Music Industry

Drone Music Guide: What Is A Drone In Music?

Photograph of the blog post author, Dylan Easton

Dylan Easton

4.8.2021

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Drone music is something that has existed for centuries. Drones have found their way into a grand array of different musical styles and genres across the world. In this article, we will take a look at what a drone is in music, a brief history of drone music and typical instruments found in drone music.

drone music

Be sure to stick around until the very end so you don’t miss out on any key information!

What Is Drone Music?

bagpipes

Drone music is a genre that includes long sustained tones with only subtle variations over the course of a piece. Drone appears in avant-garde rock music, heavy metal, ambient music, folk music and the minimalist subset of classical music. 

In drone music, harmonic rhythm scarcely plays an integral role. This is because chords shift and transition very slowly throughout the song. 

Drone artists tend to focus more on elements like timbre and dynamics. In a typical drone piece, these tend to change more rapidly than chords do.

What Is A Drone In Music?

sheet music

In music, a drone is a sustained chord or cluster of notes that linger uninterrupted for many measures. A plethora of instruments can produce ambient drone sounds. This can range from Scottish bagpipes to Indian tambura to Australian didgeridoo to analogue and digital synthesizers, and so on. 

Even pop/rock musicians like the Beatles’ John Lennon and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale incorporated drone sounds into their music.

A Brief History Of Drone In Music

Drone music has transcended many musical eras across the globe. Let’s take a look at a brief history of drone music.

International Traditions

traditional Indian music

Western drone music evolved massively during the twentieth century. However, it has existed for centuries in other cultures. Indian music, Hindustani classical music, in particular, relies massively on drones created by the tambura (also called a tanpura) and the sitar. 

Additionally, Tibetan singing bowls are used to produce ambient drones in central Asia Buddhist music. Woodwind instruments like the Scottish bagpipe and the Australian didgeridoo also produce drone sounds outside of pop or Western classical music.

Minimalism

string orchestra

In the late 1950s, American composer La Monte Young experimented with sustained drones for traditional instruments. In his 1958 composition Trio for Strings, he helped to reimagine the role of orchestral string instruments. This piece is widely credited with establishing a classical music subgenre called Minimalism. 

In New York, Young founded the Theatre of Eternal Music. Here, he collaborated with other drone artists such as Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, and John Cale.

Droning Rock Music

rock band

John Cale is a veteran of Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music and an admirer of avant-garde composer John Cage. He introduced drone tonalities to his band the Velvet Underground. 

As a violist and arranger, Cale brought ambient drone soundscapes to the music of Lou Reed. He was the singer and principal songwriter of the group. Their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, demonstrates perfectly how droning could work within the context of rock music. 

In the 1970s, drones became increasingly popular and were adopted by other rock artists. This includes Brian Eno and Glenn Branca. By the 1980s, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth incorporated drone elements into their indie rock band. 

Krautrock Drone

Kraftwerk

Furthermore, German groups of the 1970s also took an interest in using drones in music. They took particular drone sounds generated from synthesizers and keyboards. Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Klaus Schulze all used drones at some point in their careers.

Other Genres

Over time, drone has influenced a huge variety of musical genres. This includes drone metal, where artists like Sunn O))) added droning to a typical doom metal sound. 

Additionally, Charlemagne Palestine uses elements from drone music in avant-garde compositions, which are inspired by Middle Eastern tonalities.

Phill Niblock uses tape loops and computers to create his own idiosyncratic style of drone music. The indie-rock label Kranky has released underground drone hits by acts such as Labradford and Stars of the Lid. 

Instruments That Produce Drone In Music

There are a vast array of musical instruments, both acoustic and synthetic, that can produce drone soundscapes.

Didgeridoo

didgeridoo

The didgeridoo is an Australian wind instrument that can create steady drones when the player uses circular breathing techniques.

Hurdy-Gurdy

hurdy-gurdy

The hurdy-gurdy is a hand-cranked string instrument that can sound like a violin being continuously bowed.

Tambura

tambura

The Tambura, also called a tanpura, is a four-string Indian instrument specifically designed for producing drones.

Sitar 

Sitar

The sitar is more melodically versatile than a tambura. Sitars can produce steady resonant drones when players use certain strings.

Banjo

Banjo

Banjo players may use individual strings to produce a steady drone while using other strings to play melodies. Many banjos have four strings for playing chords and melodies, and some have a fifth drone string that continually rings and reflects overtones from the other strings.

Bagpipes

Bagpipes

Everyone is familiar with the sound of bagpipes. It is an instrument that is popular in Scotland and Ireland. The bagpipe can produce continuous drones when air is pushed in via built-in bellows. Variations on bagpipes also exist in North Africa and the Middle East.

Accordion

Accordion

Like the bagpipe, accordions rely on a bellows-type mechanism to provide a steady stream of air. This, therefore, makes them suitable drone instruments. 

Harmonium

harmonium

Also known as a reed organ or pump organ, the harmonium is a keyboard instrument that produces drones through a steady cycle of air passing through reeds.

Shruti Box

shruti box

Also called a surpeti, a shruti box is a harmonium-style instrument used in Indian classical music.

Guitar 

Guitar

Guitar players can use open strings to produce reliable drone sounds. Electric guitar effects like delay, reverb and also loop pedals can artificially sustain drones through an amplifier

Acoustic guitarists can create similar effects without an amp. However, the notes will not sustain as long. 

Resonator guitars are acoustic guitars with metal components that amplify vibrating strings and allow them to drone.

Folk Stringed Instruments

Folk string instruments

The folk music tradition includes other stringed instruments that function similarly to guitar and they, too, can produce drones. The lute and the zither produce short drones when the strings are plucked. However, the hammer dulcimer on the other hand features strings struck by small hammers. This allows it to drone for much longer.

Orchestral Stringed Instruments

orchestral sting instruments

Orchestral stringed instruments—including violin, viola, cello, and contrabass—can produce drones when players continually bow a single string.

Synthesizers

Synthesizer

Many contemporary drone sounds come from keyboard synthesizers. Some synths mimic acoustic instruments, while others deliberately aim for a more machine-like sound. Many of these instruments can offer infinite sustain.  This makes them a great tool for drone artists.

Piano

Piano

Pianos can produce drones when a player holds down the instrument’s sustain pedal. A piano is essentially a percussion instrument in which strings are struck with felted hammers and then stopped with dampers. 

When the sustain pedal is depressed, the strings continue to ring and produce a droning sound.

Now You Know Everything About Drone Music

sheet music and instrument

There is everything you need to know about drone music! We’ve taken a look at the history of drone music as well as the multitude of instruments used in drone music. 

Why not find yourself a drone music playlist and have a big old trip out! As we’ve discussed, there is a huge range of drone music to choose from so you will never get bored of it.

Who’s your favourite drone artist? Let us know in the comment section below. Be sure to share this article on social media if you enjoyed it. Tag us @musicgateway!


Whilst you’re here, why not read up on some other music industry-related information? What Is An Orchestra & What Are The Instruments?, 50 Music Symbols That You Need to Know and ADSR Envelope Explained are all packed with music knowledge!

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