Drone music

Drone music, drone-based music, or simply drone, is a minimalist genre that emphasizes the use of sustained sounds, notes, or tone clusters – called drones. It is typically characterized by lengthy audio programs with relatively slight harmonic variations throughout each piece. La Monte Young, one of its 1960s originators, defined it in 2000 as "the sustained tone branch of minimalism".


Music which contains drones and is rhythmically still or very slow, called "drone music", can be found in many parts of the world, including bagpipe traditions, among them Scottish pibroch piping; didgeridoo music in Australia, South Indian classical Carnatic music and Hindustani classical music (both of which are accompanied almost invariably by the Tanpura, a plucked, four-string instrument which is only capable of playing a drone); the sustained tones found in the Japanese gagaku classical tradition; possibly (disputed) in pre-polyphonic organum vocal music of late medieval Europe; and the Byzantine chant's ison (or drone-singing, attested after the fifteenth century). Repetition of tones, supposed to be in imitation of bagpipes, is found in a wide variety of genres and musical forms.The modern genre also called drone music (called "dronology" by some books, labels and stores, to differentiate it from ethnic drone-based music) is often applied to artists who have allied themselves closely with underground music and the post-rock or experimental music genres. Drone music also fits into the genres of found sound, minimalist music, dark ambient, drone doom/drone metal, and noise music.

Pitchfork Media and Allmusic journalist Mark Richardson defined it thus: "The vanishing-point music created by drone elders Phill Niblock and, especially, LaMonte Young is what happens when a fixation on held tones reaches a tipping point. Timbre is reduced to either a single clear instrument or a sine wave, silence disappears completely, and the base-level interaction between small clusters of "pure" tone becomes the music's content. This kind of work takes what typically helps us to distinguish "music" from "sound," discards nearly all of it, and then starts over again from scratch."

La Monte Young and the Theatre of Eternal Music

Composer La Monte Young (born 1935) is an important figure in drone music. He described himself as fascinated from a young age by droning sounds, such as "the sound of the wind blowing", the "60 cycle per second drone [of] step-down transformers on telephone poles", the tanpura drone and the alap of Indian classical music, "certain static aspects of serialism, as in the Webern slow movement of the Symphony Opus 21", and Japanese gagaku "which has sustained tones in it in the instruments such as the Sho". Young started writing music incorporating sustained tones in 1957 with the middle section of For Brass, then in 1958 what he describes as "the first work in the history of music that is completely composed of long sustained tones and silences" with Trio for Strings, before exploring this drone music within the Theatre of Eternal Music that he founded in 1962.

The Theatre of Eternal Music is a multi-media performance group who, in its 1960s–1970s heyday included at various times La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, Terry Jennings, John Cale, Billy Name, Jon Hassell, Alex Dea and others, each from various backgrounds (classical composition and performance, painting, mathematics, poetry, jazz, etc.). Operating from the world of lofts and galleries in New York in the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies in particular, and tied to the aesthetics of Fluxus and the post-John Cage-continuum, the group gave performances on the East Coast of the United States as well as in Western Europe. These performances comprised long periods of sensory inundation with combinations of harmonic relationships, which moved slowly from one to the next by means of "laws" laid out by Young regarding "allowable" sequencies and simultaneities, perhaps in imitation of Hindustani classical music which he, Zazeela and the others either studied or at least admired. The group released nothing during their lifetime (although Young and Zazeela issued a collaborative LP in 1969, and Young contributed in 1970 one side of a flexi-disc accompanying Aspen magazine). The concerts themselves were influential on their own upon the art world including Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose Stimmung bears their influence most strikingly) and the drone-based minimalist works of dozens of other composers many of whom made parallel innovations including Young classmate Pauline Oliveros, or Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, Yoshi Wada, Phill Niblock and many others. Group member John Cale extended and popularized this work in 1960s rock music with the Velvet Underground (along with songwriter Lou Reed).

