Drone music is a minimalist musical style that emphasizes the use of sustained or repeated sounds, notes, or tone-clusters – called drones. It is typically characterized by lengthy audio programs with relatively slight harmonic variations throughout each piece compared to other musics. La Monte Young, one of its 1960s originators, defined it in 2000 as "the sustained tone branch of minimalism".
Explorers of drone music since the 1960s have included Theater of Eternal Music (aka The Dream Syndicate: La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, Angus Maclise, John Cale, et al.), Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radigue, Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground, Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Stars of the Lid, Earth, Coil, Sonic Boom, Phill Niblock, Sheila Chandra, and Sunn O))).
Ethnic or spiritual music which contains drones and is rhythmically still or very slow, called "drone music", can be found in many parts of the world, including bagpipe traditions, among them Scottish pibroch piping; didgeridoo music in Australia, South Indian classical music and Hindustani classical music (which is accompanied almost invariably by the tambura, a four-string instrument which is only capable of playing a drone); the sustained tones found in the Japanese gagaku classical tradition; possibly (disputed) in pre-polyphonic organum vocal music of late medieval Europe; and the Byzantine chant's ison (or drone-singing, attested after the fifteenth century). Repetition of tones, supposed to be in imitation of bagpipes, is found in a wide variety of genres and musical forms. However, the lineage of stillness and long tones occurring in classical compositions during adagio movements, including, for instance, the third movement of Anton Webern's Five Small Pieces for Orchestra, as well as in Northern European folk musics in the form of "slow airs" has directly descended into modern popular and electronic music in a way which is directly derived from the milieu of La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Charlemagne Palestine and others in 1960s New York.
The modern genre also called drone music (called "dronology" by some books, labels and stores, 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. Drone music also fits into the genres of found sound, minimalist music, dark ambient, drone doom/drone metal, and noise music. Most often utilizing electronic instruments or electronic processing of acoustic instruments, they typically create dense and unmoving harmonies and a stilled or "hovering" sense of time. While the hallmarks of drone music are easy to recognize, the backgrounds and goals of the artists vary greatly.
Pitchfork Media and Allmusic journalist Mark Richardson defined it thus: "The vanishing-point music created by drone elders Phil Niblock and, especially, LaMonte 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."
As summarized in a review, "Drone music is about as far away from music as you can get before it stops being music In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was oooooommmmmmm. God was, apparently, a drone music pioneer, and there is something religious about this music... or rather, something spiritual.
La Monte Young and the Theater of Eternal Music
La Monte Young, fascinated with "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", started writing music incorporating sustained tones in 1957 with the middle section of Four Brass, 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" with Trio for Strings, before exploring this drone music within the Theater of Eternal Music that he founded in 1962.
The Theater 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.) and brought with them concepts of the meaning of the music they were involved with as well as audiences who might not have otherwise attended. 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 comprised long periods of sensory innundation with combinations of harmonic relationships, which moved slowly from one to the next by means of "laws" laid out by Young regarding "allowable" sequencies and simultaneities, perhaps in imitation of Hindustani classical music which he, Zazeela and the others either studied or at least admired. The group released nothing during their lifetime (although Young and Zazeela issued a collaborative LP in 1969, and Young contributed in 1970 one side of a flexi-disc accompanying Aspen magazine). The concerts themselves were influential on their own upon the art world including Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose Stimmung bears their influence most strikingly) 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. Then group member John Cale went on to extend and popularize this work into 1960s rock music with the Velvet Underground (along with songwriter Lou Reed).
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."
John Cale and the Velvet Underground
The combination of Cale's grinding viola drone with Reed's two-chord guitar figure of the Velvet Underground's song "Heroin" on their 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. Cale's departure from the group in 1968 blurred matters considerably, as Reed continued to play primitive figures (sometimes in reference to R&B), while Cale went quickly on to produce the Stooges' debut (1969), including his viola drone on the track "We Will Fall" and Nico's The Marble Index (1969) which also included Cale's viola drone on "Frozen Warnings". Later, Lou Reed issued in 1975 a double LP of multi-tracked electric-guitar feedback titled Metal Machine Music which listed (misspelling included) "Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont Young's Dream Music" among its "Specifications".
