While the word ‘drone’ may first bring to mind images of unmanned aircraft indiscriminately blowing people up in one country so that maybe hopefully people won’t be indiscriminately blown up in a different county to the west of that one, the word ‘drone’ also connotes a musical genre which (surprise surprise) is characterised by sustained, repeated sounds, also known as drones.
Drone as a musical device can be found in most national musical cultures, from bagpipes in Scotland to didgeridoos in Australia, but drone as a genre was arguably invented by the experimental American composer La Monte Young, and certainly popularised in 1960s New York by John Cale of The Velvet Underground. By definition drones should be boring — unchanging, dragged out notes, “oh do stop droning on”, etc. — but Cale’s seminal use of droning guitars and viola, laid under Lou Reed’s rambling opium-dream poetry, tapped into the meditative, even transcendental or spiritual potential of the drone whilst synthesising it with pop and rock music.
Take a quick glance at a starry sky and, while you technically see it all, you take in very little. It is only by lying back, with patience and stillness, that the magnificence of the night sky can begin to be grasped: you start to notice the patterns of the constellations, new stars slowly, gradually emerge and disappear, a shooting star flits into your line of sight, and is gone before you have time to observe it. Think of listening to drone as the musical equivalent of stargazing.
Once a ‘pure’ drone track starts, you’re unlikely to run into any surprises: the chord or tone or droning motif will establish itself and generally repeat, or sustain, or continue, until it finishes. Boring? If done badly, then yes. But for the same reason that practisers of meditation can use mantras, the repetition and stasis of the best drone music gives something for your brain to lock into, allowing you to focus, or zone out completely. If you ever wanted a predominantly instrumental genre to work to, this is the one. I’m no psychology expert (believe it or not) but I’d guess that, while silence is free from distractions, the absence of sound bores the listening part of the brain, making it restless, and thus making it harder to work. Drone, on the other hand, is equally free from distractions, surprises, catchy melodies or hooks, but is stimulating enough to allow the brain to focus. What prevents it from being boring are these subtle changes or progressions — perhaps a swell of feedback or harmony, a shift in the dense musical textures, the gradual introduction of a new melody or chord. While drone music is massively varied, from the delicate, beautiful, classically inspired ambience of Stars Of The Lid, to the obliterating drone metal riffs of Sunn O))), it all shares this reliance on repetition and musical stasis, working to envelop your listening consciousness.
Heroin — The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Although, on release, no one listened to or reviewed it, the importance of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s eponymous debut album for modern music cannot be overstated. It pretty much oversaw the invention of art rock and alternative rock. Without it we wouldn’t have Nirvana to Sonic Youth, or The Strokes to The Vaccines. And it’s full of drone!
Treefingers — Radiohead (2000)
Swells and waves of guitar harmonics and synth textures make up this instrumental interlude in Radiohead’s Kid A. No need for a melody, this is pure musical ambience.
A Meaningful Moment Through A Meaning (Less) Process — Stars Of The Lid (2007)
Stars Of The Lid’s ambient drone music is very film soundtrack-esque. Each of their tracks moves at glacial pace with deep musical textures and flourishes of delicate piano. Their album Their Refinement Of The Decline is incredibly beautiful.
Radiance — Tim Hecker (2013)
Tim Hecker is perhaps my favourite experimental electronic music producer. His album Virginals was made by recording live classical instrumentation and then subsequently warping and remixing it into a soaring, eerie, beautiful, but incredibly dark continuous piece.
Mocking Solemnity — Sunn O))) (2002)
While most people can at least appreciate the sonic beauty of ambient drone music, it is with drone metal, and particularly the music of its godfathers, Sunn O))) (pronounced “sun”), that we find drone at its most impenetrable. Sunn O))) at their purest consist of walls of slow, rumbling guitar distortion, and not much else. Best listened to on full volume, their music is unspeakably heavy, dark, and evil. If listening to drone in general is the musical equivalent of stargazing, then listening to Sunn O))) is the musical equivalent of looking up at the night sky and seeing infinite blackness. Their live shows consist of hours of pure, transcendental sound played by dark cloaked figures enveloped in clouds of smoke, with occasional pagan chanting. Some Sunn O))) tracks move so slowly they’re more sound installation than music. Pretentious? Probably. But also pretty cool.