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Drone music

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Drone music,[2][3] drone-based music,[4] or simply drone, is a minimalist[5] genre of music that emphasizes the use of sustained sounds,[6] notes, or tone clusters called drones. It is typically characterized by lengthy compositions featuring relatively slight harmonic variations. La Monte Young, one of its 1960s originators, defined it in 2000 as "the sustained tone branch of minimalism".[7] Music containing drones can be found in many regional traditions across Asia, Australia, and Europe, but the genre label is generally reserved for music originating with the Western classical tradition. Elements of drone music have been incorporated in diverse genres such as rock, ambient, and electronic music.[8]


Music which contains drones and is rhythmically still or very slow, called "drone music",[2] can be found in many parts of the world, including bagpipe traditions, among them Scottish pibroch piping; didgeridoo music in Australia, South Indian classical Carnatic music and Hindustani classical music (both of which are accompanied almost invariably by the Tanpura, a plucked, four-string instrument which is only capable of playing a drone); the sustained tones found in the Japanese gagaku[9] classical tradition; possibly (disputed) in pre-polyphonic organum vocal music of late medieval Europe;[10] and the Byzantine chant's ison (or drone-singing, attested after the fifteenth century).[11] Repetition of tones, supposed to be in imitation of bagpipes,[12][13][14][15] is found in a wide variety of genres and musical forms.

The modern genre also called drone music[3][16] (called "dronology" by some books, labels and stores,[17] to differentiate it from ethnic drone-based music) is often applied to artists who have allied themselves closely with underground music and the post-rock or experimental music genres.[1] Drone music forms a part of the movement referred to as minimal music.[5]

Pitchfork Media and Allmusic journalist Mark Richardson defined it thus:[18]

The vanishing-point music created by drone elders Phill Niblock and, especially, La Monte Young is what happens when a fixation on held tones reaches a tipping point. Timbre is reduced to either a single clear instrument or a sine wave, silence disappears completely, and the base-level interaction between small clusters of "pure" tone becomes the music's content. This kind of work takes what typically helps us to distinguish "music" from "sound," discards nearly all of it, and then starts over again from scratch."


Composer La Monte Young (born 1935) is an important figure in drone music. He described himself as fascinated from a young age by droning sounds, such as "the sound of the wind blowing", the "60 cycle per second drone [of] step-down transformers on telephone poles", the tanpura drone and the alap of Indian classical music, "certain static aspects of serialism, as in the Webern slow movement of the Symphony Opus 21", and Japanese gagaku "which has sustained tones in it in the instruments such as the Sho".[19] Young started writing music incorporating sustained tones in 1957 with the middle section of For Brass,[19] then in 1958 what he describes as "the first work in the history of music that is completely composed of long sustained tones and silences"[19] with Trio for Strings, before exploring this drone music within the Theatre of Eternal Music that he founded in 1962.

The Theatre of Eternal Music is a multi-media performance group who, in its 1960s–1970s heyday included at various times La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, Terry Jennings, John Cale, Billy Name, Jon Hassell, Alex Dea and others, each from various backgrounds (classical composition and performance, painting, mathematics, poetry, jazz, etc.). Operating from the world of lofts and galleries in New York in the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies in particular, and tied to the aesthetics of Fluxus and the post-John Cage-continuum, the group gave performances on the East Coast of the United States as well as in Western Europe. These performances comprised long periods of sensory inundation with combinations of harmonic relationships, which moved slowly from one to the next by means of "laws" laid out by Young regarding "allowable" sequences and simultaneities, perhaps in imitation of Hindustani classical music which he, Zazeela and the others either studied or at least admired.[20] The group released nothing during their lifetime (although Young and Zazeela issued a collaborative LP in 1969,[21] and in 1970 Young contributed one side of a flexi disc accompanying an issue of Aspen magazine[22]). The concerts themselves were influential on their own upon the art world including Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose Stimmung bears their influence most strikingly)[23][24] and the drone-based minimalist works of dozens of other composers many of whom made parallel innovations including Young classmate Pauline Oliveros, or Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, Yoshi Wada, Phill Niblock and many others.[25]

