This particular analysis was more of a vehicle by which I could employ the technique of analysing music using the pitch class system, which at the time was a relatively new concept for me.

I don´t really think that my analysis is in any way revelatory in discovering any new forms within the Be-Bop Tango that might be construed to form some sort of Zappa musical signifier; as for this to happen would require further analysis of other pieces of Zappa's music. However, the analysis does contain some interesting little discoveries of pitch sets that get moved around throughout the piece; kind of like the small cellular groupings that Zappa expressed interest in when listening to certain Stravinsky pieces. (Peefeeyatko WDR3 German TV Documentary 1991)

Be-Bop Tango Analysis

(As performed by Ensemble Modern From The Yellow Shark recording 1993)

The Be-Bop Tango as the title suggests is a peculiar combination of elements of bebop jazz and the tango.1 It contains many of the strains found in much of Zappa’s music; the abrupt transitions, highly irregular rhythmic cells, and dissonant harmony. The eclecticism of Zappa’s music is presented in the Be-bop Tango, by way of the tango rhythm coexisting with bebop type exclamations.It is interesting to note that Charlie Parker, the pioneer of bebop, was listening to Varese and Stravinsky on his way to developing the musical language which would set the precedent for subsequent styles of jazz for years to come. Zappa often expressed indifference to jazz; one such expression of disregard was the comment that jazz was made up of nothing more than ‘noodles’. (The Late Show BBC 1993)

Bebop emerged from the remnants of the swing era in the early 1940s, it repudiated the swing era norm of dancehall etiquette and was a development in jazz that would challenge audiences as well as musicians. The exceedingly fast tempos, and advanced forms of improvisation, made possible through the extensive use of chromaticism, left many of the competent swing players behind.

Note: In this analysis I have broken up significant melodic phrases that occur throughout the piece into what I have called melodic fragments.

The Analysis

The Be-Bop Tango sets out with a basic tango rhythm of which the regular motion lends a rhythmic monotony. The uniformity of rhythm in the opening bars is pre-emptive of the highly irregular melodic fragments which follow, starting at the end of bar 8. During these first eight bars, the tango rhythm contrasts with a harmonic progression in which lies close intervallic structure that moves in a symmetrical fashion. This cellular-like melodic activity and extensive use of chromatic collections intervallically displaced is a major component in the workings of the Be-Bop Tango.

The first chord G, E, Db, Eb, contains notes from the A lydian dominant, and when reduced to a set class becomes [0236]. The second chord Ab, Eb, C, D, has notes from the Ab lydian, the prime form of which is [0137]. As the chord moves to the next A, F#, Eb, F, the notes form a B lydian dominant [0236] and then to Bb Lydian, Bb, F, D, E, [0137]. We see the notes move around in each subsequent chord while retaining two alternating prime forms, and it is these two prime forms which lend an element of cohesion throughout the Be-Bop Tango. Another feature found in many of the sets within the Be-Bop Tango is the tritone interval which will become apparent on closer analysis of the prime forms later in the piece.

On each second quaver of beat 4 on every other bar appears, in horn 1, a note that starts on Gb in bar 1, and moves chromatically to A in bar 8. The Gb, G, Ab, A, collective, simultaneously adds to the increase in tension as the chords move toward the first melodic fragment, and establishes the material that is utilised in various permutations throughout the piece. In addition, the Gb in combination with the first chord indicates an A lydian dominant collection, the G an Ab lydian, Ab a B Lydian dominant and the A, Bb lydian, it is clear the exchange is between Lydian dominant and Lydian (natural 7th). However, it is unwise to rely on the purely diatonic analytical approach, as the Be-Bop Tango is not exclusively diatonic, although diatonic harmony prevails at various points, particularly in the first eight bars.

Melodic Fragment 1

(Bars 8-9)

The first melodic statement beginning at the end of bar 8 introduces part of a thematic collection F, E, F#, [012], this set is rampant in the Be-Bop Tango and is one of the things that binds the piece. By adding the G and then arranging the first four notes into a set F, E, F#, G, gives sc [0123] which can be viewed as a literal subset of the septuplet figure, [012347]. The minor 3rd descending interval (E, C#) at the end of the bar seems to form a resting point after complicated rhythmic statements and appears frequently at these points, as does the major 7th interval later on. Bar 9 consists of a number of instances of [012], some are sequential, like the first three notes, F#, G, Ab, some are shuffled around like the last two notes of the septuplet and the first of the triplet, Eb, D, E, and others are composed out. For instance, the highest notes in bar 9 consist of F#, F, E, this indicates a composed out [012] set, immediately after the compact [012].

