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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 much or all of a piece, sustained or repeated, and most often establishing a tonality upon which the rest of the piece is built. The systematic (not occasional) use of drones originated in Ancient Southwest Asia and was spread north and west to Europe, east to India, and south to Africa (van der Merwe 1989, p.11).
Similarly, a drone is the name of a part of a musical instrument intended to produce such a sustained pitch, generally without the ongoing attention of the player. A sitar features three or four resonating drone strings and Indian sargam is practiced to a drone. Bagpipes (particularly the scottish Great Highland Bagpipe) feature a number of drone pipes, giving the instrument its characteristic "skirl". The fifth string on a five-string bluegrass banjo is a drone string with a separate tuning peg that places the end of the string five frets 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 when playing bluegrass.
- Haydn, Symphony No. 104, "London", opening of finale, accompanying a folk melody
- Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral", opening and trio section of scherzo
- Berlioz, Harold in Italy, accompanying oboes as they imitate the piffari of Italian peasants
- Bartok, in his adaptations for piano of Hungarian and other folk music
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 in the music of Phill Niblock. 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, Coil, Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster, Alvin Lucier (Music On A Long Thin Wire), Ellen Fullman, and Arnold Dreyblatt. Shorter drones or the general concept of a continous 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.
- van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0193161214.
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