Drone

Entry for EPMOW by Philip Tagg (2000)

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drone (Fr. bourdon; Ger. Bordun; It. bordone): [1] continuously sounding single note(s), usually accompanying a melodic line often performed in a higher register (continual drone); [2] as [1] except that note(s) of identical pitch are repeated at short intervals (rhythmic drone). Drones act as tonal reference point and background for the changing pitch of other strands in the music. They are a common feature in many forms of popular music throughout the world and may be vocal or instrumental.

Vocal drones can be found in, for example, the antiphonal rhythms of traditional hymn singing from Tahiti (himene) as well as in backing vocal passages from some types of gospel singing in the USA (e.g. Swan Silvertones, 1952: 1:15-2:00). Instrumental drones can be produced by the same player on the same (set of) instrument(s) that perform the melody, or by a separate (set of) instrument(s): bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, launeddas (Sardinia) and Jew’s harp belong to the former category; didgeridoo (Australia), komuz (Kirghizstan) and tanpura (India) to the latter. Some string instruments, such as the vina (South India) and other members of the lute family, are provided with one or more drone strings that can be plucked at appropriate junctures for purposes of tonal reference and rhythmic impetus. Rhythmic drone effects are also produced by fiddlers who make frequent, often percussive, use of open strings (e.g. Robertson 1922; Ståbi et al. 1965), and by guitarists plucking the low strings, often when adjusted to open-chord tuning (e.g. Hooker 1995; Cooder 1974). Drone effects of a more continuous rhythmic character are often heard in the open-fifth guitar or banjo arpeggiations of artists steeped in European and North American folk traditions (e.g. Folk och Rackare 1976; Steeleye Span 1971; Watson 1971).

The connotative charge of drones varies according to cultural perspective and media context. In the heyday of Central European art music drones were often used to evoke pastoral or bucolic settings (e.g. Händel 1741; Beethoven 1808; Alfvén 1904). More recently drones have become increasingly common and can be heard in, for example, folk rock, ambient and ‘Celtic mood’ music (bygone rural days, broad stretches of time and space, etc.), as well as in such styles as house, techno and other types of ‘modern dance music’. In the latter case, the drone’s connotations, if any, have yet to be clearly established. However, the connotations of one latter-day drone are quite obvious: the ‘doomsday mega-drone’ underscoring ongoing threat scenarios in such popular TV productions as V (alien reptiles occupy Earth) or Twin Peaks (evil omnipresent in a small town). It seems that the drone has deeper connotations on the Indian subcontinent. For example, Coomaraswamy (1995: 77-80) describes the tanpura, the droned string instrument of much raga music which is heard before, during and after the melody, as ‘the timeless and whole which was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.’ The account continues:

‘The melody itself, on the other hand, is the shifting character of Nature which comes from the Source and returns to It’… ‘Harmony is an impossibility for us, for by changing the solid ground on which Nature’s processes rely we would be creating another melody, another universe and destroying the peace on which Nature rests’.

Bibliography

Bengtsson, Ingmar. ‘Bordun’. Sohlmans Musiklexikon, 1: 554. Stockholm: Sohlmans, 1975.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Dance of Šiva. New York: Dover, 1995.

Malm, William P. Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East and Asia. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1967.

Nettl, Bruno. Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1965.

Musical references

Alfvén, Hugo. Midsommarvaka (Swedish Rhapsody no.1, op.19, 1904). Swedish Society Discofil SLT 33145 (n.d.).

Badalmenti, Angelo. Twin Peaks 4 - 6. Lynch/Frost Productions; Spelling Entertainment, 1990-1991. Screen Entertainment VHS SE 9142.

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Pastoral Symphony (no.6, op.68, 1808). Paris: Heugel (n.d.).

Cooder, Ry. ‘Jesus On The Main Line’ (USA Trad.). Paradise and Lunch. Reprise K 444 260, 1974.

Folk och Rackare. ‘Herr Olof och Havsfrun’ (Swed. Trad./Värmland). Folk och Rackare. YTF 50240, 1976.

Händel, Georg Friedrich. Pastoral Symphony from The Messiah (1741). London: Novello, 1902.

Hooker, John Lee. ‘Whiskey and Women’ (rec. c. 1960). Beale Street Blues. King 474, 1995.

Robertson, ‘Fiddling’ Eck. Sally Good’n. Field recording, 1922.

Ståbi, Björn; Hjort, Ole; Agenmark, Nils: Spelmanslåtar från Dalarna. Sonet SLP 16, 1965.

Steeleye Span. ‘The Lark In The Morning’ (Eng. Trad., from Mr Kent via R Vaughan-Williams and the Folk Song Journals); ‘Cold, Haily, Windy Night’ (Eng. Trad. from S Sedley via S Baring-Gould). Please to See the King. Crest 8, 1971.

The Swan Silvertones: Trouble In My Way (John H Myles). Specialty 853, 1952. Also on This Is How It All Began, Vol 1. Specialty SPS 2117, 1969.

Vorzon, Barry De; Conran, Joseph. V. Warner TV, 1983. Warner Home Video WEV 11443-1 through 5, 1987.

Watson, Doc. ‘The Cuckoo’ (USA Trad. via Eric Weissberg). Ballads from Deep Gap. Vanguard VSD 6576, 1971. Also on CD Vanguard VMD-6576, 1988.