It’s generally agreed that melody, harmony, and rhythm are the main building blocks of music. While melody sequences the pitches and harmony determines how they interact over one another, rhythm chops it all up into a specific duration and organizes them into familiar patterns. But what would happen if there was little to no emphasis on rhythm? How would music sound if it were just a collection of loosely ordered pitches vibrating endlessly? Can listeners even call that music?
That’s a question that is debated in the comments section on many drone music uploads. Admittedly, it can be a bit baffling to expect a conventional song structure only to be swarmed by lengthy drones layered over each other. Critics of drone music often describe it as boring or pretentious, and it’s hard to blame them when a track resembles a vacuum cleaner more than an actual song. But when it comes to drone and other challenging genres of music, it helps to get familiar with the history of the style and the intentions of the creators.
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Drone music is among the oldest styles of composition, with many indigenous cultures in history emphasizing drones in their traditional music. A few examples can be found in the tamburas of India, the didgeridoos of Australia, and the bagpipes of Scotland, as well as the vocal chants of Tibetan monks and other religious figures.
Drone as we understand it today is considered a sub-genre within minimal music. As the name implies, minimal music is built of short compositional phrases, often repeated throughout a piece and changing gradually. This style was pioneered in the 1960’s by a collective of composers in New York, among them drone pioneers Phil Niblock and La Monte Young. The latter, having already composed a number of drone pieces in the late ‘50s, formed the performance group Theatre of Eternal Music (sometimes referred to as The Dream Syndicate) with his wife Marian Zazeela. Playing a meditative style of sustained tones with mostly acoustic instruments, the group had several accomplished artists among them, including former Velvet Underground members John Cale and Angus MacLise.
Check out this rare clip of Pandit Pran Nath, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Terry Riley in the ‘70s..
Drone music now had a conceptual identity, but still existed mostly in artsy academic circles and was not well known by mainstream audiences. The ‘70s saw a migration of drone music into both popular music and emerging genres. Former Theatre of Eternal Music member Tony Conrad joined German krautrock group Faust on their album Outside The Dream Syndicate, an early example of drone music fused with a conventional rock style. Drone music also found a place in electronic and ambient music, with early pioneers like Éliane Radigue and Else Marie Pade creating minimal electronic drones in the ‘60s and ‘70s, paving the way for German groups like Cluster and Tangerine Dream. An infamous example is Lou Reed’s 1975 double album Metal Machine Music, which contained over an hour of sustained guitar feedback. Though mainstream audiences thought of it as a twisted joke, Reed was actually directly influenced by La Monte Young and his old band mate John Cale.
Drone continued to find its way into other genres through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Early industrial-affiliated artists like Coil and Lustmord broke from the industrial archetype and instead focused on discordant droning, leading to what we now call dark ambient. Alternative rock groups like Spacemen 3 and Sonic Youth incorporated their La Monte Young influences into droney abrasive moments. Probably the most celebrated and ironic genre fusions is drone metal, which saw doom metal riffs stretched out over minimal feedback-laced arrangements. Earth’s debut LP Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version was the first to embrace this style, with Sunn O))) and Boris carrying the torch into the 20th century.
Peep some strong examples of classic Drone Metal artwork.
As it stands now, drone music has somewhat transcended the conventions of an established genre. Years of collaborations and fusions has made the label vague. Rather than seeing drone as a single genre, it’s easier to recognize it as a musical quality that overlaps multiple styles, with a firm base within electronic and ambient music. Drone music also still has a welcome home in academic circles, and is often used in film soundtracks and other media.
If drone seems too otherworldly, it’s probably because that was the intention. Drone always had a meditative quality to it, whether played at a Hindu temple or a Sunn O))) concert. It’s not the kind of music that can be easily absorbed in short sittings, preferring a dedicated listening session. The appeal lies not in individual sections of the piece, but the entire composition and the way it creeps up on the listener. While trying to decipher the intervals of the pitches and their various overtones, another pitch slides into the mix without you noticing. But, when you finally take off your headphones and feel the deafening silence, you realize thirty minutes flew by while your spirit went on a trans-dimensional vacation. Drone is not for everyone, but it’s been here for a long time and won’t be going away anytime soon.
Showing the genre’s evolution, here’s a live clip of Boris performing “Feedbacker” in 2003.