Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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With his 1976 "Zoot allures" album, Zappa delivered a rock 'n roll album, exaggerating the roughness that's supposed to come along with it by posing as a creep on the album cover. The lyrics show the development of Zappa's sense of humour. Provocative as they may be, they can also make you laugh by the eloquence Zappa is uttering himself with. Sentences describing the evil prince in "The torture never stops" can be very poetical, including rhyme, like "he's the best of course of all the worst, some wrong been done, he done it first" (the song is about the (religious) idea of punishing sinners, only revealed at the end). It becomes offensiveness with a smile. "Zoot allures" is a good album to listen to for the use of regular chord progressions.


As in the case of rhythms, it's undoable to present some sort of overview of the harmonies Zappa is using because he would play chords in any way he pleased. The following mentions just some examples of certain directions he can take, ranging from the easiest progressions to the most varied ones. Obviously anything in between will turn up as well. You would have to look through a larger number of individual examples in this study to get a better picture.

Conventional chord progressions:
Conventional is here seen as a series of 5th and 7th chords. In various examples the progressions you can encounter are mentioned in the comment, mostly in Roman numbers, sometimes in rock terms.
- "Doreen", "Joe's garage": songs that are built around I-IV-V, one of the most common progressions. This can be seen as sheer conventionalism.
- "Cheap thrills", "No, no, no": songs that make use of easy repeated progressions, in this case I-IV-I 7th-IV-I.
- "You are what you is": a song built over two alternating chords.
- "I ain't got no heart", "You're probably wondering why I'm here", "Jelly roll gum drop", "Bwana dick" etc.: larger progressions, often with modulations. This applies to a large part of the examples in this study.
- "Run home, slow" movie sample #4, "Toad of the short forest", "America drinks", "It's from Kansas" etc.: things can get more and more complex till you get at songs where Zappa keeps changing the scales about all the time.
Unconventional diatonic chord progressions (9th chords and bigger):
- "It must be a camel", "Little umbrellas": dense and complex harmonies, achieved by constructing a song by recording in it layers.
- "Twenty small cigars" opening bars, "RDNZL", "Big swifty" piano part: other examples with larger chords.
- "five-five-FIVE": a sequence of 9th chords, led through various scales.
- "Regyptian strut", first example bars 5-7: an example where Zappa harmonizes the same melody in different ways, using dissonants.
Unconventional diatonic chord formations via series of notes:
- "Dwarf nebula", "Music for low budget orchestra", "Friendly little finger" opening bars, "Sleep dirt" accompanying chords, "Punky's whips" 33/32 bar, "Put a motor in yourself" etc.: various forms of 9th and 11th chords.
- "Orange county": both conventional and unconventional chords. In his guitar solos and many composed melodies you can see a total harmonic freedom. Cells with thirds, 5th and 7th chords (with or without the 5th) are passing by just as much as cells with 2-chords, sus4 chords and combinations as D-E-G-A. The 7th often appears in inverted forms as C-D-F or D-F-G.
- "Why Johnny can't read": formation of the 13th chord in the shape of an arpeggio.
Blending of notes and harmonic fields (diatonic):
- "Legends of the golden arches", "Regyptian strut, 2nd example", "What will Rumi do?", "The dog breath variations" (1992): combination of a lead melody in parallels over a vamp, where you're getting all combinations within a scale, almost at will. This effect can also be strongly present in the examples where Zappa is using two meters simultaneously (see the Roxy section).
- "No, no, no" opening bars, "Uncle Meat" bar 1, "Watermelon in Easter hay" bar 3, "The mammy nuns", "9/8 Objects": in several examples you'll see Zappa mixing as good as all notes of a scale in a very short time span, using a scale as something you might call a harmonic field. Combined with the many strings of 9th and 11th chords as well as the examples with constantly changing scales, bars as these are the clearest expressions of Zappa's attitude towards harmony: I can do whatever I want, not hindered by any system.
Atonal chords and strings:
- "Igor's boogie I and II": chords in atonal works Zappa wrote for his rock band.
- "Manx needs women": specific use of dissonants.
- "Mo 'n Herb's vacation" opening bars, "Sinister footwear I" bars 20-27: chords in atonal works Zappa wrote for orchestras.
- "Drowning witch" fifth example bars 9-11, "I come from nowhere" bar 5: examples of atonal strings of notes, played ultrafast.

