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

Main menu


While 1971 ended with physical disaster, 1977 saw the start of litigational warfare, with Zappa's main business associates becoming his enemies. The relationship with his record company Warner Brothers had become under strain and Zappa wanted to end his contractual obligations by delivering the tapes for the four records he was still due at once. But Warner Bros. refused to pay the agreed advances for these records at one time, nor did they set off releasing them in time. A lasting lawsuit followed, interacting with the running lawsuit about Discreet with Cohen, since Discreet was a label of Warner Bros.
Subsequently Zappa went negotiating a new contract for releasing this material, now in the form of a four record set called "Läther". In October 1977, when the first "Läther" boxes already had been pressed, Warner Bros. decided to release the material handed over to them anyway as the originally planned individual records, one live album "Zappa in New York", and three studio albums "Studio Tan", "Sleep Dirt" and "Orchestral Favourites". For "Zappa in New York" Zappa had handed over the material for the album cover, but there was no cooperation whatsoever for the studio albums. They were released in a sloppy way with low budget cartoon covers and no promotion. It enraged Zappa and he publicly uttered his anger with setting up a "Warner Bros. sucks" banner on stage and stating the same on record. Squeezing out a contract once the relationship is ended is regrettably common practice in rock business though and things far worse have happened to other artists. In 1997 the "Läther" version collection was released on three CDs. Unfortunately these issues don't overlap for 100%, so you still have to buy them both to be complete. The lawsuits were mainly settled behind closed doors, when Zappa was given the opportunity to buy the copyrights from Warner Bros. and the mastertapes of his recordings were handed over to him in 1982. It led to a unique situation, where a well-known rock musician became completely in control over his business.

New YorkZappa loved playing in New York and rented an apartment there from 1967 to 1968, when he recorded a vast amount of music for "We're only in it for the money" through "Uncle meat". His return to L.A. was financially motivated. Various live albums were recorded in New York and the yearly concerts around Halloween became famous for the interaction with the crowd. More in the next section about "Baby snakes".

Midtown New York (photo KS). The Palladium was a famous disco in downtown New York. Zappa used quite a lot of tracks recorded in its concert hall, because the big cities had the better recording equipment for rent. In the eighties Zappa would buy his own mobile studio truck. In the nineties the heyday of the Palladium came to an end when it made place for student apartment buildings.


We'll take "Zappa in New York" and some other albums to look at examples of Zappa's appetite for rhythmic variation. His desire for rhythmic diversity is very persistent in his music. The early "Run home slow theme" from the movies section is already a clear example. When you look through the examples in this study you'll see bars with normal divisions in three or four (like the "Strictly Genteel" example, L.S.O. section) as well as bars with odd divisions and syncopes (like "It must be a camel", Hot rats section, and the "Eric Dolphy memorial party", Burnt weeny sandwich section). In the polyrhythmic "What will this evening bring me this morning" example (also iecluded in the Burnt weeny sandwich section), the changing rhythm of the melody, sung over 4/4, is reflecting the lengths of the syllables of the words.
Zappa has frequently addressed to his rhythms as speech influenced, meaning that the rhythms aren't calculated, but following a free movement comparable to spoken language. Sometimes the speech influence is direct, when a melody is adapting its rhythm to the lyrics sung along with it. This is very recognisable in "Evelyn" from "One size fits all" and the live improvised recitatives "The dangerous kitchen" and "The jazz discharge panty hats" from "The man from Utopia", with the guitar part later added to it in the studio. Next is a sentence from "Wild Love" from "Sheik Yerbouti" (see also the disco section for this melody). The rhythm as well as the melody is influenced by the accents of the words.

Phrase from Wild love (transcription).

On paper Zappa's rhythms can sometimes look strange, but when you listen to them, they sound more natural. In the case of instrumental pieces and guitar solos the speech influence is indirect, as if the instruments are trying to talk to you without words.