George Harrison and the Beatles
Several songs by The Beatles, the most popular and influential group of the 1960s, include drones. Drawing on George Harrison's studies and friendship with Hindustani classical sitarist, Ravi Shankar, from 1966's "Love You To" through 1967's "The Inner Light", many of Harrison's compositions include the tambura, an instrument dedicated in Indian music to harmonic stasis. John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows", a quasi-mystical song based around text from the Tibetan Book of the Dead also includes the tambura and is sung around a pedal-point drone, as in medieval Western liturgical music.
In the late sixties and early seventies German rock musicians including Can, Neu! and Faust drew from the heritage of experimental sixties rock like the Beatles at their most collagic and jamming as well as from composers like Stockhausen and La Monte Young. These groups became influential on art-rock contemporaries in their own day and punk-rock and post-punk players subsequently. Tony Conrad, of the Theater of Eternal Music, notably made a collaborative LP with Faust which included nothing but two sides of complex violin drones accompanied only by a single note on bass guitar and a bloody-minded percussion accompaniment. Single-note bass-lines were also featured on Can's track "Mother Sky" (album Soundtracks, 1970) and the entirety of Die Krupp's first album (1979).
New age, cosmic and ambient music
Parallel to Krautrock's rockist impulses, across North America and Europe, some musicians sought to reconcile Asian classicalism, austere minimalism and folk music's consonant aspects in the service of spiritualism. Among them was Theater of Eternal Music alumnus Terry Riley with his 1964 In C and who had become a disciple, along with Young and Zazeela, of the Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. In parallel, then-Krautrock band Tangerine Dream and their recently departed member Klaus Schulze both moved toward a more contemplative and consonant harmonic music, each releasing their own drone music album on Ohr Records in August 1972 (Zeit and Irrlicht, respectively). Meanwhile, as increasingly elaborate studio technology was born during the seventies, Brian Eno, an alumn of the glam/art-rock band Roxy Music postulated ambient music (drawing, in part from John Cage and his antecedent Erik Satie's 1910s concept of furniture music, in part from minimalists such as La Monte Young) as "able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting". While his late seventies ambient tape-music recordings are not drone music, his acknowledgment of Young ("the daddy of us all") and his influence on later drone music made him an undeniable link in the chain.
Shoegaze and indie-drone
In the UK, a crop of 1980s rock bands appeared who owed greater or lesser debts to the Velvet Underground, Krautrock, and subsequent droning trends. Cocteau Twins, Coil, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, Loop (who covered Can's "Mother Sky") Brian Jonestown Massacre (Methodrone album) and Spacemen 3, (who used a text by Young as text for the liner notes to their record Dreamweapon: an evening of contemporary sitar music, a live 45-minute drone piece),for instance reasserted the influence of the Velvet Underground and its antecedents in their use of overwhelming volume and hovering sounds, even as they asserted rockish and propulsive rhythms. Sonic Youth uses a large number of guitars with alternate tunings to emphasise the drone in almost all of their songs. They also quite often prolong notes in their song structures to add more droning in their song. Pelt and Charalambides expanded them further still while referring to eighties and nineties noise music, Metal Machine Music-derived performers like Merzbow, C.C.C.C., and KK Null.
Electronics and metal
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, drone music was intermixed with rock, ambient, dark ambient, electronic and new-age music. Many drone music originators, including Phill Niblock, Eliane Radigue and La Monte Young are still active and continute to work exclusively in long, sustained tones. Meanwhile, however, younger musicians tied to electronic composition like Jliat and Ian Nagoski remain dedicated almost exclusively to drone music, while improvisors like Hototogisu and Sunroof! play nothing but sustained fields which are close to drones. Sunn O))), a drone metal band, almost exclusively plays sustained tone pieces, and their peers Merzbow and Boris released a collaborative 62-minute drone piece called Sun Baked Snow Cave in 2005.