In 2000, La Monte Young wrote: "[About] the style of music that I originated, I believe that the sustained tone branch of minimalism, also known as 'drone music', is a fertile area for exploration."[7]

Rock music[edit]

Theatre of Eternal Music member John Cale extended and popularized drone techniques in 1960s rock music with his next band, the Velvet Underground (along with songwriter Lou Reed). The Velvet Underground's first EP release in 1966, entitled Loop, was an experimental drone piece created by member John Cale.[26][27] The band's first album The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) laid the foundation for drone music as a rock music genre in close proximity to the art-world project of the Theatre of Eternal Music.[1] Around this period, the Beatles also introduced elements of Indian-influenced drone music in psychedelic rock tracks such as "Tomorrow Never Knows" (1966).[28]

Following his departure from the Velvet Underground, John Cale went on to produce Stooges' 1969 debut album, with the final mix including his viola drone on the track "We Will Fall". That same year Cale also performed viola on Nico's The Marble Index (1969), on the track "Frozen Warnings". Later, Lou Reed issued in 1975 a double LP of multi-tracked electric-guitar feedback entitled Metal Machine Music which listed (misspelling included) "Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont Young's Dream Music"[29] among its "Specifications".

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, German rock musicians such as Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Cluster and Faust drew from 1960s rock groups that experimented with duration and repetition—for example the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and Captain Beefheart at his most collagic[30]—and from composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen[30] and La Monte Young.[31] These krautrock groups influenced art rock contemporaries in their own day and punk rock and post-punk players subsequently.[32][33] Tony Conrad, of the Theatre of Eternal Music, notably made a collaborative LP with Faust which included nothing but two sides of complex violin drones accompanied by a single note on bass guitar and some percussion. Single-note bass-lines also featured on Can's track "Mother Sky" (album Soundtracks, 1970) and the entirety of Die Krupps's first album (1979).

Drone metal was first established by Earth,[34] a group from Olympia, Washington, formed in 1989 by minimalist musician Dylan Carlson.[35] Earth took inspiration from the sludge metal of Melvins and the minimalist music of Young, Riley and Conrad.[35] Stephen O'Malley's group Sunn O))),[36][37] initially formed as a tribute to Earth, is most responsible for the contemporary prominence of the drone metal style. Boris,[36][38] from Tokyo, also developed a style of drone metal, parallel with the Seattle groups, as did Corrupted, from Osaka.[35]

In 1990, British band Spacemen 3 recorded a live 45-minute drone album entitled Dreamweapon: An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music, with liner notes by La Monte Young.[39]

Electronic and ambient music[edit]

Across North America and Europe, some musicians sought to reconcile Asian classicalism, austere minimalism and folk music's consonant aspects in the service of spirituality. Among them was Theatre of Eternal Music alumnus Terry Riley, with his 1964 In C.[40][41] Along with La Monte Young and Zazeela, Riley had become a disciple of the Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. In parallel, then-Krautrock band Tangerine Dream and its recently departed member Klaus Schulze moved toward a more contemplative and consonant harmonic music, each releasing their own drone music album on the label Ohr in August 1972 (Zeit and Irrlicht, respectively). Throughout the 1970s, Irv Teibel released his psychoacoustic Environments series, which consisted of 30-minute, uninterrupted environmental sound and synthesized soundscapes ("Om Chant" and "Tintinnabulation").[42]

Meanwhile, as an increasingly elaborate studio technology was born during the 1970s, Brian Eno, an alumnus of the glam/art-rock band Roxy Music, postulated (drawing in part from John Cage and his antecedent Erik Satie's 1910s concept of furniture music and in part from minimalists such as La Monte Young)[43] that ambient music was "able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting".[44] While Eno's late 1970s ambient tape-music recordings are not drone music, his acknowledgment of Young ("the daddy of us all")[45] and his own influence on later drone music made him an undeniable link in the chain.

