Perfect Sound Forever


or Drones- A Brief History
by Emma Hacking
(October 2010)

ED NOTE: A shorter version of this article appeared in the Angry Violist zine

Drones have constantly revolutionized and reinvigorated music throughout the ages. They can make the listener feel either like an intellectual mastermind or like a swamp-dwelling, drooling glob of goo. Or both.

If you play the viola, violin or cello, drones are at the start of everything you do. To tune up, you drone each pair of strings in turn. Pairs of strings should be tuned to fifths, and you soon learn to aurally recognise a fifth interval (a pair of notes that are five tones apart from each other) pretty much before you learn anything else. Drones are the beginning of every performance, rehearsal or practice session.

Casual and some would say, 'sensible' musicians might get their tuning up over with quickly before moving on to something else. They might bear the mind-numbing, droning, 'tuning-up' sounds they make no further to heed them. But this is a big fat mistake and not least because the sound of an orchestra tuning is one of the most wondrous sounds in the universe, right?! (see video above)

In the same way that drones are at the start of all rehearsals or performances, so too are they at the start of all music. Cosmic. You find drones at the root of music throughout the world and throughout history. Drones are the missing link between '50's doo-wop and 1550's sacred music, Buddhist chanting and Krautrock.

What is a drone?

So, a basic description would be this: a drone is a chord made up of two or more notes played simultaneously, and either continually or repetitively.

They are base musical sounds in both senses of the word: as the basis, the grounding, of melody; but also they are sounds that tend to appeal to our most animalistic nature. They lie on the cusp of being something that we hear and something that we feel. They present the listener with a curious set of psychological and musical contradictions and paradoxes.

Drones can send us into a heightened state of dulled hypnosis; our senses feel flattened and numbed, but simultaneously the drone makes us super-aware of tiny fluctuations in pitch within the constant notes. These microtonal fluctuations are something of a specialty for string players (and guitarists too). The openness of the fingerboard and accessibility of the strings means that string players can play the tones that rest in-between standard tones in a way that, say, a pianist cannot.

Clever use of drones can trick the listener into hearing a constantly changing soundscape, which simultaneously sounds unchanging and constant. Not only that, but drones have a habit of sounding very sparse but also very lush and full even when they are only two or three notes played together. Headfuck? Why, yes.

Drones in action

Take the "The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Step-down Transformer' from the album The Four Dreams of China" (1962) by La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music.

Astonishingly, this entire piece is composed using only four tones but sounds infinitely deep and complex. It is constant, repetitious, simple, and unchanging; but also shifts and alters throughout. It is the sonic equivalent of leading your head against a mirror and staring yourself in the eye for countless minutes (hours?) at 4AM in the morning after a long night of indulgence.

This is music that is godly AND primordial.
Religious Drones

Drones can be typical of drug-fuelled expression (the Theatre of Eternal Music used copious amounts of speed and marijuana, which made them sensitive to microscopic sonic changes) but also of monastic abstinence and religious devotion.

For example, this Tibetan Buddhist chanting is traditionally used as a preparation for meditation.

Whilst you listen, do you feel like your mind can reach nirvana, or do you listen and feel like you are a member of some kind of ancient, primitive, tribal society? Probably both. Does it make you feel afraid or do you find it beautiful? Probably both.

Drones also play a solid part in Western religions: think of the giant, honking church organ sounds present in any European music.

The majority of those huge church pipes are for drone purposes. Their sound fills the massive sonic cavity of the cathedral and then some: the echoes of drones provide immense sustain, and add to what the organist is playing. The echoes of departing drones double or treble the effect of drones actually being played.

The architectural proportions of the church or cathedral and its sonic capabilities are exploited in the production of these drones, perhaps in a massively scaled up external version of the monks' internal resonances as they chant.

Whilst the chanting of the Buddhist monks seems to have the effect of inclusiveness, I can't help thinking that the effect of the drone in European music is one of exclusiveness.

Imagine you are a 15th century peasant, entering an huge cathedral with immense drones being played, layered up into enormous chords and discords by the organist and the sonic capacity of the building. You would be pretty weak at the knees in fear of and with humble deference to God, no doubt. And it's not least because you probably would have no idea where the sound was actually coming from. It's no accident that the organist is usually tucked into a tiny corner behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz: talk about drones as illusion to godliness!