In 2000, La Monte Young wrote: "[About] the style of music that I originated, I believe that the sustained tone branch of minimalism, also known as 'drone music', is a fertile area for exploration."

John Cale and the Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground's first EP release in 1966, entitled Loop, was an experimental drone piece created by member John Cale. This rare release was far removed from the band's usual rock-based music, and its use of drone elements in songs was particularly apparent in the song "Heroin", which consisted of Cale's grinding viola drone with Reed's two-chord guitar figure. This song, appearing on the band's first album The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), laid the foundation for drone music as a rock music genre in close proximity to the art-world project of the Theatre of Eternal Music. Cale's departure from the Velvet Underground in 1968 blurred matters considerably, as Reed continued to play primitive figures (sometimes in reference to R&B), while Cale went on quickly to produce the Stooges' debut album (1969), including his viola drone on the track "We Will Fall" and Nico's The Marble Index (1969), which also included Cale's viola drone on "Frozen Warnings". Later, Lou Reed issued in 1975 a double LP of multi-tracked electric-guitar feedback entitled Metal Machine Music which listed (misspelling included) "Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont Young's Dream Music" among its "Specifications".


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, German rock musicians such as Can, Neu! and Faust drew from experimental 1960s rock—for example Captain Beefheart at his most collagic—and from composers such as Stockhausen and La Monte Young. These krautrock groups influenced art rock contemporaries in their own day and punk rock and post-punk players subsequently. Tony Conrad, of the Theatre of Eternal Music, notably made a collaborative LP with Faust which included nothing but two sides of complex violin drones accompanied by a single note on bass guitar and some percussion. Single-note bass-lines also featured on Can's track "Mother Sky" (album Soundtracks, 1970) and the entirety of Die Krupps's first album (1979).

New age, cosmic and ambient music

Parallel to krautrock's rockist impulses, across North America and Europe, some musicians sought to reconcile Asian classicalism, austere minimalism and folk music's consonant aspects in the service of spirituality. Among them was Theatre of Eternal Music alumnus Terry Riley, with his 1964 In C. Along with La Monte Young and Zazeela, Riley had become a disciple of the Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. In parallel, then-Krautrock band Tangerine Dream and its recently departed member Klaus Schulze moved toward a more contemplative and consonant harmonic music, each releasing their own drone music album on the label Ohr in August 1972 (Zeit and Irrlicht, respectively). Throughout the 1970s, Irv Teibel released his psychoacoustic Environments series, which consisted of 30-minute, uninterrupted environmental sound and synthesized soundscapes ("Om Chant" and "Tintinnabulation").

Meanwhile, as an increasingly elaborate studio technology was born during the 1970s, Brian Eno, an alumnus of the glam/art-rock band Roxy Music, postulated (drawing in part from John Cage and his antecedent Erik Satie's 1910s concept of furniture music and in part from minimalists such as La Monte Young) that ambient music was "able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting". While Eno's late 1970s ambient tape-music recordings are not drone music, his acknowledgment of Young ("the daddy of us all") and his own influence on later drone music made him an undeniable link in the chain.

Klaus Wiese was a master of the Tibetan singing bowls; he created an extensive series of album releases using them, making impressive acoustic drones.

Shoegaze and indie-drone

Bowery Electric, Cocteau Twins, Coil, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, Loop (who covered Can's "Mother Sky!"), Brian Jonestown Massacre (Methodrone album) and Spacemen 3 (who used a text by Young for the liner notes to their record Dreamweapon: An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music, a live 45-minute drone piece) reasserted the influence of the Velvet Underground and its antecedents in their use of overwhelming volume and hovering sounds, while Sonic Youth quite often prolong notes to add more droning in their songs.

