Drone: Definition and Musical Genre

Posted on April 12, 2022

Many people associate the word “drone” with flying remote-control aircraft. You may have used the word “drone” to also refer to some mechanical, perhaps distorted sound of a machine. However, “drone” has its own meaning in the context of music, including an entire musical genre. Read more about drone music with examples and sub-genres of drone music.

What does drone mean in music?

In music, drones are long and sustained sounds, such as notes and chords. They carry on for long periods of time without variation and are most often used for an atmospheric or ambient effect. 

There is often no distinguishable rhythm in a musical drone. This is why certain musical pieces that rely heavily on drones often stretch the concept of what can be called music. However, despite lacking a distinct rhythm or even a melody, a drone may be varied in other ways, such as changing its volume throughout the musical piece. 

A number of different instruments can be used to achieve the drone sound. These include, for example, the guitar, bagpipes, organs, different stringed instruments, and electronic keyboards. The word “drone” can also be used to refer to the part of an instrument that is used to produce the sound, such as certain pipes in the bagpipes. 

What is the drone genre?

Musical genres that utilize drones heavily tend to be quite repetitive, minimalistic, and at times meditative. However, it’s somewhat misleading to speak of a single genre of drone music as the drone genre encompasses a variety of styles and sub-genres. In the tradition of Western music, drones are widely used in experimental, minimalistic, and ambient music as well as some sub-genres of rock music. 

Well-known rock bands like The Velvet Underground or the drone metal group Sunn O))) utilize drones in their music. Electronic artists who use drones as part of their music include Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker. The post-rock and shoegaze genres are also known for their use of drones to produce an ambient wall of sound effect.

How about drones in non-Western music?

The use of drones in Western music can be traced back to around the 1960s and 50s to the music of La Monte Young and the Theatre of Eternal Music. In addition to the use of drones in Western music, other musical traditions have their own ways of using drones as well. For example, an instrument called a surpeti has been used in Indian classical music to create an ambient and droning sound. The Australian aboriginal people’s didgeridoo can also be used for creating drones in a similar way to the Scottish bagpipes.

Learn about drone music and other music terminology

Read more about drones, drone music, and other concepts in our complete Musician’s Glossary article full of music-themed terminology.

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