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Quora Answer : How are drones used in music? What role do they play? Are they single notes?

Aug 10, 2019

Drones are used all over the place.

At one end of the scale, a drone is simply long single note, often in the bass of a piece of music, which is usually the tonic or fifth and helps define the tonality of the music.

At the other, drones are typically a long noise which has a lot of harmonics, and perhaps movement in the harmonics.

The point of drones is (usually) NOT to be "monotonous". But to dispense with complexes of multiple instruments to help you hear and appreciate the complexity within a single sound or noise.

To blow my own trumpet for a second, here's a piece I created a few years ago. It's a single 10 minute note generated by an Arduino microcontroller.

Arduino WaveFlavour Drone

The Arduino is running a synthesis algorithm I invented called "WaveFlavours" which basically consists of two wavetables (digitized waveforms) and which then does some systematic transformation of the data in those wavetables, including swapping values from one to the other.

The result is that while you are listening to a single elongated note (for 10 minutes!) the sound wave is continually changing shape during that time. Which leads to new harmonics entering and old harmonics disappearing. Some of these are subtle and some are more abrupt, leading the sound to start having a rhythmic pulsing within it.

There are three transformation processes changing the data in the wavetables, and each has its own cycle. As the three are out of phase with each other, I don't believe that you are ever really listening to the same waveshape twice during the 10 minutes.

As the Arduino is also a VERY noisy way to generate sound (this is an 8MHz processor, and the result is basically being pumped out of a PWM digital output) this noise also adds a kind of clipping / distortion that adds harmonic richness to the sound.

This is just one way to do "drone music". There are many others. But most involve either creating a process which evolves the sound over time, the way my track does. Or finding a sound which theoretically DOESN'T evolve over time, but then demonstrating through a long recording, that it actually does. That's what happens when someone, say, tapes down the keys on an electric organ. You assume that the sound will remain monotonous, but then listening to it you discover tiny fluctuations due to electrical noise or hidden dynamics within the instrument itself.

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