Music education always & always looking forward.

Asymmetrical Compound Meter in Frank Zappa's "Thirteen"

In my academic music education, Frank Zappa was one of the first artists to bridge the gap between the Western art music world* and the popular music world.  The connection really was made when my middle school band director played "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" in class once at the end of the year.  Beyond that connection, Frank Zappa was one of the most prolific and one of the most compositionally sophisticated popular musicians of all time.  He has been honored by Jazz Critics associations and his work has been the subject of a great deal of academic study.  This song is a pretty great example of his compositional prowess and some sweet thirteen-eight time signature happening.

"Thirteen" - Frank Zappa

Intro: Considered one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century, Frank Zappa toured and put out records using the popular music model but composed extensively using techniques found in both jazz and classical music. As a devout fan of composers such as Varese and Stravinsky and a self-taught musician, his massive body of work reflects sophisticated composition and tremendous technical musicianship as well as an experimental artistic nature. Likely underrated in his lifetime, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. His album We're Only in It for the Money was listed on the National Recording Registry in 2005. The most common recording of "Thirteen", appearing on the live compilationYou Can't Do That Onstage Anymore also features a violin solo from acclaimed Indian violinist L. Shankar.


Analysis: The song "Thirteen" is named after its time signature. At the start of the most common recording of "Thirteen," Frank Zappa himself instructs the audience how to count along. He can be heard saying, "It's subdivided 5/8 and 4/4 if you wanna clap your hands" before the song begins. He then demonstrates for the audience by counting "one-two one-two-three one two three four". The first five counts ("one-two one-two-three") are counted as eighth notes and the "one two three four" beats are counted as quarter notes. This time signature remains in place for the remainder of the song. 

Considerations for Teaching: Although the lyrical subject matter of many Frank Zappa songs is in no way appropriate for classroom listening, this song is entirely instrumental. Thus, and because of its compositional interest, it is possibly the best Zappa tune to play in your classroom.
 

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