Electronics and metal

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, drone music was intermixed with rock, ambient, dark ambient, electronic, techno and new-age music. Many drone music originators, including Phill Niblock, Eliane Radigue and La Monte Young, are still active and continue to work exclusively in long, sustained tones. Improvisers such as Hototogisu and Sunroof! play nothing but sustained fields which are close to drones. Sunn O))), a drone metal band, almost exclusively plays sustained tone pieces, and their peers Boris and Merzbow released a collaborative 62-minute drone piece called Sun Baked Snow Cave in 2005.


Some notable examples include, chronologically:
  • Yves Klein: as a precedent, his 1949 Monotone Symphony (formally The Monotone-Silence Symphony, conceived 1947–1948) is an orchestral 40-minute piece whose first movement is an unvarying 20-minute drone (the second and last movement being a 20-minute silence).
  • La Monte Young's 1958 Trio for Strings, that he describes as "the first work in the history of music that is completely composed of long sustained tones and silences."
  • Giacinto Scelsi's 1959 piece Quattro pezzi su una nota sola for one pitch and numerous subsequent pieces by himself and his followers and contemporaries in the realm of spectral composition.
  • La Monte Young's 1960s drone-based pieces, solo and with John Cale, Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, Angus MacLise, Terry Jennings and/or Billy Name in the Theatre of Eternal Music (aka The Dream Syndicate), including: Day of Niagara: Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. I (1965/2000).
  • The "free form freakout" leading into The Red Crayola's "Pink Stainless Tale" from their Parable of Arable Land album (1967).
  • Late 1960s–1980s work by minimal composers and gallery artists Yoshimasa Wada (The Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Serpentine), John Cale (Sun Blindness Music, 1965–1968/2001; Dream Interpretation: Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. II, 1965–1968/2001; Stainless Gamelan: Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. III, 1965-1968/2002), Tony Conrad solo (Joan of Arc, 1968/2006) and with Faust (Outside the Dream Syndicate, 1973; Outside the Dream Syndicate Alive, 1995/2005), Terry Fox (Berlino), Harry Bertoia, Jon Gibson (Two Solo Pieces), Charlemagne Palestine (In Mid Air, 1967–1970/2003; Four Manifestations on Six Elements, 1974/1996; Schlingen-Blängen, 1988/1999), David Hykes (Hearing Solar Winds), Pauline Oliveros (Horse Sings From Cloud), Alvin Lucier (Music on a Long, Thin Wire), Harley Gaber (The Wind Rises in the North), Stuart Dempster (In the Great Abbey of Clement VI), and Remko Scha (Machine Guitars), to name only a few. All used long, sustained and timbrally dense harmonic material for the entirety of various of their pieces.
  • Philip Glass: within the 61-minute (1970, recorded 1971, issued 1973) parts 1–2 and 4 (on original LP; single-track CD has them around 0–16, 16–36, and 50–61 mins) are based around drones from wind instruments and sustained voices, rhythmed with a slowly-evolving whirlwind of electric organ (which goes solo on the non-drone part 3).
  • Kraftwerk's experimental/drone self-titled first album Kraftwerk (1970): the 4-minute intro to "Stratovarius", the organ drone on most of "Megaherz", the first half of "Vom Himmel Hoch".
  • Harold Budd's 1970 experimental drone pieces "The Oak of the Golden Dreams" and "Coeur D'Orr" on The Oak of the Golden Dreams.
  • Klaus Schulze's early "organ drone" albums Irrlicht (1972), and to a lesser extent the mix of drone and space on Cyborg (1973) (the organ drone track "Synphära", the cello drone track "Chromengel").
  • Tangerine Dream's ambient drone album Zeit (1972), and to a lesser extent the mix of drone ambient and space music on Phaedra (1974).
  • Pink Floyd: Experimental albums like A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968), Ummagumma (1969), Meddle (1971) and their multi-part composition Shine On You Crazy Diamond (1975)