Klaus Wiese was a master of the Tibetan singing bowls; he created an extensive series of album releases using them, making impressive acoustic drones.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Cox & Warner 2004, p. 359 (in "Post-Rock" by Simon Reynolds): "The Velvets melded folkadelic songcraft with a wall-of-noise aesthetic that was half Phil Spector, half La Monte Young—and thereby invented dronology, a term that loosely describes 50 per cent of today's post-rock activity." (about the Velvet Underground and post-rock)
  2. ^ a b For information on early and other uses of drones in music around the world, see for example (American Musicological Society, JAMS (Journal of the American Musicological Society), 1959, p. 255: "Remarks such as those on drone effects produced by double pipes with an unequal number of holes provoke thoughts about the mystery of drone music in antiquity and about primitive polyphony.") or (Barry S. Brook & al., Perspectives in Musicology, W. W. Norton, 1972, ISBN 0-393-02142-4, p. 85: "My third example of the force of tradition concerns another large problem, the persistence of drone music from the Middle Ages to the present day.")
  3. ^ a b Early use of "drone music" as a non-ethnic, new or experimental genre can be found such as in 1974 (Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Studio Vista, 1974, ISBN 0-02-871200-5, p. 20: "[...] LaMonte Young's drone music [...]") or again 1974 (cf. "drone-music" in the Hitchcock 1974 quote about Riley)
  4. ^ "Drone-based music" is used for instance in 1995 (Paul Griffiths, Modern music and after: Directions Since 1945, Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-19-816511-0, p. 209: "Young founded his own performing group, the Theatre of Eternal Music, to give performances of highly repetitive, drone-based music"), or in Cow & Warner 2004 (cf. cited quote of p. 301).
  5. ^ a b Cox & Warner 2004, p. 301 (in "Thankless Attempts at a Definition of Minimalism" by Kyle Gann): "Certainly many of the most famous minimalist pieces relied on a motoric 8th-note beat, although there were also several composers like Young and Niblock interested in drones with no beat at all. [...] Perhaps “steady-beat-minimalism” is a criterion that could divide the minimalist repertoire into two mutually exclusive bodies of music, pulse-based music versus drone-based music."
  6. ^ "Drone". britannica.com.
  7. ^ a b Young 2000, p. 27
  8. ^ Echo, Altstadt. "Drone Techno Introduction". www.dubmonitor.com. Dub Monitor. Archived from the original on 18 February 2015. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  9. ^ A precedent directly cited by La Monte Young, see his quote below (Zuckerman 2002).
  10. ^ Speculated in 1988 by French musicologist Marcel Pérès of Ensemble Organum (as summarized here Archived 2012-07-22 at the Wayback Machine) but disputed in a master thesis (Robert Howe, "The Performance of Mediæval Music in Contemporary Culture", PDF file, p. 6–8)
  11. ^ "there is no clear testimony to the use of the ison until after the fifteenth century" (in St. Anthony's Monastery, "Introduction to Byzantine Chant", p. 1 Archived 2008-12-25 at the Wayback Machine). Elsewhere is specified: "The earliest notification of the custom appears to have been made in 1584 by the German traveller, Martin Crusius." (in Dimitri E. Conomos (Oxford University), "A Brief Survey of the History of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Chant" Archived 2008-12-22 at the Wayback Machine, section "7. Post-Byzantine Era")
  12. ^ Rosamond E. M. Harding, Origins of Musical Time and Expression, Oxford University Press, 1938, Part 2 "Studies in the imitation of musical instruments by other instruments and by voices", p. 4243: "IMITATION OF BAGPIPES: Bagpipes may be called a world-instrument, since they are found in most parts of the world. They are also of considerable antiquity, being known to the ancient Egyptians. [...] There are three characteristics of Bagpipe imitations all three of which may be present at the same time and any one of which is sufficient to characterize Bagpipe influence, if not a direct imitation. The first is the drone, usually placed in the bass, and consisting of one note alone or of two or three notes played together. A drone consisting of two adjacent notes sounded alternately is also typical. Dr. Naylor, in his work An Elizabethan Virginal Book, has drawn attention to the fact that many early English melodies are founded on a drone consisting of two alternating notes, and that the Northumbrian Bagpipe had alternative drones and an arrangement for changing the note of the drones."
