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In music, a drone is a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece. The word drone is also used to refer to any part of a musical instrument that is just used to produce such an effect.

A musical effect

A drone effect can be achieved through a sustained sound or through repetition of a note. It most often establishes a tonality upon which the rest of the piece is built.


The systematic (not occasional) use of drones originated in ancient Southwest Asia and spread north and west to Europe, east to Indiamarker, and south to Africa (van der Merwe 1989, p.11). It is used in Indian music and is played with the tanpura (or tambura) and other Indian drone instruments like the ottu, the ektar, the dotara (or dotar; dutar in Persian Central Asiamarker), the surpeti, the surmandal (or swarmandal) and the shank (conch shell). In the West, they are found since the 1960s in modern drone music.

A part or parts of a musical instrument

Drone is the name of the part of a musical instrument intended to produce the drone effect's sustained pitch, generally without the ongoing attention of the player. Different melodic Indian instruments (e.g. the sitar, the sarod, the sarangi and the rudra veena) contain a drone. For example, the sitar features three or four resonating drone strings, and Indian notes (sargam) are practiced to a drone. Bagpipes (like the Great Highland Bagpipe and the Zampogna) feature a number of drone pipes, giving the instruments their characteristic sounds. A hurdy-gurdy has one or more drone strings. The fifth string on a five-string banjo is a drone string with a separate tuning peg that places the end of the string five fret down the neck of the instrument; this string is usually tuned to the same note as that which the first string produces when played at the fifth fret, and the drone string is seldom fretted. The bass strings of the Slovenianmarker drone zither also freely resonate as a drone.

The drone effect in musical compositions

Composers of classical music occasionally used a drone (especially one on open fifths) to evoke a rustic or archaic atmosphere, perhaps echoing that of Scottish or other early or folk music. Examples include:

However, drones are less often used in common practice classical music, because the longer and more central a drone, the less functional it is, and because equal temperament causes slight mistunings, which become more apparent over a drone, especially when also sustained. On the other hand, drones may be purposely dissonant, as often found in the music of Phill Niblock. The best-known drone piece in the concert repertory is the Prelude to Wagner's Rheingold (1854) wherein the bass instruments sustain an Eb throughout the entire movement (Erickson 1975, p. 94). Later drone pieces include Loren Rush's Hard Music (1970), Folke Rabe's Was?? (1968), and Robert Erickson's Down at Piraeus.

Contemporary classical musicians who make prominent use of drones, often with just or other non-equal tempered tunings, include La Monte Young and many of his students, David First, the band Coil, the early experimental compilations of John Cale (Sun Blindness Music, Dream Interpretation, and Stainless Gamelan), Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster, Alvin Lucier (Music On A Long Thin Wire), Ellen Fullman, Lawrence Chandler and Arnold Dreyblatt. The music of Italianmarker composer Giacinto Scelsi is essentially drone-based. Shorter drones or the general concept of a continuous element are often used by many other composers.

A drone differs from a pedal tone or point in degree or quality. A pedal point may be a form of nonchord tone and thus required to resolve unlike a drone, or a pedal point may simply be considered a shorter drone, a drone being a longer pedal point.

See also

  • Drone music or "dronology" - a post-classical, minimalist music genre with heavy emphasis on the drone harmonic effect.
  • Drone metal - a form of heavy metal music focusing almost entirely on droning, heavily downtuned electric guitar and bass guitar, often lacking vocals or drums.
  • Burden - a word which once was used in the sense of drone


  • Erickson, Robert (1976). Sound Structure in Music. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02376-5.
  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.
  • David Courtney: Drones in Indian Music

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