1.1-2 Titties and beer - Cruising for burgers

"Titties and beer" from "Zappa in New York" has a two bar rhythmic riff in F# Dorian, including the use of pauses. The first bar is on beat, the second syncopic. The second theme of the song is more melodic, using a chord progression in B Mixolydian. This second theme thereafter turns into a vamp, that is played as accompaniment for the dialogue of a biker (Zappa) and the devil (Terry Bozzio). This was Zappa's usual way for recording pieces with monologues and dialogues, like the "Central scrutinizer" intro of "Joe's Garage", and much of "Thing-Fish". To the right: Ike Willis wearing the "Titties 'n' beer" T-shirt from the FZ/ZFT merchandise collection on stage (1988).

Titties and beer (midi file).

Titties and beer (transcription).

The double CD re-release more than compensated for the mutilated form Warner Bros. had released "Zappa in New York" as a double album in 1978. Not only "Punky's whips" could be included as intended, four tracks could be added as well. "Cruising for burgers" is an impressive instrumental version of this title, that first appeared on "Uncle Meat". See the corresponsing section for two examples. Here it goes different in a number of manners and it includes a large solo. It might just as well have been called Cruising for burgers variations or Son of Cruising for burgers, as Zappa would sometimes do when he returned to a piece in a different jacket. The solo is in D Mixolydian and the accompaniment is using a vamp.

1.3 I promise not to come in your mouth

"I promise not to come in your mouth" is a sensitive instrumental ballad (Zappa's own words) in 6/4 in the key of C minor, introducing two short but fine solos. One by Zappa on guitar, the other just as strong by Eddie Jobson on keyboard. Its opening riff is an early example of so called hocketing, leading a melody over various instruments.
- Bar 1: in this bar, played four times, the melody is led over six staves. Because various notes are sustained, you get all sorts of harmonic combinations. He would apply this a lot in the later synclavier works.
- Bar 5: transitional bar with a bass lick and the keyboard improvising.
- Bars 6-7: a chord progression, Dm-F-G-Dm-G-Eb-Ebmaj7. The last chord is sustained for a bar with the keyboard improvising.
- Bars 8-10: second theme. The scale in bar 9 changes shortly to D minor. Again the ending chord is sustained for a bar, again with the keyboard improvising.
- Bars 11-12: variation upon the second theme. Its lead melody is the same, but the accompaniment, especially the ending chord, are different. This last chord is a larger chromatic chord.

I promise not to come in your mouth (midi file).

I promise not to come in your mouth (transcription).

The solos in the middle of this piece follow a modulation scheme. The set-up of the song goes as:

- 0:00 Main theme. See above.
- 0:54 Guitar solo begins in D Lydian.
- 1:10 C# Lydian.
- 1:18 F# Dorian (I-IV movement).
- 1:27 D Lydian.
- 1:43 C# Lydian.
- 1:52 F# Dorian.
- 2:00 Keyboard solo begins in A Dorian.
- 2:04 Bb Lydian.
- 2:08 B Dorian.
- 2:13 C Lydian.
- 2:17 C Dorian.
- 2:20 C# Lydian.
- 2:24 D Dorian.
- 2:29 Eb Mixolydian.
- 2:33 D Mixolydian.
- 2:49 C# Lydian.
- 2:57 F# Dorian.
- 3:05 Main theme returns.
- 3:32 End

1.4 Punky's whips

While unable to release "Punky's whips" as planned, Zappa included this title in his "Baby snakes" film, of which the soundtrack was released seperately in 1983. It's from the Palladium concerts from the year following upon the "In the New York" recordings. See the next section for a transcription of its opening.

1.5-6 Honey, don't you want a man like me? - The Illinois enema bandit

enema bandit "Honey, don't you want a man like me?" is available in three versions in Zappa's own catalogue and three more via the later ZFT releases. I've included examples from four versions in the YCDTOSA section, covering the time-span 1976-1988. The initial version is probably the one on "Joe's camouflage" from 1975, yet again going a bit differently.