  13. ^ George Grove, Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan Publishers, 1st ed., 1980 (ISBN 0-333-23111-2), vol. 7 (Fuchs to Gyuzelev), "André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry", p. 708: "in L'épreuve villageoise, where the various folk elements – couplet form, simplicity of style, straightforward rhythm, drone bass in imitation of bagpipes – combine to express at once ingenuous coquetry and sincerity."
  14. ^ Leroy Ostransky, Perspectives on Music, Prentice-Hall, 1963, p. 141: "GAVOTTE. A dance consisting of two lively strains in 4/4 time, usually with an upbeat of two quarter-notes. It sometimes alternates with a musette, which is a gavotte over a drone bass, an imitation of bagpipes."
  15. ^ David Wyn Jones, Music in Eighteenth-Century Austria, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-521-02859-0, p. 117: "Table 5.1 – Pastoral traits in eighteenth-century masses [...] II – Harmony: A) Drones in imitation of bagpipes"
  16. ^ "drone music" is also used in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-century Music (cf. Cook & Pople 2004, p. 551, about the Theatre of Eternal Music: "his drone music [...] Young went on to develop this early drone music into intricate and extended compositions") or on Pitchfork Media ("During that time I wanted my drone music to have as prickly an edge as possible""Projekt: Darkwave - 'Avec Laudenum'". Archived from the original on 2009-02-20. Retrieved 2009-01-08.).
  17. ^ "Dronology" is used for instance as a genre tag at Aquarius Records (who claim they coined it [1]), Epitonic.com "Dronology". Archived from the original on 2008-11-19. Retrieved 2008-12-09., and Last.fm[2].
  18. ^ Mark Richardson, "Stars of the Lid: And Their Refinement of the Decline" Archived December 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine review, April 3, 2007, www.pitchforkmedia.com
  19. ^ a b c Zuckerman 2002.
  20. ^ Young, Zazeela and Hindustani classical music: Mela Foundation, "Pandit Pran Nath Memorial Tributes", www.melafoundation.org (quoting The Eye, the SPIC MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth) quarterly magazine): "He [Young] is a master of Hindustani classical music. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, founders of the MELA Foundation Dream House in New York are responsible for having single-handedly introduced vocal Hindustani classical music to America. In 1970 when they brought renowned master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath of the Kirana Gharana to the U.S. and became his first Western disciples, studying with him for twenty-six years in the traditional gurukula manner of living with the guru, [...]"
  21. ^ La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela, vinyl LP (limited to 2800 copies) dubbed The Black Record (1969), Munich: Edition X, featuring two side-long compositions.[3][4]
  22. ^ Flexi-disc "Jackson MacLow / La Monte Young", Side B: credited "Drift Study 31 1 69 by La Monte Young" (full title is "Excerpt from Drift Study 31 I 69 12:17:33 – 12:49:58 PM",[5] from its recording date and time), accompanying Young's article "Notes on Continuous Periodic Composite Sound Waveform Environment Realizations", in Aspen no. 8 "The Fluxus Issue", New York: Aspen Communications Inc., NYC., Fall-Winter, 1970–1971.
  23. ^ Potter 2002, p. 89: "[Young's] influence on already established composers who were themselves his student mentors is not, however, confined to Cage. Karlheinz Stockhausen's exploration of the harmonic series, notably in Stimmung (1968), has often been linked to Young's example. [...] The German composer seems to have visited Young and Zazeela when in New York, in 1964 or 1965, and listened to a rehearsal of The Theatre of Eternal Music. He requested tapes of the group's performances which, perhaps surprisingly, Young gave him. Stockhausen's own musicians visited Young and Zazeela's Dream House installation in Antwerp in 1969."