The sustained chord on beat 1 of bar 9 played by trombones and horns consists of notes belonging to the prime form [0137] introduced in bar 3. The staccato chord on beat 3 bar 9, B, G#, F, G, briefly accompanies the septuplet in the melody, reduced to its prime form yields sc [0236], also found in the introduction. The chord on beat 4 is [0246] a whole tone collection.

The first chord in bar 11 has a prime form of [01369], its subset is found within the melody [013], the line and chord have a close connection, whereas the next chord on beat 2, [02346] shares a more abstract association wherein the melody [0124] lies a transposition of the last four notes of sc [02346]. It is also possible to see in the melody on the second beat of bar 11 C, Bb, B, an unordered [012], followed by, on beat 3, a chordal statement of [0246] another whole tone collection which first appeared in the last chord of bar 9. The conclusion of the second melodic fragment, G# down to F, a descending minor 3rd, is also found at the end of the preceding fragment in bar 9, again accompanied by [0246]. The assemblage of the trombones and horns statement on beat 4 creates a hexachord [023568] holding important subsets which are used in this bar, [023] is an inversion within sc [013] and [568] a transposed derivation of sc [012], the main thematic motive.

The first chordal strike within the quaver note triplet on beat 1 of bar 12 is prime form [01236]; it contains the main thematic motive [012]. The next chord is [0124] retaining [012], and in the guitar, there is a self-contained sc of [01247], also compacted into the right hand piano is [0124]. The cello, left hand harp and piano emphasise the major 7th, an interval along with the minor 3rd and tritone, established as forming the major building block of the Be-Bop Tango. The chord on beat 4 recalls sc [0236] and the septuplet is from beat 1 of the previous bar, retaining the same notes and order. The prime form of the melody at this stage is [013] and with an inverted derivation of [013], we get [023], and [023] is a subset of the accompanying chord. These relationships are significant in the Be-Bop Tango, and it is this intervallic correlation that seems to hold the piece together.

In bar 13, chord [0246] appears again, this whole tone set occurs on beat 4, bar 9, and beat 3, bar 11. This set has the tritone which is one of the recurring intervals inherent in the piece. The continuation of fragment three in this bar with the sequential notes of C, C#, B, make an unordered [012] and the intervallic conclusion of this fragment is an ascending major 7th. With the inclusion of the last sustained note of fragment three, bar 14 yields a [012346] hexachord, and it is clear that there are three occurrences of sc [012]. There is also a further two occurrences of [012] in the subsequent chord which is sustained until beat 3 of bar 15.

In bar 16, a variation of the first melodic fragment in bars 8-9 begins with a harmonised line a major 3rd below. The note collection between the first semiquaver on the second half of beat 4 bar 16 to the last note of the second sextuplet in bar 18 is the same as the one found in the first melodic fragment starting in bar 8. The second sextuplet, a chromatic collection, reduced to its prime form is [01234], with three instances of [012]. This fourth melodic fragment ends with another descending minor 3rd , it seem as though the minor 3rd acts as a brief alleviation of motivic tension.

As a point of interest, the rhythm in the above example, specifically the first three beats in bar 17 seem to humourously imitate the basis of jazz rhythm. One might assume, taking into account Zappa’s penchant for parody, this imitation is somehow mocking the major rhythmic characteristic of jazz, ‘…jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.’ (Frank Zappa, from the 1974 album Zappa/Mothers Roxy and Elsewhere)

The first chord in bar 17 is D, C, Eb, Ab, the recurring sc [0137], followed by Bb, F, D, E, [0137] again, these two chords are repeated in a sequential manner until bar 18, Ab, E, G, Bb, [0236] which then moves down a semitone. On the third beat a crotchet note triplet occurs where the tuba, horns, and bassoon play the same [0137] as the trumpets and trombones in the previous bar.