The Illinois enema bandit, lead melody (transcription).

The lead melody from "The Illinois enema bandit" is present in the Ludwig study, page 269 (see the references). His transcribed section concerns the opening of this song, after the introduction by Zappa and Don Pardo (1:05 through 2:02). It's notated in 6/8 and played over a D pedal by the bass. The key thus is D Dorian. This transcription concerns the central theme. As you can see it's made up of a series of phrases, that are variations upon each other. As you can read in the liner notes, this song is based upon a true story, which Zappa filled in with a number of fictitious details from the trial. Roy Estrada, who gets mentioned at the end of the song, was the bass player on Joe's Camouflage when an early rehearsal version got recorded. Roy also portrayed the enema bandit on stage, wearing a ski-mask and an enema bag. The actual enema bandit was released from prison in 1981 and seems to be living rather anonimously ever since.

The Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1975, with an article about the "enema bandit".

2.1-2 I'm the slime - Pound for a brown

"I'm the slime" and "Pound for a brown" are two more bonus tracks from the CD re-release. They are live versions of these titles, that were released earlier as studio recordings. An example from "I'm the slime" can be found in the corresponding "Overnite sensation" section. "Pound for a brown" stems from "Uncle meat", but gets dealt with in the Zappa's teens section.

2.3 Manx needs women

"And for our next number", to quote Zappa, a piece with irregular groupings from "Zappa in New York", called "Manx needs women". Other than the next track with irregular groupings, "The black page", this composition doesn't follow scales. It's atonal, full of dissonants and contains changing meters. The figures with irregular groupings in bars 1-4 are played in the form of parallel major 7ths. The opening bars in 4/4 are played slowly, followed by fast strings in 7/16. "Manx needs women" is one of the most aggressive pieces Zappa ever wrote, quite different from the friendly "I promise not to come in your mouth" or the traditional blues of "Big leg Emma".

Manx needs women, opening (midi file).

Manx needs women, opening (notes/transcription).

Zappa presented the lead melody of the opening from "Manx needs women" as an exercise in Guitar Player, January 1977. I used this example as the starting point for the example above. There are, however, some differences in the lead melody between the above Guitar player version, the "In New York" version and the "Philly '76" version. Zappa does this all the time and, from the analytical point of view, it has confused me a couple of times. You can come to a completely correct conclusion based upon one version. Then you encounter another version and it's not applicable anymore.

Manx needs women

Bottom part of the "Manx needs women" example from Guitar Player in Zappa's handwriting.

Manx needs women (Philly '76), 0:08-0:16 (midi file).

Manx needs women, different appearances of the opening bars (notes/transcription).

This second example concerns the opening bars demonstrating this. There's little time between the three versions, nowadays available, so it remains peculiar to notice how frequently Zappa changed his compositions while being on the road.
- The example from Guitar Player has an 11-tuplet as a pick-up bar.
- The "Philly '76" version begins with series of synthesizer figures passing through high registers. Staff one contains squeaking descant notes, getting so high that you need a quindecima clef to notate them. It sounds really weird, and, as more often in Zappa's output, it's a one time only experiment. It didn't reach an official album by Zappa himself, but it's on a ZFT release. At 0:08 the drummer joins in, at which point the example from above starts. It's only two bars, lasting through 0:16, but quite a lot is happening in it. As you can see the synthesizer figures are played as 10- and 11-tuplets. The pick-up bar from the Guitar Player example returns in a different shape, now a 9-tuplet with tuplets within tuplets. At two points you can hear a triplet within this 9-tuplet. It's played as a series of thirds with both minor and major thirds being used. The idea to use major 7ths apparently arose during the repetitions for the Palladium concerts. The "Philly '76" version doesn't have the severe dissonant character as the first example from above has. Bar two contains a Gm chord, just as bar 1 from the Guitar Player example being sustained for one bar.
- In the "Zappa in New York" version the 11-tuplet returns in the shape of a 13-tuplet, to a large degree containing the same notes as the 11-tuplet. This last example stems from the Clement study, where he noted that this melody returns later on in this composition in a different rhythm (Clement calls this "isomelism"): "Isomelism often supports A-B-A form, or other formal schemes that approximate symmetry, in Zappa’s music. "Manx Needs Women" (ECE 1976/1978a), for example, manifests a simple A-B-A' design, the A' section of which is heralded by an isomelic relation with the opening melodic gesture (Example 2.12). However, as can be seen in Example 2.12, the variation that opens A' is much more rhythmically distinct than the original melodic statement. In fact, the first presentation of the theme is performed so fast that it is doubtful that any listener will hear the isomelic relationship shown in the example. Instead, the isomelic technique reinforces the fact that both A and A' are composed in the hybrid style; therefore, the recapitulation not only restates a "main theme", but also recapitulates a stylistic category."