Many Zappa compositions have a single melodic line as starting point (like the "Florentine Pogen" melody from the One size fits all section). The chords can be derived from such melodic lines by grouping together the notes that are played after each other. Chords in the sense of notes played simultaneously (I call them chord progressions in this site to make a difference) don't have an important role in Zappa's music, in the sense that his scores are filled with them. For that matter Zappa doesn't sound "classic". A bar of Chopin can be full of notes, that, grouped together for their harmony, are often one or two chords. Of course keyboards and rhythm guitars can play accompanying chords, but usually not very conspicuously. "Zoot Allures" however contains a good deal of rock 'n roll chord progressions, which are played at the foreground. It also includes some keyboard chord progressions, which in this case are played by Zappa himself.

1. Wind up working in a gas station

Regarding chords "Wind up working in a gas station" sounds as a good rock 'n roll song with Zappa playing all guitars, synthesizer and bass. There's one lead guitar and two more overdubbed guitar parts. The synthesizer part is sometimes lightly present in the background (staff 4 of bars 3 and 4 of the example below). Regarding its lyrics and rhythm however, this song is puzzling. It's a form of poetry with both the lyrics interfering with the music and the music interfering with the lyrics. Its outlines are:

- 0:00 Little intro with a guitar chord and drumroll.
- 0:05 Theme 1.
The song begins in regular 4/4. Zappa has been looking for sentences with a comparable rhythm, as well as rhyme (though not perfect rhyme). The series "some, from, thumb, dumb" is rhyming, as does the series "decision, position, education". To achieve this better, the first sentence got twisted for its grammar. "This is a song that might offend some of you" etc. has become the following, where I'm notating the words with the accents in capitals and the 4/4 meter as breaks:

THIS is song might of-FEND you some
[Instrumental bar]
THAT'S the way it is where I come from
[Instrumental bar] If you've
BEEN there too, let me SEE your thumb
[Instrumental bar] Let me
See ...

- 0:21 Theme 2.
"Let me see your thumb", getting repeated over a higher and lower D pedal note by the bass. It's accompanied by a howling feedback C note on the guitar.
- 0:40 Guitar solo.
The example below starts at 0:49, halfway the solo. It's ambiguous about what key it's in, a common factor in Zappa's music. With both F natural and F sharp turning up, it's a mingling of D Dorian and D Mixolydian. During the solo Zappa is sometimes picking notes, but mostly he's letting a string glide between G and A. So G# and quartertones are present just as well. Deliberately letting notes get out of tune is in jazz circles sometime referred to as creating blue notes. In the background you've got two more guitar parts and some synthesizer notes, played in a irregular improvised form. It's difficult to notate this very precisely. Bars 1-4 are by approximation.

Wind up working in a gas station, section (midi file)

Wind up working in a gas station, section (transcription)

- 0:59 Theme 3.
"Show me your thumb that you're really dumb", repeated four times. What's probably meant as "thumbs up" gets shortened to just "thumb" in order to let it rhyme with "dumb". At this point Zappa isn't trying to mold the lyrics towards 4/4. Instead of that the rhythm of the spoken words is dictating the meter. It's a string of 16th and 8th notes, in total 10/16 and subdivided as 3+3+4. The harmony is a harmonic cadance: V-IV-I in C. During bars 9-10 the song evades to step VII of C with Bm7. This chord on B is used to modulate to B major. With many notes being altered, this transition comes out as a pretty drastic modulation. The preceding one from D Mixolydian (at the end of the solo) to C only meant a pedal note switch and one note being altered.
- 1:08 Theme 4.
Again the spoken text is directing the meter and its subdivision. All three sentences are thus formulated that they follow a 17/16 meter:

Bar 11: Hey now, better make a decision
Bar 12: [Instrumental bar] Be a
Bar 13: moron and keep your position
Bar 14: [Instrumental bar] You ought to
Bar 15: know now all your education
Next: [Instrumental bar] Or let me

The example above ends with bar 15 at 1:16. The three instrumental bars are a variation upon the bars with lyrics with its length being shortened to 15/16. The bass pattern is the most constant element in these bars. Two guitars are playing around the B and Cm chords.

