In lieu of my annual music post (my antidote to Christmas music), I’d like to dedicate a post to the drone genre. I will discuss the challenges of drone, how to appreciate it, and share some of my favorite examples, with an eye towards newcomers. Readers are also welcome to skip the discussion and just try the music.
How to appreciate drone
Drones—sustained tones—are one of the oldest musical elements, and appear in all sorts of music. However the present focus is the modern genre of drone, a subgenre of ambient music that prominently features drones. We should also consider adjacent genres such as drone metal, post rock, and shoe gaze; and examples of drone in (20th century) classical music and film soundtracks.
Some music can be difficult because it’s too complex to figure out, but drone tends to be difficult because it seems there is nothing to figure out. It feels like it’s either one note played for ten minutes, or a single phrase repeated ad nauseum for ten minutes. Do fans of drone just like keeping it simple stupid, or is there some hidden complexity you’re missing? Answer: it’s both.
Some people like simplicity for its own sake. But also, simplicity along one axis makes legible the complexity along other axes. These are the two core appeals of drone music. However, individual listeners might only be drawn to one or the other (myself to the latter), and individual examples of drone might cater to one or the other. Knowing what you want can help you find music you like, and skip over what you don’t like.
The rhythms of drone are usually simplistic, if not entirely absent. So rather than focusing on the temporal arrangement of sounds, you instead listen to the vertical arrangement of sounds. Listen for all the different notes, hear their interactions, feel their textures. And revel in any chord changes. Most music is fundamentally a series of chords, with everything else on top serving as texture; drone is often the same, but with different kinds of textures that lay bare the fundamental chord structure.
I’m describing what aspects of drone that you might pay attention to, but it is not necessary to pay attention at all. There are two different modes of listening: attentive listening, or inattentive listening. In my opinion, good drone music should hold up under both modes. It should be complex when you’re looking, and simple when you’re not. But if you prefer just one mode of listening, good on you for understanding that about yourself.
Ten examples of drone
I’ll start out by saying I have certain preferences with regard to drone, generally preferring dark and tonally complex music, leaning towards drone metal. And I’ve never enjoyed post-rock, though I have tried. Interested readers are welcome to try popular post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Stars of the Lid, but they will not be featured here.
This list is in no particular order, and is almost two hours long. Note that Bandcamp will autoplay the next track in each album unless you stop it. If you get bored by one, it’s okay, you have my permission to skip. 🙂
1. Sunn O))) – “Alice”
Sunn O))) is a premiere drone metal band, and possibly the most popular drone act in modern times. “Alice” features drones prismatically separated into their component parts. It is not only beautiful, but also illustrative of how you might mentally separate out the components of any drone music.
2. Jozef Van Wissem & Jim Jarmusch – “The Two Paths”
Van Wissem is a lutist, and Jarmusch is a movie director (and guitarist). This joint project is one of the my favorite examples of drone, with a delicate lute suspended in a wailing void.
3. Moon Zero – “Erwood Araf”
This track features what we call an ostinato–a stubbornly repeating phrase. It’s chill, but also a bit unsettling, like the floor will open up at any moment. This does in fact happen halfway through.
4. Abul Mogard – “Above All Dreams”
This is probably the most chill track on my list, so if you think my tastes are too dark and not chill enough, you might try it out. To me, it sounds like cream and honey very slowly being swirled together and poured into a lily pad.
5. Tim Hecker – “This Life”
Tim Hecker is another popular artist, mostly in the broader ambient genre, but drone is certainly included. In his last two albums, he samples from Japanese Gagaku (to the point of unrecognizability). I would also recommend Tim Hecker’s other albums (Virgins, Ravedeath 1972, An Imaginary Country, Love Streams, Harmony in Ultraviolet), each of which has its own flavor.
6. Senyawa – “Tanggalkan Di Dunia (Undo The World)”
Senyawa is an Indonesian group often placed in the “world” category, but their music is not traditional, it is wholly unique. With Wukir’s home-made instruments and Rully’s “extreme” vocals, they are something to behold.
7. György Ligeti – “Lontano”
I hinted at drone in 20th century classical music, and here it is. Ligeti is probably the most popularly enjoyed example, I think because he put more of a priority on enjoyability. Try out Phill Niblock and you might see what I mean—not to knock Niblock, he’s just more of a purist. I rather like the spectrogram animation (janky as it is), which shows just how much there is to keep track of.
8. Cryptic Ruse – Where Are Those Voices Coming From
Cryptic Ruse is the solo project of Igliashon Jones, who is a big name in the world of xenharmonic (aka microtonal) music. Lately he’s made some excellent progressive rock as part of Mercury Tree. But I also have to appreciate his drone metal, because the simplicity of drone makes (at least a little bit more) legible the complexity of microtonality. This particular track is in 23EDO, which means it has lovely quarter tones.
9. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – “With Suspicion”
Have I mentioned that drone is quite common in movie soundtracks? It goes to show that many people enjoy drone even if they don’t realize it. Of course, most people wouldn’t listen to one of these soundtracks outside of the movie. For instance, the Dunkirk soundtrack made quite an impression on me, but I still never listened to it again (until now!). I make an exception for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are better known as Nine Inch Nails. Most of their soundtrack work isn’t what I would call drone, but some of it is, and here’s an example. My hope is that next time you hear drone in a soundtrack, you might notice and appreciate it.
10. thisquietarmy – “Ce corps ne te sera jamais étranger” (This body will never be foreign to you)
thisquietarmy was my first real introduction to drone as a standalone genre. I was so impressed with this album that I spent time searching for more music like it. Now it is hard to listen to it with fresh ears. But I will say that each track on this album goes through its own arc, slowly developing to a climax, and transforming. It’s based on a French poem about how our bodies transform but remain our own.