  • Fripp and Eno: the 21-minute drone ambient of "The Heavenly Music Corporation" on No Pussyfooting (1973), the 28-minute drone ambient of "An Index of Metals" on Evening Star (1975). Fripp revisited guitar drone in 1998 with the 3-minute intro of "Sus-tayn-Z" (a play on "sustains") from the Live Groove album of King Crimson's ProjeKct Two.
  • On Miles Davis' Agharta (1975): the last 6 minutes of the last track, especially the last 2 minutes.
  • Jon Hassell's Vernal Equinox (1977)
  • Jean-Claude Éloy's Shânti (Peace) from 1973, for electronic and concrete sounds, recorded at the WDR Electronic Music Studio in Cologne with an entire length of approximately 2 hours and Gaku-no-Michi (The Ways Of Music) from 1978, a film without images for electronic and concrete sounds, recorded at NHK Electronic Music Studio in Tokyo with a length of 4 hours.
  • Robert Rich's early albums Sunyata (1982), Trances (1983), Drones (1983).
  • Steve Roach: the drone ambient album Structures from Silence (1984).
  • Coil's drone music albums How to Destroy Angels EP (1984) and How to Destroy Angels (Remixes and Re-Recordings) LP (1992), Time Machines (1998), and to a lesser extent ANS (2003). Plus many tracks on non-drone albums, such as "Tenderness of Wolves" on Scatology (1984), "Wrim Wram Wrom" on Stolen and Contaminated Songs (1992), "Cold Dream of an Earth Star" and "Die Wolfe Kommen Zuruck" on Black Light District: A Thousand Lights in a Darkened Room (1996), "North" on Moon's Milk (1998 singles). (Plus many semi-drone tracks such as "Her Friends the Wolves...", "Moon's Milk or Under an Unquiet Skull Part 1", "Bee Stings", "Refusal of Leave to Land", "Magnetic North", etc.)
  • Vidna Obmana: half of Noise/Drone Anthology (1984-1989/2004), the drone-ambient album Soundtrack for the Aquarium (1992/2001), and the drone ambient "night disc" (percussionless disc two) of Well of Souls (1995, with Steve Roach).
  • John Cage: the 23-minute strings piece "Twenty-Three" (late 1980s).
  • John Cage: Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) for organ, composed in 1987. Current performance at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and is scheduled to have a duration of 639 years, ending in 2640.
  • On Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994): especially "[spots]" and "[tassels]", and to a lesser degree tracks such as "[tree]", "[parallel stripes]", "[grey stripe]", and "[white blur 2]".
  • Pure Phase (1995), the second album by Spiritualized, contains explorations of drone music on several instrumentals and on the ghostly bliss-out "Take Good Care of It".
  • Labradford: the drone ambient album Prazision LP (1993), and to a lesser extent a few drone-rock tracks on A Stable Reference (1995) and Labradford (1996).
  • Kyle Bobby Dunn and his patient drones for electric guitar and chamber instruments are full of movement and detail, yet throughout all the tiny changes, an uncanny stillness prevails. Nearly two hours of minimal, lulling and romantic drone on the double album, A Young Person's Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn. "Going down in history as a master of 21st century minimalist drone." Sedimental has been following Dunn's sensitive and world-wise drone works closely for many years. “…there’s an austere classical air to Dunn’s compositions, recalling the geometry of cathedral domes and the interlaced ribs of vaulted ceilings.” -The Wire Magazine
  • Stars of the Lid (described as "Austin drone stars" in 1995): the overwhelming majority of their work, from Music for Nitrous Oxide (1995) and Gravitational Pull vs. the Desire for an Aquatic Life (1996) to the more classical-tinged The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001) and And Their Refinement of the Decline (2007).
  • Swans 1996 release Soundtracks For The Blind displayed major hints of Post-Rock, Drone and Minimalism with soundscapes, audio recordings and multiple genre's all composed into a two-hour album. It is considered an important album for the Post-Rock genre.
