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Expand Your Ears and Creativity with Drones

POSTED ON September 18, 2015   |   7 Comments

A drone is a sustained tone that accompanies a piece of music. Drones can be found in musical traditions all over the word. Indian classical music, Scottish bagpipes, Gregorian chant (organum), Native American flute, minimalism, and modal jazz are a few examples.

Practicing with drones is one of the most effective ways to sharpen your ears and inspire your inner music.

Tanpura

Courtesy of Martin Spaink/Wikimedia Commons

A drone provides a warm and meditative sonic environment. I love practicing with drones because they inspire me to work on breath, tone production, intonation, and improvisation simultaneously.

Sing

Begin by singing the note C in unison with a C drone. (You can download the 12 drone tracks from my book for free). Your voice may disappear into the sound world of the drone.

Next, slowly sing the pitches of a C major scale with the drone. I recommend singing with solfege or North Indian sargam syllables. Each syllable corresponds with a scale degree, which will help you internalize the character and tendencies of each interval. The syllables end with vowels so they are easy to sing.

Scale degrees

Listen to how each tone resonates with the drone. As you sing up and down the scale, some pitches will sound smooth and consonant, and others sound more dissonant and have tendencies to pull toward other tones. For example, scale degree 7 is called the “leading tone” because it strongly leads toward the tonic a half step higher.

Once you feel comfortable singing the scale, mix up the notes. Freely change direction, incorporate skips and leaps into your melodies, and expand the range beyond an octave.

Play

Next, play C major melodies with your instrument with the drone. Sing the melodies you hear through your instrument.

Experiment with different intervals and scales. One of the best ways to get to know an unfamiliar scale is to sing and play it with a drone.

Change the pitch of the drone and work through this material above in other keys. When you sing, Do/Sa will always be the drone pitch. You will notice that each interval and syllable retains its character in any key. Try limiting yourself to three or four pitches and play compelling musical phrases by varying your with dynamics, phrasing, and tone color.

Over time, each interval will become a familiar friend. As you combine them in different ways, you will develop more expressive power as a creative musician. I have a page in my notebook filled with descriptions of how each interval resonates with me on an emotional level.

Feel free to experiment and explore. If a compelling phrase catches your ear, write it down or record it. These gems can serve as inspiration for new compositions.

Tuning

Practicing with drones is also one of the best ways to work on intonation. Rather than looking at a tuner, we get feedback from our ears. We can experience the divine consonance of a purely tuned intervals and the beats generated by dissonance. Tuning with our ears rather than our eyes allows us to be more flexible in variable performance environments.

See how renowned trumpet player Ingrid Jensen works with an Indian shruti box to explore sound, improvisation, and intonation:

Please share your experiences working with drones in the comments.

– ST

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Comments

  • Nathan Vetter

    Drone work is a total game changer with regards to developing your sound. I like using the cello drones. The overtone content is really optional and similar to what Ingrid is using. When I first started working with drones, I was using sine waves, and it was a lot less useful. For good tone, the overtones in one sound need to be in tune with the fundamental, so having clear overtones in the drone is really helpful.

    • Totally, drones with natural harmonics are essential. I also love the Cello Drones–great warm sound and lots of overtones. Playing with a sine wav feels like you’re taking a hearing test!

  • Paul Gabrielson

    Working with drone tones or a single drone tone is essential to a musicians ability to hear pitches correctly. It also helps with relaxation in playing ones instrument since the musicians will soon discover that playing any single note or a combination of notes, i.e. scales, arpeggios or an etude, is less dependent upon striving technically, but using one’s ears to realize each note.

  • Randy Wong

    Are you familiar with the Samvada iOS app? Lots of great drones and control options.

    • No, I’ll be sure to check it out. I have iTanpura which is amazing. Thanks Randy!

  • Terri Cole

    Love this Steve! Thanks for sharing!

  • Wim

    A few weeks ago I discovered that training the ears with a drone is great to develop relative pitch, i.e. relative to a tonic. I have near perfect pitch, which makes it sometimes difficult for me to think in “movable” do. In general I don’t need movable do since I play non-transposed instruments, but in for example Indian music I have no choice, there is no absolute system. The further away the “movable do” goes from the absolute “do”, the more difficult it becomes for me to think in “movable do”. With a drone however one learns to appreciate the qualities of the pitches relative to the tonic (which is one of the essences of Indian music), and from there one can learn to identify the relative pitch. It’s a slow process though. Fortunately I did use some movable do when I was young, so I don’t have to start from zero. Around my twenties I switched to “absolute” hearing because it’s more practical in genres of music which modulate often to “far” keys, like jazz.

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