  24. ^ Steve Reich, Writings on Music, 1965–2000 (ed. by Paul Hillier), Oxford University Press US, 2002, ISBN 0-19-511171-0, p. 202: "I didn't hear any of Feldman's music until 1962, when I heard a piece of Stockhausen's called Refrain. I only realized later that this was Stockhausen's 'Feldman piece' just as Stimmung was his 'LaMonte Young piece'."
  25. ^ Cox & Warner 2004, p. 401 ("Chronology" of key dates): "1964 [...] Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, Angus MacLise, and Tony Conrad form the Theatre of Eternal Music, the foundation of drone-based minimalism;"
  26. ^ Sievers, Florian (December 5, 2018). "The Voice of the Universe – A Brief History of Drone". Red Bull Music Academy. Retrieved 2024-04-18.
  27. ^ Burton, Poppy (January 11, 2024). "Did Phill Niblock inspire The Velvet Underground?". Far Out. Retrieved 2024-04-18.
  28. ^ Luhrssen, David; Larson, Michael (2017). Encyclopedia of Classic Rock. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood. ISBN 978-1-4408-3513-1.
  29. ^ Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music (1975), double vinyl LP, RCA Records (CPL2-1101), "Specifications": text copy, image copy (reissue).
  30. ^ a b Stubbs, David (2009). "Introduction". Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy. London: Black Dog. pp. 7–8. ISBN 9781906155667.
  31. ^ Young, Rob; Schmidt, Irmin (2018). All Gates Open: The Story of Can. London: Faber & Faber. pp. 24–26. ISBN 9780571311491.
  32. ^ Cook & Pople 2004, p. 547: "On the other hand, the legacy of La Monte Young was flourishing in late 1970s punk rock."
  33. ^ Cox & Warner 2004, p. 320 (in "Digital Discipline: Minimalism in House and Techno" by Philip Sherburne): "In the late 1970s, rock music produced its own minimalist reaction to inflated, overproduced mainstream rock. The results, No Wave and punk rock, often made explicit links to the 60s' drone-minimalism tradition, as with Glenn Branca's bands Theoretical Girls and The Static, his guitar orchestras, and the many groups that he influenced."
  34. ^ Jason Jackowiak, Splendid, September 14, 2005. "Splendid Magazine reviews Earth: Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method". Archived from the original on September 27, 2008. Retrieved September 15, 2008. Access date: August 23, 2008.
  35. ^ a b c Pattison, Louis (February 17, 2015). "Heavy, Heavier, Heaviest: A Beginner's Guide To Doom-Drone". Boiler Room. Retrieved September 26, 2023.
  36. ^ a b John Wray, "Heady Metal", New York Times, May 28, 2006. [6] Access date: August 18, 2008.
  37. ^ Jan Tumlir, "Primal dirge", Artforum, April 2006. [7] Access date: August 22, 2008.
  38. ^ Spall, Oliver (December 10, 2007). "Sunn O))) and Boris present Altar". Archived from the original on December 8, 2008. Retrieved August 22, 2008.
  39. ^ Spacemen 3, Dreamweapon: An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music, Sympathy for the Record Industry SFTRI 211, 1993 CD re-issue, liner notes
  40. ^ Hugh Wiley Hitchcock, Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction, Prentice-Hall, 1974, ISBN 0-13-608380-3, p. 269: "A few others besides Young have pursued similar paths of minimal drone-music, notably Terry Riley (b. 1935) in works like In C for orchestra [...]"
  41. ^ Cook & Pople 2004, p. 659 ("Personalia" mini biographies): "Riley, Terry (b. 1935) [...] A meeting with La Monte Young deeply affected his outlook [...]"
  42. ^ Cummings, Jim. "Irv Teibel died this week: Creator of 1970s "Environments" LPs". Earth Ear. Retrieved 18 November 2015.
  43. ^ Cook & Pople 2004, p. 502: "Semi-audible music had been consistently prefigured in the music of left-field composers from Erik Satie onwards. ‘Ambient music’ emerged as a category when in the 1980s, influenced by the minimalism of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, Brian Eno started to make music for deliberately sub-audible presentation, [...]"
  44. ^ Brian Eno, 1978, sourced at Ambient Music.
  45. ^ Potter 2002, p. 91: Brian Eno saying "La Monte Young is the daddy of us all" (with endnote 113 p. 349 referencing "Quoted in Palmer, A Father Figure for the Avant-Garde, p. 49").


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