The fifth melodic fragment in bar 19 is played against two chords reducible to [0137]. Beats one and two, a group of three semiquavers and a sextuplet respectively, contain two unordered sets of [012] a composed out G, F#, F, and a compact F, E, Eb. There is a recurrence of the septuplet figure on beat 3 found in bars 11 and 12, retaining the same notes and order. Another [012] set begins on the last two notes of bar 19 and the first in bar 20, G, F#, F, and in the same bar [012] appears three times, E, Eb, D, - Ab, G, F#, - C, B, Bb. The full chromatic is contained in these two bars, so in total there are twelve different [012] sets found within this fragment with eight of them composed out. This is not a particularly literal compliance to [012], in terms of being part of a thematic continuity, as the full chromatic set could contain a number of permutations fitted into a neatly symmetrical equation, depending on the direction of the analysis. However, although displaced, the full chromatic is of some significance because it relates to the extensive use of chromaticism found in Bebop jazz.

Bar 20 is where fragment five concludes; the last two notes are a descending minor 9th in the percussion and a descending minor 2nd in the violin. The minor 9th is an inversion of a major 7th which is the other interval that brings melodic fragments to a resting place and the minor 2nd which, if either note is displaced by an octave will render a minor 9th or major 7th. The way these fragments end is the only indication of candential activity within the melody, a momentary resting place before the next highly irregular musical event occurs. The two chords within the crotchet note triplet are prime forms [01347] and [01248] respectively, the former consisting of subset [013], the latter, [012].

The chord on beat 1 of bar 21 reduced to its prime form is [01357], this moves to the next chord sc [0137] on the last accent of a crotchet note triplet, these chords support fragment six, wherein there are two displaced sets of [012]. The first chord in bar 22 combines with the first sub division of the fragment in a complementary way like many of the other chord melody combinations in this piece. [0137] accompanies [025] in the fragment, the ic vector for [0137] is 111111 and for [025], 011010, a sub relative of [0137] in that it shares interval class 2, 3, and 5. The following chord and melody relationships are less literal in the complementary sense; beat 2 is trichord [026] with [0123] in melody, and beat 3, tetrachord [0156] with [0127] in melody. The latter two chords have relative distribution of similar intervals, but other examples in piece are more explicit. A sustained [01457] pentachord in bar 23, motions to the interlude.

From bars 24-27 instructions are given for members of the Ensemble Modern to laugh and mumble, the tenor saxophone is given a rubato ad lib. motif which is played in a raspy overblown jazz style, the pianist is requested to play in the style of Thelonious Monk, another pioneer of Bebop, a descending whole tone figure (a typical Monk calling card) is written, which is to be embellished by Herrmann Kretschmar, the Ensemble Modern’s pianist. This abrupt interlude is typical of Zappa and occurs often in many of his pieces, unexpected transitions are characteristic of much of Zappa’s oeuvre. In the case of the Be-Bop Tango, the interlude portrays, by way of the aforementioned instructions, a smoky, noisy, late night jazz club, in order one would assume to further illustrate the intent of the piece, which is the depiction through music material and physical gestures of jazz. During the interlude, the strings continue with the tango rhythm recalling the [0236] set in the introduction, and then in bar 26 sc [0137].

There are three recordings of the Be-Bop Tango; the first is from an album recorded live in Sweden in 1973, which is found on the official bootleg Piquantique released in 1991, where the Be-Bop Tango, a title created later on, forms part of a suite called Farther O’blivion. The second version is from the first official release, the 1974 album, Zappa/Mothers, Roxy and Elsewhere, it is therein entitled Be-Bop Tango (of the old jazzmen’s church). Those two versions differ to the Yellow Shark recording in a number of ways; the Piquantique version is at around 84-BPM and is entirely transposed a minor third above. The Roxy version is performed at the fastest pace of 105-BPM and is transposed up a major second; to play the irregular and angular melodic fragments at this tempo is an incredible accomplishment on the part of Zappa’s 1974 band. The other characteristic that separates these two versions from the Yellow Shark is that there are no aleatoric elements between bars 24 and 27, instead the introduction tango vamp appears with the [0137] chord descending to the [0236]. It must be noted that in the Piquantique version, the full [0137] and [0236] is played in a comping style by George Duke on the electric piano, while the trombone, clarinet, and violin play derivatives of the voicings. It is also the case with the Roxy version, except the interlude has only the electric piano. Furthermore, the Yellow Shark version is performed at around 76-BPM, substantially slower than the score which reads 90-BPM and considerably slower than the Roxy. This could be a result of mechanical constrictions of certain instruments in articulating complex notation at a higher tempo.