- 1:24 Theme 5.
Till the end the following sentences get repeated by the vocalists, using the same melody for each line:
"Or let me know how you're gonna
Wind up working in a gas station
Pumping the gas every night"
Zoot Allures album:
"Many the camper wants to buy some bite (fish)"
1976 tour:
"Many the camper wants to buy some white"
Like the first sentence the last one gets twisted to let it fit better in the rhythm of the melody. It's about camper drivers looking for something to buy at the gas station and the words "bite" and "white" (white gas) are chosen because they rhyme to "night".
- 2:29 End.

2. Black napkins

Next to "The torture never stops", "Black napkins" kept being included in most concert setlists. I'm dealing with two versions in the preceding FZ:OZ section. "Pink napkins" is regarding its meter a variant upon "Black napkins". I'm commenting upon this version in the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section. The pattern in the accompaniment gets indicated, as well as the indecision to play an A or A# over the C# pedal for the various occasions the C#/D schedule is used.

3. The torture never stops

The next examples are Zappa playing the opening and coda of "The torture never stops" on keyboards, bass and guitar (most of the original album guitar part of the coda has been mixed out on the CD re-release). The opening is built around a bass motif and a I-VII chord progression in G Dorian. The VII chord can either be seen as a 13th chord or VII 5th mixed with I 5th continuing. The coda is basically regular, but because of the mixed chords on the pedal point and the frequent use of fourths some unconventional flavour is added to it.

The torture never stops, opening (midi file)
The torture never stops, coda (midi file)

The torture never stops, opening (transcription)
The torture never stops, coda (transcription)

It's the ending cadence of a song in G Dorian, that goes as follows:
bar 1 through 4: various chords upon G as pedal note.
bar 5: IV 7th, I 5th.
bar 6: VII 5th, V 5th.
bar 7: I 5th. For a moment it sounds like the melody is ending as a deceptive cadence with IV 5th (G and C), but the bass takes this C as a passing through note for D. So it ends regularly with I 5th.

Zappa kept playing "The torture never stops" live, as well returning and extending the orginal tracks for his "Thing-Fish" CD from 1984. Other versions in this study:
"The torture never stops (1980)": the monumental live version from 1980 with a section going entirely different and several solos.
"The 'torchum' never stops": for "Thing-Fish" Zappa added a block, that he also played live seperately as "The evil prince".
"The torture never stops (1988)": another live version with the opening bars beginning somewhat differently from the above example.

4-5. Ms. Pinky - Find her finer

"Ms. Pinky" and "Find her finer" are the easier pop songs on "Zoot allures". "Ms. Pinky" has only one theme for both the verse and the chorus. Halfway there's a little instrumental section, still using the theme. Like "The torture never stops", the tracks from "Ms. Pinky" got re-used for "Thing-Fish". The song got renamed as "Artificial Rhonda" on the latter CD. "Find her finer" is built around a bass lick.