2.4 The black page drum solo/Black page #1

On "Zappa in New York" the 1976 band performed an instrumental piece full of irregular rhythmic groupings, called "The black page #1", originally a test piece for drummers, to see if they were able to beat this kind of rhythms, like:

The black page #1, bar 4 (notes).

The black page drum solo

Thumbnail image of the drum part from The black page #1. See below for bars 1-5.

"The black page" is rhythmically as well as harmonically very irregular, but it also contains elements that bring stability to it:
- The meter is 4/4 throughout,
- The same scale is used at least for the duration of one bar,
- There's a tendency to alternate speeding up and slowing down,
- In some bars the melody from former bars is repeated.
The next example contains the two opening bars and bars 16 and 17 (1:53 till 2:00 and 2:52 till 3:00 on track 4 of disc two), where the rhythm of the first two bars, including triplets and a quintuplet, is exactly repeated by a different melody. When you take the opening bass notes in these bars as key notes, the melody in these four bars is using:
bar 1: G Lydian
bar 2: B flat Lydian
bar 16: D Lydian
bar 17: G flat Lydian.
The earlier editions 1-3 of this study had an Eb for bar 17, but after relistening I had to correct this to a Gb (bar 18 does begin with Eb, moving to F). Something happening in Zappa's music very often is that little changes are made upon the score, mostly regarding the harmony. In this case the melody and its rhythm are carefully composed. No deviation was allowed as it comes to this aspect of the "Black page". Regarding the harmony and accompanying figures, things could change all the time. See also below at "The black page #2". Already during its live premiere, some changes were made:
- The sus2 chords from the score got skipped. Only the root notes are present as bass pedal notes. Instead of the sus2 chords you can hear some overdubbed harmonic fill-in in the background during the opening bars, played by Louanne Neil on harp.
- The marimba by Ruth Underwood is taking the lead. The keyboard and brass mostly play along, but are sometimes also hitting some notes of their own, forming harmonies with the marimba part. See staff two of my transcription for the details during bars 16-17.
"The black page drum solo" has exactly the same rhythm as the "The black page #1". On the album Terry Bozzio's drum part is doubled by Ruth Underwood on percussion, probably overdubbed. She is using cowbells, that have vague pitches. So there is some implied melody present in "The black page drum solo" album version as well, here improvised by Ruth. Terry is doing some extra ticks on the hi-hat, that aren't prescribed, as if he is directing himself. The "Black page" and "Manx needs women" not only contain various forms of irregular groupings, but also examples of irregular groupings within irregular groupings. Bar 5 from the "Black page drum solo" example contains a triplet that gets subdivided into two quintuplets and one sextuplet. Bar 3 from "Manx needs women" shows a triplet within a quintuplet.

The black page #1, bars 1-2 (midi file).
The black page #1, bars 16-17 (midi file).
The black page drum solo, bars 1-5 (midi file).

The black page #1, bars 1-2 and 16-17 (notes).
The black page drum solo, bars 1-5 (notes).

