Drone Attacks: The New Sound of Contemporary Music

The dictionary defines 'drone' as a monotonous, boring sound—but contemporary musicians in a range of genres have a very different view

The drones are everywhere. And, no, I’m not talking about those flying contraptions that technocrats want to use to deliver pizzas and Amazon packages. Those bad boys are everywhere too, but I’m a music writer, so when I talk about drones, I’m thinking about something different—for example, the sound of the Indian tanpura, or Scottish bagpipe, or the harmonium.

My kind of drone typically consists of sustained or humming tones, almost always played in a low frequency. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that these sounds have no melodic movement—in fact, much of the appeal of the drone comes from the gradual alterations in the texture of the music—but the shifts are subtle, more akin to the slow and continuous changes of color in a sunset or the heliotropism of flowers in response to light.

Whether in nature or art, these slow-motion visual effects are deeply satisfying to the observer. In music, the drone is one of the most mesmerizing sounds in the composer’s toolkit. It seems simple—after all, what is so difficult about creating a sustained tone?—but if you study this style of music with any persistence, you learn that composing drones is not child’s play. The most effective examples of drone music showcase endless ingenuity in crafting sonic effects that somehow seem to achieve simultaneously both stasis and movement.

The history of the drone is ancient, as I’ll discuss below. But in modern Western societies, pop culture had very little interest in drone sounds until quite recently. Although the music of elites in Western music has its own old drone history—just listen to Gregorian chant to savor its special flavor—most of the standard classical repertoire is built on a celebration of variety and exuberant effects that have little in common with drones. But even here, the exceptions are striking, most notably in the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which achieves something magical with a throbbing, pulsating E flat major chord sustained over the course of 134 measures.

Yet this effect is so outside the norm of the Western classical vocabulary that composer Robert Erickson called it "the only well-known drone piece in the concert repertory.” That’s not entirely true—especially in the context of the current flourishing of drones in contemporary music, a development that encompasses some of the most popular composers of recent decades, including Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Terry Riley, John Luther Adams, Pauline Oliveros, Henryk Górecki, John Adams and others. And knowledgeable listeners of orchestral music can point to occasional drones in Beethoven, Mahler, Haydn, and other canonic composers of the distant past. Even so, the typical attendee going out for a night at the symphony isn’t expecting long sustained tones—and when they do show up at the concert hall they still retain some shock value, almost as if Mozart and Bach were getting payback for showing off all those modulations and contrapuntal fireworks.

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The history of pop culture shows an even greater resistance to these dark sustained tones—although it is now participating in the new drone attacks. Can you find even a single hit song from the first half of the 20th century built on a drone? Sure, there were hints of drones on the fringes of commercial sounds, for example those devilish guitar sounds of Son House, which relied more on textures than chords. But it’s worth noting that Son House’s original recordings, now so cherished, probably only sold a few hundred copies, maybe even less, when first released, and that his his most famous disciple Robert Johnson embraced a much more multifaceted guitar style, marked by elaborate patterns, turnarounds, bass figures, and passing chords. (Curiously enough, Son House enjoyed a huge revival in the 1960s—but almost at the very moment that drones entered pop culture music.)

In my mind, the turning point for the drone in popular culture arrived via the soundtrack to the hit film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Richard Strauss theme featured in this movie, with its drone elements, even became a radio hit in the aftermath of this cinematic success, but even more striking was director Stanley Kubrick’s dramatic use of György Ligeti's music. Somehow Kubrick grasped that drone sounds not only worked in the background of a movie that would become a pop culture milestone, but even more specifically he realized that this music would be the sound of the future—the 21st century, whose tech-obsessed dawn is the focal point of the film.

At almost this same moment in pop culture history, drones started showing up in the music of superstar rock bands. Just consider that extraordinary moment in Sgt. Pepper's when an in-your-face orchestral drone links the two sections of the song “A Day in the Life.” The previous year, the Beatles had already experimented with a drone sound (created by George Harrison playing the tanpura) in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” while the Velvet Underground had made even more daring use of the effect in “Loop.” And not long after Sgt. Pepper’s, Terry Riley crossed over from classical composition to a droning quasi-rock sound with his pathbreaking A Rainbow in Curved Air.

From this point on, the drone would be key part of the rock vocabulary. Even so, it’s striking how rarely the sound appeared on hit singles. The drone was better suited for longer album tracks or—even better—live performance.

There’s a biological reason for this. The history of ritual—which is the original live performance, I should point out—documents a long tradition of throbbing low frequencies associated with trance and ecstatic states. But this kind of music really needs to be played for close to ten minutes before it exerts its full effect on the body. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, a three-minute radio hit doesn’t have enough time to work this magic, but over the course of a two-hour concert, songs can actually alter the organic and mental states of the audience.

If I had time, I could provide a fascinating survey of the entire history of these powerful low sounds, which operate at a liminal point where music becomes a kind of encompassing aural texture to the soundscape. For example, I suspect that the physiological impact of these sounds explains the appeal of the hydraulis—the loudest instrument known to the ancients. In ancient Rome, this instrument provided a booming accompaniment that excited the audience and energized combatants at gladiator contests.

We also find a significant allusion to drones in the surviving fragments of pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, who describes a mystical out-of-body experience accompanied by the rumbling sound of chariot wheels—and this same deference to the magical and musical properties of a chariot recurs in Jewish Merkabah mysticism. We also encounter this reliance on low tones, again associated with images of journeys, in the ecstatic rituals of shamans all over the world. We discover it as well in the philosopher Boethius’s speculation that low tones have a special relationship with the human body. Above all, we see this extended use of low tones in the various chanting traditions found all over the world, and affiliated with a wide range of creeds and worldviews.