Whilst the Buddhists use drones and chanting to enter a meditative state to draw closer to their Buddha, the Christians use their drones as theatre, pushing the listener away from anything real and towards something approaching a high of religious deference. Ah, the bonkers world of religion.

Teen drone hypnosis horror

Going back to tuning, it is not only microtones and teeny-tiny fluctuations in pitch that cause drones to have their unique hypnotic, religious, druggy effect.

The backing singers in soul/pop music of the fifties and early sixties tended to back-up the lead melody vocal line with drone-based chords, which are vocalized by the singers in the same way as in Buddhist music. If there were no words available, they used vowel sounds chosen for their resonant qualities (i.e. singing 'ooooh' is much easier than singing and sustaining a consonant sound like 'tsch').

Take the backing singers in Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes" when they come in at around 0:19, or The Inkspot's harmonies in "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire."

Rather than being minimalist, the drones here are full and, well, maximalist; made up of lots of different notes sung by lots of different singers and all sung in perfect harmony. It's their inhumanly perfect in-tuneness that makes the sound beautiful, haunting and unsettling in the same way that the perfect out-of-tuneness of the Theatre of Eternal Music makes us feel unsettled.

If you still don't believe me, listen to the opening of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." It's pretty crazy that early 60's adolescents looked at each other with big soppy doe-eyes whilst this played in the background. David Lynch is right on the money in Blue Velvet where the deranged Frank Booth is driven to a kind of foamy-mouthed, rapturous sexual frenzy and rage by this track, with its peculiar harmony choices, in-tuneness and droning backing singers.

Great Drones in History

This uncanny ability drones have to make us feel two contradictory feelings simultaneously means that, over the course of time and history, they have been reused and rediscovered time after time (after time after time). The maze of contradictions held within their simple facade has been exploited by a huge variety of musicians and composers, artists and religious types across the world, time and space.

* Traditional Eastern European folk music uses accordion, concertina, and wind/keyboard instruments as a basis for their drones. Drones are also supplied by various stringed instruments such as the bracca, a kind of adapted, three stringed viola with a flat bridge that allows three-string drones, something not usually possible on traditional violas.

* Northern European folk music, particularly in the UK and Ireland, uses drones on bagpipes and other such instruments made out of gross bits of animal intestines. Typically, a drone on a fifth or fourth is played, with a simple melody played over the top.

* However, in Renaissance Europe, the drone is largely abandoned in secular music in favour of the fancier and more refined basso continuo (a kind of elegant but plodding bass line). The musical instrument in vogue during this time was the harpsichord, sadly incapable of any kind of sustain at all. Drones were out, the delicate plinky-plonky of the basso continuo was in. But, never fear, the drone lived on in sacred organ music with celestial mega-drones bellowed out of huge church & cathedral organs across Britain and Europe to scare the heathens into praising God.

* Drones regroup and begin to take a centre stage in late nineteenth/early twentieth century classical music when a trend for folk-based music, triggered in part by a rise in travel and in recorded music, broadening peoples' musical worlds. Listen to the start of the fourth section of Stravinsky's dazzling "Petruschka" (1911) for a lewd and loud combination of drones and rhythms. Various orchestral instruments crate a cacophony of drones and percussive sounds beneath the sweet melody part. Ideas about noise, music and drones begin to converge.

* In the mid to late 20th century, drones explode into avant garde music, which itself splinters into minimalist music, Futurist music, Fluxus music, and many more: all of which hold drones close to their collective hearts and take the drone as the central element in compositions. Listen to anything by the late, great Morton Feldman or Steve Reich for example.

* Avant-garde music + electronics = electronic music, no stranger to drones. Specifically Stockhausen, who wins the award for the most daring and flamboyant drone of all time in his string-accompanied "Helicopter Quartet" (1991) in which the whirr of the four helicopters' blades make up an amazing, incandescent and shimmering drone behind the four musicians. Yes really.

* Drones move onwards and upwards to play a major role pretty much any challenging musical movement from the '60's onwards: garage rock, psychedelia, heavy metal, Krautrock, punk, electronica, dance, trance, and beyond.

Also see the Angry Violist website

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