In bars 27-28, the core collection [012] is rhythmically stretched with dramatic effect as a means to move from the interlude back into the melodic and harmonic climate of the pre-interlude material. It is possible to see the way the rhythm has been spread over the two bars by cross-referencing the two examples below. It is evident that not only the collection has remained intact but also the exact notes. As the F# of the melody is sustained across bar 28, the trumpets and trombones execute another example of sc [0137], followed by a trichord, sc [014].

Much of the tension in the Be-Bop Tango is found in the irregular rhythms, which as a result of sequentially non-connectedness, agitate against the underlying pulse, expressing radical fluctuations in speed within the melodic fragments. Zappa manipulates the tension in other ways, for instance, the harmonic discordance; the wide intervallic leaps of a very chromatic melody. In a highly dissonant piece like this, the only place one can find a release of such tension is in a musical event less dissonant than the last. In bar 29, tension is created by the sustained F# in the high register of the piano, harp, flute, oboe, and violin 1, the subsequent G emphasises the major 7th interval. This is a clever part of the piece, as this moment of stasis is so removed from the rhythmic agitation so hitherto abundant, that one feels the next musical event will be compounded considerably by this moment of ventilation.

In bar 30, [0137] is stated by the trumpets and horns, and on beat four a quintuplet figure containing [01347] is the first part of the eighth fragment. The [0137] figure in bar 19 is followed in bar 20 by a chordal [01347], it seems there is a correlation with this progression which is relocated in varied form in bar 30. The eighth fragment ends in the next bar with a descending minor 9th Eb, to D, reiterating one of the two resting point intervals, in this case the inverted major 7th.

Written for the double bass, cello, viola, tuba, trombones, and horns, the chromatic collection [01234] in bar 31 is a highly compressed set of associated subsets. These subsets are further illustration of the nucleus of the piece, that is the ubiquitous [012] collection. In bar 32 there is another element of aleatoricism, on beat 3 a crotchet note triplet is accented on the 2nd and 3rd note with indications for the trombone, double bass, cello, and viola to play their highest note. The outcome of this instruction would be a random collection of notes deployed by the players when reaching for their highest notes. Zappa was interested in Cageian aesthetics, and although the use of music of chance in this piece is minute, it holds a common thread with many of Zappa’s other pieces which are more prominent in the use of aleatoricism.

There is more rhythmic irregularity in the melody as the eighth fragment continues with the minor 9th interval played at uneven points of the quaver note septuplet, ending on the triplet on beat four. The uneven attacks within the quaver note septuplet develops in the proceeding bar where players of the Ensemble at that point are rhythmically coordinated with the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th, accent of the septuplet. The next bar (33) is the same as the preceding one, and the tuba, trombones, and horns, continue to state [01234] within the septuplet rhythm. Bar 33 moves to the [014] chord on beat 1 of bar 34, where the percussion solo starts.

The quintuplet figure in bar 30 on the fourth beat contain the notes, G#, D, E, C#, F, [01347]. As the following bars unfold with the septuplet/triplet sequence and the percussion solo, a permutation of the quintuplet occurs after the solo. The interim bars (31-36) could be viewed as another abrupt transition that is then effortlessly allied with the ninth fragment after the transition with the one before; joined by recurring notes which then develop, a continual regeneration of note collections bonded together by specific intervallic constructs.

(Bar 30)

(Bar 37)

In bar 37 the first four notes G#, D, E, C#, contain another example of [012], and since the F is not present this time round, the set formed is [0137]. The chord sustained throughout this bar is from sc [0134], this is the third instance where [0134] and [0137] come in close proximity of each other. The ninth fragment begins with the aforementioned quintuplet [0137] and progresses to a chromatic set displaced with wide intervallic leaps [01234], the septuplet on beat 3 is a [0123] collection, and the sextuplet is hexachord [012367]. Of course, these subdivisions are all part of the full chromatic inherent in this bar and have been arbitrarily designated to highlight each group of notes falling on each beat. The potential redundancy of this application is reduced by the necessity to extract subdivisions within the fragments and in order to localise sets to make stronger associations with other musical events occurring at the same time.

The septuplet in bar 38 is a melodic variation of the second melodic fragment in bar 11, retaining the transposed note sequence until the sixth note where it deviates to Db, Bb, A, forming a [013] trichord. Where bars 19-20 include the full chromatic, it is herein contained in bar 37, rendering [012] in abundance.

Bar 39 further develops the quintuplet figure, this time retaining only the G#, C#, D, replacing the E with C. The next quintuplet on beat 2 is a good indication of note embellishment whereby the second quintuplet in bar 37 is repeated here with the retention of every note rearranged. Both figures contain the main theme [012] where the note F acts as a pivot for the three forms of [012], D#, E, F, - E, F, F#, and F, F#, G.