  • Mystical Sun: the drone ambient album Primordial Atmospheres (1994), especially the track Journey to Samadhi which fuses 33 minute drones with binarual beats.
  • Sheila Chandra's album ABoneCroneDrone (1996) consists of minimalist vocal phrases over complex electronic drones combined with acoustic drones. She found melodies inherent within the harmonics of the drones, so that the music was incomplete without the listeners finding their own melodies arising from the drones, as she invited the listeners to be creators. She continued this approach onto her next album, This Sentence Is True (The Previous Sentence Is False). This work developed from her previous explorations based in Indian music using drones such as the tambura.
  • Bowery Electric's "Postscript" on the album Beat (1996).
  • Gescom (a side-project of Autechre): the experimental album Minidisc (1998) is half drone ambient (tracks "Cranusberg [1–3]", "Fully [1–2]", "Shoegazer", "Polarized Beam Splitter [1–5]", "Dan Dan Dan [1–4]", "A Newer Beginning [1–2]", "Go On", and to a lesser degree "Interchangeable World [1–3]", "Yo! DMX Crew", "New Contact Lense", "1D Shapethrower", "Inter", "Of Our Time", or the drone techno of "Pricks [1–4]").
  • Radiohead's "Treefingers" (on the album Kid A, 2000) is a cross of drone ambient and space music.
  • Biosphere : half of his ambient/drone album Shenzhou (2002), and his drone album Autour de la Lune (2004).
  • Boards of Canada : the drone ambient of "Corsair" on Geogaddi (2002).
  • Wilco's album A Ghost Is Born (2004) contains "Less Than You Think", a 15-minute track containing ~12 minutes of droning ambience after a brief piano-based melody.
  • Contemporary drone composers such as Phill Niblock, Leif Elggren, Eliane Radigue
  • Dark ambient, noise music, post-industrial music and improvised music bands and projects involved with drone music include Autopsia, Die Krupps, KK Null, False Mirror, Zoviet France, Matthew Bower's Hototogisu, kaoshipnótico, C.C.C.C., Merzbow, Wapstan.
  • Other contemporary bands representative of this genre include Maeror Tri, Children of the Drone, Windy & Carl, Troum, Mirko Uhlig, House of Low Culture, Growing, Cisfinitum, Hwyl Nofio Two Percent, Eleh, Timber Timbre, and The Horrors. Some important hearths for bands in the genre include Soleilmoon or Drone Records.
  • "The Barometric Sea" by Deepspace is drone-based, taking in many ambient and drone influences.
  • Most of Bethany Curve's songs are drone-based, made only with guitars.
  • Erik Wøllo: the electronic drone ambient album The Polar Drones (2003). Also, the live album "Silent Currents" (2011).
  • Steven Wilson's side project, Bass Communion, uses drone, noise, supernatural, and ambient textures. Wilson's solo debut Insurgentes (2008) also contains various drone and noise elements throughout.
  • If Thousands' album "Lullaby" (2003) is intended to aid slumber through the use of keyboards, guitars, and field recordings to build up a captivating atmosphere that mimics a state of near-sleep.
  • Janek Schaefer's 'Local Radio Orchestra' for 12 x digital audio players, 24 x short range FM transmitters, and 12 x portable FM Radios, broadcasting a drone ensemble across the entire FM dial for you to tune out and tune in.
  • Michael Waller's Isolets (2011), a chamber work for flute, violin, cello, and vibraphone, and DISCRETION (2012), an orchestra work for S.E.M. Ensemble conducted by Petr Kotik
  • Lawrence Chandler's The Tuning of the World (2012), a 24-hour sustained tone piece
  • "Four and a Half" by Brian John Mitchell, released in 2012, is a four-and-a-half-hour-long pure drone piece.
  • Low's performance at the 2013 Rock the Garden concert consisted of a slowed and lengthened version of their drone rock song "Do You Know How to Waltz?" and resulted in mass audience confusion.
  • Kevin Drumm's album Tannenbaum (2013) is a double-CD with three drone pieces: Nightside, Winter ice and Taurean.
  • Calineczka's album What Is Music And What Should It Be live minimal analog synthesis.