole with chords. Above to the right the corresponding part from the libretto. The text is prescribing every detail, even Thing-Fish saying "yow". I guess it's a transcription from the recording as it became, rather than everything being premeditated.

2.1-2 The crab-grass baby - The white boy troubles

A baby has been born and Harry thinks he's the father. The baby first babbles, but half-way the song its words become understandable. The music of "The crab-grass baby" consists of an ongoing bass lick in C Mixolydian, first accompanied by the chorus, later on replaced by keyboard chords. Via a loop the chorus sings the progression II 7th - VII - V - V - I (plus possibly an F, Csus4, though I can't hear this for certain). The bass figures lasts 4/4, while the chorus theme has a duration of 6/4, thus another example of Zappa using two meters simultaneously.

The crab-grass baby, section (midi file).

The crab-grass baby, section (transcription).

Artificial Rhonda seems to be more interested in starting a career. "The white boy troubles" is musically made up of three blocks:
a) Bass motif following the blues scheme.
b) The "Amnerika" melody re-appears, first solo, next over a bass line. The opening bars of this piece in a vocal version are included in the Civilization, phaze III section. That edition gives the best clues for how it can be transcribed, so I'm limiting myself to that version for putting it on paper.

The white boy troubles, fragment (midi file).

The note durations of the melody are irregular and its melodic line moves along varying scales. The fragment included in the midi example goes as E-D-D-E-A-G-D, followed by D-Eb-D-C-C-B-C. It's played over a steady bass line, here alternating Bb and Ab, thus not interacting with it.
c) Second bass motif following a blues-like pattern.

2.3-4 No not now - Brief-case boogie

Another one of the re-used songs is "No not now" from "Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch". Again Zappa is using the original tracks unaltered with new tracks added to them. Here we get Thing-Fish doing all the comments instead of Zappa. The original "Drowning witch" version goes as:

No not now, 0:21 till 1:28 (midi file).

No not now, 0:21 till 1:28 (transcription).

"No not now" is using three themes. The set up with the starting times on the CD is:
- 0:00     Intro, theme A instrumentally.
- 0:21     "No not now", theme B.
- 0:36     "Maybe later", theme C.
- 0:43     "She say I'm free", theme B.
- 0:58     "But I like her sister", theme C.
- 1:05     "She can't decide...", first variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 1:33     "She changed her mind", theme B.
- 1:48     "And I don't blame her", theme C.
- 1:56     "No not now", theme B.
- 2:10     "Maybe later", theme C.
- 2:17     "Giddy-up...", second variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 2:42     "The big old hat...", theme B.
- 2:57     "String beans to Utah", theme C.
- 3:05     "Ah the wife...", theme B.
- 3:19     "String beans to Utah", theme C.
- 3:26     "Deliver string beans...", second variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 3:54     "No not now", theme B.
- 4:09     "Maybe later", theme C.
- 4:17     "She changed her mind", theme B.
- 4:32     "And I don't blame her", theme C.
- 4:41     "She sorta wild...", first variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 5:07     "There she goes...", theme B.
- 5:50     End.

As it comes to the bass line in this song, Zappa commented in Guitar Player, February 1983:
- GP: "On "No not now" there's an extremely distinctive bass line. Did you write it?"
- FZ: "I just made it up. The bass part was done as this: Arthur Barrow came in to play bass, and bar by bar I would hum it to him. We'd play it, and he'd go as far as he could, and then he'd make a mistake, and the I'd show him the next part, and then we'd punch him in. And that's how it was done: like eight bars at a time. It's a wonderful bass line."
Because of this bass line, it's difficult to assign this song to keys. The bass sort of floats. In "Brief-case boogie" the real Rhonda mocks Harry and uses a brief-case for sexual stimulation. At first you hear a fast drum pattern with some loosely improvised notes played over it. Next the drum set goes to normal tempo and the bass enters with a little boogie.

Continued below at "Won ton on".

2.5-6 Brown Moses - Wistful wit a fistful

"Brown Moses" features Johnny Guitar Watson, who worked with Zappa as a vocalist on three occasions. See the Mothers of prevention section for more about him contributing. This song sets off in Bb minor/Dorian, where it stays till 1:39. The following example is from 2:04 through 2:19, when this song has evaded to F# major (bar 1). Bars 2-3 have D# as pedal note, but aren't stable in one particular scale. Bars 4-6 are in Db major. It's strongly vocally oriented. Only a bass pedal (bottom staff), sustained keyboard notes (staff 3 in bars 1-3) and a rhythm guitar (staff 2 in bars 1-3) are instrumental.

Brown Moses, section (midi file).
Wistful wit a fistful, section (midi file).

Brown Moses, section (transcription).
Wistful wit a fistful, section (transcription).

The newly written songs give "Thing-Fish" musically its theatre appearance, most specifically "Wistful wit a fist-full". This piece is a joyful musical closing number, sung almost unrecognizably by Napoleon Murphy Brock, appearing as the evil prince.
Its set up is quite difficult with varying meters, scales and tempi, as the transcribed part indicates:
- The figure in the 4/8 bar sounds modernistic. The notes don't form a traditional chord and in combination with C and D sharp a G sharp is more common in diatonic scales than a G natural. From bar 14 onwards this exact figure is played minor second lower. In bars 25-29 this theme ends with a little coda.
- In bar 25 the tempo gets slower. The music transforms from a modern style to a style used in musicals. It's in 4/4, played rubato. The music keeps moving through varying scales till the end of the transcription.
- In bar 38 the meter moves to 12/8. It goes a bit slower, but sounds as an acceleration because the main time unit in the accompaniment goes from a half note to three eighth notes.
- Bars 43-44 are two joyful exclamatory bars, typical of musicals.


Head of the Warning/Guarantee label, that first appeared in the "Thing-Fish" album booklet. It's a reaction upon CBS's refusal to release "Thing-Fish" and the actions by the PMRC (see the FZ meets the Mothers of prevention section at "Porn wars").

2.7-8 Drop dead - Won ton on

With "Drop dead" the show comes to an end. The Evil prince and the crab-grass baby re-appear. A variation upon the bass theme from "Harry and Rhonda" is now vamping unaltered throughout this 7-minute track. The evil prince sings over it, but Rhonda delivers her feminist monologue without further musical embellishments. The vamp gets louder and Zappa lets the text at this point entirely prevail.
The closing song of "Thing-Fish", "Won ton on", is using the vocal "No not now" tracks played backwards. See above at track 2.3 for the construction of "No not now". "Ya Hozna" from the preceding Them or us section is another example. "Won ton on" has a rhythm section of its own. If you play the three themes of the above "No not now" score backwards you get the following:

Won ton on, themes (midi file).

Won ton on, themes (transcription).

This example has the backward themes in the following order A (bars 1-7), C (bars 8-11) and B (bars 12-17). The sound of the midi file misses to a degree the effect of the reverse fade outs of the notes, but it's good enough to recognize the melodies. See the transcription for details about the backward fade out. The reverse fade outs and reversely pronounced consonants give the backwards playing its strange effect. Whereas the D of "chile" in No not now fades out descending towards an A, in Won ton on it swells and sounds like "iesh".
The "No not now" vocal tracks in "Won ton on" start at 0:18 on the CD, corresponding with 5:37 on the original "Drowning witch" CD and then going backwards.

The "Won ton on" following order is:
- 0:18     Theme B.
- 0:48     Theme A.
- 1:11     Theme C.
- 1:19     Theme B.
- 1:33     Theme C.
- 1:42     Theme B.
- 1:56     Theme C.
- 2:23     Theme A.
- 2:31     Theme C.
- 2:46     Theme B.
- 2:53     Theme C.
- 3:08     Thing-Fish's epilogue.
- 3:39     Theme B.
- 3:55     Theme C.
- 4:02     Theme B.
- 4:18     End.


Since this study is about Zappa's own music, the music he covered is left out of the picture. Still the pieces that he did cover support the findings of this study to a point. Namely that his integration of all styles into his own music reflects itself in the eclectic way he chose the music he covered.
An overview is given in the songlist of the site, where you can use the following link: This is a list of all songs Zappa ever played on record or live, where you can readily recognize the covers by looking at songs with names between brackets behind them. Just to mention a number:

- Francesco Zappa. Opus I and IV.
- W.A. Mozart. Piano sonata in B flat.
- J. Strauss. An der schönen blauen Donau (quoted in the Eric Dolphy memorial barbecue, 1991 version).
- P. Tchaikovsky. Symphony #6.
- M. Ravel. Bolero.
- B. Bartok. Theme from the Piano Concerto #3.
- I. Stavinsky. Royal March from "L'Histoire du Soldat".
- G. & I. Gershwin. It ain't necessarily so.
- G. Holtz. The planets (quoted in the Invocation and ritual dance of the young pumpkin; see the Absolutely free section).
- E. Varèse. Octandre.

- O. Nelson. Stolen moments.
- R. Barry. Loui Loui.
- Lewis/Robinson. The closer you are.
- Evins/Livingston. Theme from "Bonanza".
- Kilgore/Carter. Ring of fire.
- Trad.: Wedding dress song/Handsome cabin boy.
- J. Hendrix. Purple haze.
- N. Rota. Theme from the "Godfather, part II".
- G. Allman. Whippin' post.
- Page/Plant. Stairway to heaven.

The project to record some music by Francesco Zappa was of course triggered by the idea that Frank Zappa had a namesake from the baroque era, rather than the music itself. Zappa called the music typical of that period. In the CDs section of the left menu you can find a quotation from the "New Grove Dictionary" as well as a description of a more recent recording of Francesco's symphonies. "Francesco Zappa" is the only CD in Zappa's official catalogue that you might call a cover album. There is no track by Zappa himself on this release. The recording, released in 1984, belongs to synclavier period of his career. In 1984 the synclavier could not yet work with sampled acoustic notes. At first sounds were chosen that approached acoustic instruments, but later on this idea was abandonned for more typical synclavier sounds. So you've got baroque music with a sound very untypical of that era.
Francesco Zappa worked in Italy, but is also reported to have spent some time at the court of The Hague in Holland. Manuscripts of some of his works are kept at the Library of the Dutch crown:

The text says:
"Sonate for pianoforte, ca. 1790.
Music by Francesco Zappa.
Coming from Milan, Francesco Zappa settled in The Hague around 1768 as a music teacher. From then to 1795 has name appeared on the list of the court ensemble of governor William V as a cello player, but, like other famous musicians from that period, he wasn't a steady member."

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