It’s impossible to understand the significance of the drone without grasping these connections, which go well beyond conventional musicology and touch on a range of other disciplines, from the medical to the metaphysical. Drone music isn’t just a genre or a style of composition, but rather a kind of invasive organic intrusion into the workings of our bodies and souls.

But there’s another reason why the drone is becoming more significant in current-day music. The drone represents of backlash to the overly digitized and precise approach to tone creation that has swept aside analog sounds over the last several decades. Even today, the best drones are created out of analog tools, and a a result they operate as a kind of aural palate cleanser, revitalizing the listening experience for people surrounded daily by tech-driven digital sounds.

Even the most superficial survey of drones in contemporary music reveals an almost obsessive return to analog tone creation. In only the last few weeks, I’ve encountered these recordings: Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard has just released a drone album featuring 19 bass clarinets; John Roebuck, in contrast, finds his more personal approach to low tones via “a broken guitar being scratched a broken violin bow”; percussionist Tyshawn Sorey has instead crafted his drone-inflected textures in collaboration with cutting-edge chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound; Philip Blackburn draws more eclectically on a whole arsenal of low-tech tools, from conch shell to handclaps in old cisterns; Derek Monypeny, for his part, dispenses with such elaborate accessories, preferring his “poorly-tuned guitar” whose sound is adjusted by a time-stretching effect. I could give numerous examples—I encounter new drone albums almost every day. Each of these is different, but a certain overarching aesthetic vision links all of them—the persistent ‘drone attack’ of contemporary music.

It’s worth noting the anti-technology ramifications of much of this music. For example, this video involves just a saxophone and a large pipe. But Armin Küpper needed to travel 90 minutes to get to this choice spot. In other words, the notion of a visionary journey—so essential to the oldest musical rituals—is once again embedded into modern musical performance. The music video is a perfect medium to convey this elusive quality, which is less easy to capture on a streaming audio track or even at a concert hall event.

Another pipe-and-sax video by this same musician got almost 4 million views. I’m convinced that the popularity of this music is not merely due to its obvious novelty but also the inherent appeal of richly-textured sounds so radically different from the pervasive digitized soundscapes of day-to-day life.

But the most popular place for drone music nowadays is neither an abandoned pipe or even an indie record. Instead movie, TV, and video game soundtracks have discovered the power of the drone. One of my favorite examples is Colin Stetson’s remarkable score to the horror film Hereditary, where he exercised endless ingenuity in crafting textured sounds unlike those in other films. You might think he’s using a synthesizer, when it’s actually a contrabass clarinet, or an alto bass saxophone, or simply the sound of his own voice. Even the noise of his fingers on the keys of the horn got used as a kind of eerie percussion, unlike anything you can extract from a drum machine.

Not everyone likes these drone sounds that are now everywhere in contemporary film. Ian Crouch, writing in The New Yorker has denounced that “that low and loud synthesized hum—ominous and brain-addling.” Crouch blames Christoper Nolan’s Inception (with soundtrack by Hans Zimmer) for starting the lamentable trend, but clearly the drone is more than just a passing cinema fad. It represents a widespread cultural shift encompassing both highbrow music and the full expanse of popular culture.

A full accounting of this cultural shift would require an inquiry into everything from raves and EDM festivals to playlists for Peloton workouts. In other words, this is bigger than anything Hollywood can create, or Carnegie Hall might curate. And I tend to think these drone attacks in the music world are still in their early stages, and may surprise us with new manifestations in unexpected places—perhaps even shifting the aesthetic sensibility of pop songs and the Billboard charts in the near future.

As a final thought, let me suggest that the current trend is the latest episode in a 2,500-year battle between two opposed visions of music—a conflict that began with what I’ve described elsewhere as the Pythagorean rupture. Pythagoras, with his championing of tuning systems for Western scales, wanted music to consist of notes—each one crisp and clear, and played with mathematical precision. This vision has dominated Western music for centuries, but it has never completely eradicated an alternative perspective which creates music out of sounds, not notes, and refuses to be limited by the conventional notions of playing in tune. It takes full advantage of all the resources hidden between the individual notes in the scale.

A century ago, that subversive alternative view took center stage in popular music. This was the greatest musical breakthrough of the 20th century, and it came from the African and African-American exploration of bent notes, blurred tones, and a whole range of techniques that can’t be easily notated on sheet music. This was the revolution first heralded by blues and jazz and eventually incorporated into the full range of commercial music styles.

You could hear it in the slide guitar of the Blind Willie Johnson, or the muted trumpet sound of Bubber Miley, and in a hundred other contexts. This was music that broke the rules, upset the Pythagorean model, and transformed the course of music history for the next three generations.

This alternative approach began to lose momentum with the arrival of software systems that served, no doubt inadvertently, as Pythagoras’s revenge—proving that, after all the battles, mathematics and algorithms would triumph as the wellsprings of musical creation. In theory, these software systems should have been flexible enough to broaden our soundscapes, not constrain them, but in practice they led to the proliferation of music played on-the-beat and in-the-center-of-the-tone, with little of the scale-busting power unleashed by African influences a little more than a century ago.

I see today’s drone attacks, especially in their most extreme analog manifestations, as a sign that this aesthetic conflict is far from over. The clean, pure sounds of our mathematical models didn’t really win the war, just a temporary skirmish. Already in the current day, that bright and precise electronic sound has lost its novelty, and can even sound oppressive—like the incessant ringtones that accompany the drudgery of the work day. The drone, whether played in a cistern or pipe or even in a concert hall, is the antithesis of all this, embodying a quasi-anarchic vision, that is clearly disruptive, and potentially liberating.