Advertisement sample of the Black Page #1 score, including the above examples. Available at Barfko Swill.
The indicated 2-chords mostly aren't played that way on any Black page performance, only the root bass notes are taken over as pedal notes.

Bars from Can I help you with this dummy, Filthy habits, Yo' mama and Get whitey (notes/transcription).

These few other examples of irregular groupings, to be found in many Zappa compositions, are bars from four compositions from 1971 through circa 1990.
a) The first is one of the many parts of bar 27 of "Can I help with this dummy". This composition was intended for inclusion in the "200 Motels" soundtrack of 1971, but fell off due to performing difficulties. The complete orchestra score in Zappa's own handwriting is included in the The Frank Zappa Songbook Vol. I. It became included in the suite version of 200 motels and received its first performance during the Holland Festival of 2000 at the Carré theatre in Amsterdam.
b) Next is a bar from "Filthy habits" from "Sleep dirt" with a sextuplet. See the Sleep dirt section for more of this piece in the 1988 version.
c) A bar from "Yo' mama" with improvised irregular groupings. See also the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section.
d) A bar from "Get whitey". In the nineties Zappa would take irregular groupings into more extreme forms as in this synclavier composition. This by itself already odd 23-tuplet also has notes of unequal length within it. See the Synclavier #2 section for more.

Below to the right: the Ensemble Musikfabrik playing The black page, Muziekgebouw 't IJ, Amsterdam 2017. Their program for that venue set Varèse and Zappa next to each other. Varèse's Ionisation and Poème électronique were played along, among others, Echidna's arf (of you) and The black page.

Ensemble Musikfabrik Zappa himself used the terms polyrhythms and rhythmic dissonance, rather than irregular rhythmic groupings. These words can be seen as synonyms. Irregular rhythmic groupings have a clear definition. It concerns any rhythmic relationship that isn't even. An odd-numbered figure over an even number or two different odd-numbered figures happening simultaneously. They are directly recognizable by their use of numbers in the note system. Triplets, 3:2 or simply 3, are a common irregular rhythmic grouping. Strictly by the meaning of the word, it can be argued that the term polyrhythms is wider than irregular rhythmic groupings. Two different rhythms, but even in their notation, could also be called polyrhythmic. In the Clement study (see the left menu) a smaller thesis can be found, calling rhythmic dissonance Zappa's trademark (set equal to irregular rhythmic groupings). The "Black page" is getting a lot of attention in this study. This thesis is correct in the meaning that Zappa uses such figures more than average. The Roxy section contains a table with all examples in my study containing irregular groupings, specified in the last column. My study is kind of boring as it comes to conclusions. There are no eye-openers in it as it comes to how Zappa composed. Personally I'd prefer to say that he just did anything as it comes to looking for rhythmic variety, with irregular rhythmic groupings as (only) one of his approaches. The Roxy section gives a brief overview.
The essay by James Borders in Expression in pop-rock music (see the literature list) gives a personal estimation of how the "Black page" evolved through Zappa's career. On page 148 you can find a couple of bars with a comparison between "The black page #1" and "#2". With these scores unavailable to the general public, such examples come in handy. It did entice me to check my 1987 New age version example again and get rid of an error. Below, and in other sections from this study, I'm continuing with "The black page #2".

2.5-6 Big leg Emma - Sofa (1976)

"Big leg Emma" was originally released as a single in 1967. It flopped, so for about everybody living in this decade this live version must have been their first acquaintance with this song. Its blues scheme is briefly indicated in the Bongo fury section. "Sofa (1976)" is the live version of "Sofa no. 1" from "One size fits all". A smaller section from the interlude of this specific version is included in the Weasels ripped my flesh section. "Sofa no. 2" can be found in the Playground psychotics section.