6. Friendly little finger

In 1976 the band did a one time visit to Japan, which explains the Japanese characters on the "Zoot allures" album sleeve. "Black napkins" was recorded live at Osaka, the "Zoot allures" opening from "YCDTOSA III" is taken from the Tokyo concert. Some eastern influences can be found on "Friendly little finger", not only because of the sound of the opening theme, but also by the various melismatic movements in this theme and the bass lines, that accompany the solo. "Friendly little finger" is an extraordinary solo in many aspects. It is best known as an early example on record, where Zappa applied a technique that he called "xenochrony" (strange synchrony). In the liner notes for "Rubber shirt" from "Sheik Yerbouti" he explains the idea behind it. Xenochrony is laying a recording over another track, that was recorded completely independent of it, followed by a resynchronization. It is thus different from an overdub and different from putting tracks behind each other or lying tracks over each other without adapting them. The resynchronisation has the effect of suggesting that the tracks are reacting upon each other. The transcribed solo section indicates this. A hand-made transcription by me is not proof of course, but the two equal beats pointed at with an arrow in bar 3 are clearly audible on the CD at 0:39-0:40. If it wasn't resynchronized, that would be too much of a coincidence. In this case the solo (a dressing room recording without accompaniment) and the drum part are from different occasions. The bass was overdubbed later on after the resynchronization was completed. See the One shot deal section for more about xenochrony.

Friendly little finger, opening riff (midi file)
Friendly little finger, 0:36 till 0:51 (midi file)

Friendly little finger, opening riff (transcription)
Friendly little finger, 0:36 till 0:51 (transcription)

The melody of the opening theme is using unusual harmonies, forming two 11th chords, namely D-E-B-A and G#-A-E-D. The lick is played by various snare and percussion instruments, mostly parallel, sometimes taking some side steps as in bar 4. In bar 6 the bass starts playing its own lines, as it will continue to do during the solo that follows upon the opening theme. At various instances this solo isn't using traditional western scales. In bars 3-5 it applies for instance the sequence C-Eb-F#-G-A over D pedal. It sounds unorthodox this way. The solo remains being played over D-pedal, but the scales change frequently. In bar 6 the key turns over to D minor (Aeolian), in bar 10 it becomes D Lydian. At the points where the solo is playing held notes, as in bars 1-2 and 9, the bass is taking over the solo. Because it's overdubbed it could do exactly that. Zappa is playing the bass here himself as well and it clearly isn't of the normal accompanying type as during live concerts.

7. Wonderful wino

This song stems from 1970, at first a Jeff Simmons song for a solo album. He played the music to Zappa, saying that he didn't know what lyrics it should have. So Zappa proposed he could write them. Since he wasn't a drinker or a drugs user, he only occasionally wrote songs about this subject, even though its presence in the rock-business was ubiquitous. He liked to write about everything happening in society, but this is something he apparently couldn't relate to easily. "Wino man" is about an alcoholic with Zappa singing it in the I-form, thus himself acting as if he was a wino. Other explicit songs about drugs are "Any downers" and "Cocaine decisions". Like "The torture never stops", "Wino man" has a small but pretty strong guitar solo in it. "Wino man" was also included in the 1971 setlist for his own band and can be found in this way on "Playground psychotics".

8. Zoot allures

The following example is the chord progression from the "Zoot allures" guitar solo (pitch notation as it sounds). The fast key changes are responsible for the solo's harmonic tension.
- Bars 1-5. It starts in E with the chords I 5th, I 5th, V 5th plus E continuing, I 5th.
- Bars 6-8: Hereafter it shifts into the V 5th chord of F sharp, with G sharp as the common note with the previous chord. This key change is confirmed by a bass riff.
- Bars 9-16: Repetition.
- Bars 17-21: The solo returns to V 5th of E, followed by several passing through notes from E Minor (or Dorian).
- Bars 22-32: The three chords with their preceding triplets are combining I and V 5th of F sharp, G and A (because of the E pedal for this chord in the example above, this last instance can also be identified as E Mixolydian). This sequence is created by transposing these figures up, first with a minor second, next with a major second.

Zoot allures guitar solo, 0:38 till 1:44 (midi file)

Zoot allures guitar solo, 0:38 till 1:44 (transcription)

9. Disco boy

On "Disco boy" there's some greasy rock 'n roll playing with thick guitar and synthesizer sounds, like the "doo-dee" block in the middle of the song:

Disco boy, section (midi file)

Disco boy, section (transcription)

This progression, divided over four bars is I-IV-I-IV, IV, I-IV-I-IV and VII-I in B Mixolydian.

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