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

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This internet site is the fifth edition of my private research into the music of Frank Zappa, that I probably will keep updating over the coming years. The first printed version was finished in April 2000, simultaneously with an internet release as I've been extending this site over a period of twenty years. A second version came out in September 2001, a third in 2007 and a fourth in 2012. Compared to the first one this 5th edition has about ten times increased in size. The number of sections as well the number of note examples has been extended. The conclusion has basically remained the same. Apart from corrections upon detail errors, this site is only augmenting, not significantly changing. See the what's new section from the left menu for recent additions.
Originally this study started with several sketch transcriptions of fragments that sounded interesting to me and for which I tried to find out what technical elements could be found in them. Maybe there was something typical Zappa in them. But what a found was more an amazing variety of deviations from standard patterns going into all directions, than something that could be called Zappa-esque. While the number of sketch transcriptions increased I thought of writing an article about them and trying to get the transcriptions correct. The latter proved to be much more of a problem than the writing of the text. Though most of Zappa's orchestral scores and chamber music scores are available, at the time I started writing only one songbook and a guitar book were published. This situation has improved significantly with the Hal Leonard series of album transcriptions by Andy Aledort, Paul Pappas and Addi Booth. Very helpful has also been the turning up of samples from original scores, appearing from all sorts of angles. So partially I could rely on transcriptions made by others and original scores, but for about two-third I had to do it myself. At first I underestimated the effort it would take to produce transcriptions. In some cases the unpredictability of Zappa's music makes it hard to be positive that the transcriptions and analysis are correct. The risk that there's some stupid looking error in it somewhere remains present. I also must apologize for my unsophisticated English; English is not my native language.


Music in the second half of the 20th century has stylistically become more and more fragmented into categories, with rock music, jazz and modern music as the main areas, having their own groups of listeners and critics. Furthermore these main sections have a lot of subdivisions. Apart from this stands the classical music from the past, which also tends to attract a separate group of listeners. Zappa never treated pop music, jazz and modern music as separate fields and his importance depends partly on his skillful combination of these three musical directions. In the year of his death (1993) he had a legacy of over fifty highly diverse CDs. The recordings comprehend the easiest love songs on "Cruising with Ruben and The Jets", many complex rock based albums, jazz albums like "The Grand Wazoo", guitar solo albums, atonal music for classical ensembles and a few verbally oriented releases as "Thing-Fish".
Though Frank Zappa is basically known as a rock musician, in the last ten years of his life his reputation as a composer of modern music started to increase. In 1982 and 1987 orchestral pieces performed by the London Symphony Orchestra were released on record; in 1984 this release was followed by chamber music with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez, and in 1993 by the The Yellow Shark project, featuring the Ensemble Modern. Sections of modern music can also be found in several of Zappa's so called rock albums, sometimes performed by hired musicians (for instance the "200 Motels" album of 1971 featuring The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), sometimes performed by his own rock band (for instance "The Black Page" on "Zappa in New York", 1976).
Because of the diversity of his albums it becomes difficult to give Zappa a suitable place in music history and also to write about his music with a clear chapter division treating individual aspects. Examples of one aspect may very well be examples of another aspect at the same time. For this site I have chosen to follow Zappa's career historically and to comment upon several technical aspects along the way. The following order of the subjects may be arbitrary, but I think it becomes better readable this way than by summing up technical elements. The historical facts are treated only briefly, because a lot of material has already been published on this subject. As it comes to musical analysis a study in German language by Wolfgang Ludwig should be mentioned, that has appeared in 1992. Of this study a summary is included. Zappa himself doesn't make it easy for us to get a good picture of his musical intentions in his interviews. Because his albums only occasionally became hits, Zappa sought some compensation for this in a good sense for publicity with a never-ending series of humoristically-provoking remarks. He repeatedly contradicted himself and it would be a mistake to take everything he has said too seriously. The estimation of Zappa's CDs has still to begin. It is often heard that his output differs a lot in quality, so this might appear to be true. But when some critic is commenting upon the "good and bad" CDs, it's each time about different CDs, so it says more about personal preferences than about a starting consensus. Personally I think they differ in function.

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