(F is the pivotal note for the three forms of [012])

The next six notes are also [012] B, C, Bb and A, G#, G, the G being the first note of the septuplet beginning at bar 40, where the last three notes of this figure illustrate another sequential [012] collection, E, F, Eb. It is possible to see the highest notes in bars 39 and 40 creating another [012] Bb, B, A, also the second 3 highest notes between the composed out Bb, B, A are G, G#, A, [012] and descending to the third highest notes, Eb, E, F, another example of the main thematic material functioning on different levels. This fragment ends with an ascending major 6th interval which bears close relationship with the resting place interval, the minor 3rd. A trichord [015] occurs in bar 39, formed by the horns and bassoon, which then moves to [0157] in the strings.

(Bars 39-40) 3 levels of composed out [012] from the highest down

Another musically suspenseful moment takes place between bars 41-44, the high Bb to E figure in the piano and percussion, the harp glissandos and the reiteration of the common set [0236] in the horns and winds. All these elements counteract the overall rhythmic density of the Be-Bop Tango and therefore, further emphasise this musical contrast. Set class [0236] in bar 42 moves to [0134] in bar 43 and then the recurrence of [0137]. This is the fourth time within the piece that [0134] to [0137] come in close proximity of each other, this time both sets are expressed chordally and sequentially, the [0137] is sustained into bar 44 and 45.

In bar 45, an interesting formation takes place whereby the tenth fragment builds discrete sequences; the first begins on the Bb. The pattern constructs major 7th intervals with every other note, starting with Bb-A, Db-C, A-G#, C-B, the pattern stops after C-B, at which point a new one begins, B, descends a minor 9th to Bb, the Bb ascends to A, the A descends a semitone to G#, G# to G and then Bb to A. This bar is rich with the major 7th interval and its close relations spread out in a systematic way.

On the third beat of bar 45, the second trumpet plays a demi-semi quaver figure and sextuplet in which the notes contained are the same as the previous two septuplets played by trumpet one. There are some interesting formations within this fragment, if the notes are written out retaining the order in which they are played, it is possible to see small examples of note centricity; the A, G#, G#, G sequence in the second septuplet in trumpet one and repeated in the first four notes of the demi-semi quaver. The G# is played twice with A, a semitone above and G, a semitone below. Within this fragment there are five occurrences of Bb, six of G#, and seven of A, all three forming the thematic [012]. In the fragment there is small-scale centricity, with the A, G#, G#, G, and larger scale with the note A. The difference is A is spread out, but G# is contained, and played twice each time, therefore it has more impact as a point of centricity. This fragment also contains composed out and sequential [012] derivations.

(Bars 45-46)

There is a small palindrome starting on the second but last note of the demi-semi quaver, C, A, B, A, C, and from the second note of the following sextuplet is note sequence, A, C, G#, B, Bb, A, repeated, retaining the same order from the third to eighth note of the septuplet on beat one. The last two notes of this fragment abide with the continuity of ending a fragment with either a minor 3rd or major 7th, this one ends with an ascending major 7th, Bb to A.

It seems the nearer the closure of the piece, the more compact the fragments become.

The end of bar 46 and the first beat of bar 47 is B, Bb, A, [012] and trumpet one repeats the septuplet figure on beat one of bar 45, only this time without the Bb at the beginning. The demi-semi quavers on beat one of bar 48 have the same note retention as the demi-semi quaver set in bar 45. Interestingly, these two figures are reversed, that is the note collections are the same, the demi-semi quaver figure with the same sequence of notes and the septuplet retaining the same notes as the sextuplet in bar 45 but rearranged with the replacement of G for C. This time two whole phrases have been moved around, which expands on the smaller collection of notes being shifted.

Bar 48 beat 2, a sequence of notes occur starting on the second note of a quaver note triplet [012] Bb, Ab, G, and E, F, Gb. The final chord is [0234568] or Bb, B, Ab, E, [0137] and [012] C, C#, D.


1. The Be-Bop Tango was originally entitled 'Malcolm McNab', McNab, a trumpet player, learnt and played the piece to Zappa´s approval. [If you are interested in this sort of thing then it is definitely worth having a look at A Study Of The Instrumental Music Of Frank Zappa by Brett Clement]