2.7-8 The black page #2 - The torture never stops

Irregular as the rhythms and harmonies of "The black page" may be, the constant factors in it make it inducive for applying other arrangements. These elements are the constant 4/4 basis all through and the fact that everything is diatonic. There are some bars with too few notes in them to positively identify a scale, but when this can be done, all bars are in Lydian. You've got different pedal notes per bar or couple of bars that quite clearly set the key notes of the varying Lydian scales. These stable attributes make it possible to change the character of the piece by modifying the 4/4 accompaniment. With the exception of a synclavier execution, a bonus as a flexi single coming along with a Guitar Player issue, Zappa returned to "The black page" in the shape of version #2 for doing so. The reason was probably that this version was less dense, so that the audience might more easily grasp the idea behind it. Three other examples of such versions of "The black page" are included in this study:

- "The black page #2": the disco version from "Zappa in New York". Its opening is decribed in the Sheik Yerbouti section.
- "The black page (1984)": the fast reggae or ska version. The opening bars are presented in the YCDTOSA section.
- "The black page (new age version)": a pretty much re-arranged jazz version from the 1987 tour.

Several sections from different versions of "The torture never stops" turn up elsewhere in this study. The Zoot allures section gives an overview. It's the last one of the four bonus tracks.

2.9 The purple lagoon/Approximate

For the Palladium concerts Zappa returned to his 1974 composition "Approximate" in a quite different shape. Here he made use of a second "Approximate" sheet he had written, that only in some bars goes similar to the 1974 version. It's presented below. What you hear on "Zappa in New York" is yet another version of "Approximate", namely a combination of bars taken from the 1974 version and this second sheet as well as some bars of its own. The second half of the 2nd sheet went unused for the album version. This section of the 2nd sheet includes bar 20 with irregular rhythmic groupings and gets played below in the midi file. To make things in this complex composition even more untraceable, the album version gets preceded by and partly played over a bass theme, called "The purple lagoon".

The purple lagoon/Approximate, theme (midi file).
Approximate 2nd sheet, second half (midi file).

The purple lagoon/Approximate, theme (transcription).
Approximate 2nd sheet (notes).

Whereas the three Halloween concerts at the Felt Forum where done with the five piece band of 1976, for the four Palladium concerts in the last week of 1976 Zappa augmented the band to 12 members, adding a brass section and two percussionists. Five people get a chance to play a solo on "The purple lagoon", including Zappa himself, who added a studio guitar solo to the live tracks. The others are doing fine, just for the fact that they don't get outplayed by Zappa. To promote these extra concerts, the band appeared on the Saturday Night Live show. "The purple lagoon" was played that night as well. Apart from some instrumentational differences, the notable divergence between the two executions is that the bass during the Saturday Night Live performance doesn't fade out at the end as in the transcription above, but returns to the "Purple lagoon" theme one more time. This happens at bar 9 in the transcription, thus not coinciding with the repetition of bars 1-3 of the "Approximate" theme. The combinations of bars ("The purple lagoon" versus "Approximate") herewith becomes different. Maybe the two Saturday Night Live shows Zappa did, will be available one day via a ZFT release. You can get them via other channels, but I'm not sure if they are legal. Why the bass at the end of the above midi file example is drawing back is by itself not clear. For playing this part separately it sounds more complete in the Saturday Night Live version. A possible reason can be that the bass didn't pause here during the actual life performance, but that Zappa mixed it out for some bars to let it be able to re-enter in another manner for the solo part. This solo part sets off with everybody well into it right away. Probably Zappa skipped the introductory bars and a pause in the bass line, the bars before, avoids a caesura to become too big. On Saturday Night Live the solo part begins with Terry Bozzio playing several drum bars, while John Belushi enters as a deranged be-bop singer.

Saturday Night Live

Two screenshots from Zappa's appearance at Saturday Night Live, 1976. To the right part of the lyrics from "I'm the slime" on a school board. Copies circulate, whether legal or not. The DVD "Live transmissions" is apparently derived from an amateur video copy, but it does give an impression of what happened. Hopefully material like this will be available one day with the sound quality of the original broadcast.

Back to the menu