Physical drones aren’t necessarily a good thing. They sting, they spy and they make war. Musical drones in contrast are definitely a good thing, as they bring about peace. Inner peace. Their gentle monophonic humming is balm to the human soul.
Though it hums a bit like a bee, the musical drone isn’t named after the insect. It’s rather the other way around, as The national encyclopædia tells us: “The drone does not take its name from the bee. It is a far older word, sharing an Indo-European root (“dhran, to drone, to hum”) with the Sanskrit ‘dhran’, the Greek ‘thren-os’, and the English ‘thrum’, ‘drum’, and ‘dream’.”
These ancient etymological roots substantiate that musical drones aren’t just a phenomenon of postmodern experimentalism. Long before avantgardists like John Cage introduced this technique, mankind produced drones all around the globe. Huun-Huur-Tu from the Russian republic Tuwa give us a fine example of traditional drone music from Siberia played on the doshpuluur, a Tuwan lute:
Apart from describing the simplest harmonic device, the word drone also refers to any part of an instrument that is used to produce a continuous sound, as for example the so called bourdon pipes of a bagpipe or an organ. Bourdon instruments can produce a peculiar harmonic effect. By interweaving melodies and drones a constant oscillation between consonant and dissonant sounds is achieved.
The hurdy-gurdy is a bourdon instrument using strings instead of pipes. Known as Vielle à roux, this instrument was very popular in medieval France. René Zosso, a viruoso on the Vielle à roux, and zither player Anne Osnowycz give an impression of the rich tradition of drone in French music with their performance of a piece by Bernart de Ventadorn, a composer of the 12th century:
It’s evident that the drone plays a crucial role in musical history. It even seems plausible that it’s the source of all instrumental music, as it can be traced back way beyond year 0. For example the didgeridoo, one of the few drone instruments unable to play distinguished melodies, is estimated to be at least 2500 years old. About a 1000 years younger is the tradition of the Japanese ritual music called Gagaku featuring a whole orchestra of drones.
The drone seems to be inherent in all folk traditions, but it’s nowhere as predominant as in India, where this harmonic device is an integral part of traditional music. It’s not mainly the archetypical sitar which is responsible for the drones accompanying Indian melodies, but rather its little sister, the tanpura. Often a harmonium is used to add further drones, as the following performance shows: