The Pitch Goes On

My experiment with timeless, unchanging drone music. /

“Play a sound
with the certainty
that you have an infinite amount of time and space”

— from the score of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s improvisational instrumental piece “Unbegrenzt” (Unlimited)

Intuitively, I—we, perhaps, in the Western world—feel like music should move. It should take advantage of polyphonic possibilities, be catchy, and make you want to dance or sing or nod your head.

We’re accustomed to music as an emotionally and spiritually cathartic thing, and it can be an overt guide and shaper of our experience. I’d know less about love if I’d never heard Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” and faith if I’d never sung “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Melodies and lyrics combine in ways that seem to open us up to meaning, moving us in ways neither can on their own.

But there is a kind of music that lacks both lyrics and melody, that largely lacks movement. This is the drone: a single note, played for a very long time. Drones have been used around the world for years, and traditionally they function as a sort of baseline against which a melody can be played. (Sometimes they’re an actual bass line.) Think of the wheeze of a bagpipe, or the sitar-like buzz of the tanpura in Indian raga (or the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”). In Christian music, there’s the ison of Byzantine devotional chant, a low, sung bass note as the rich backdrop for the rest of the piece. The pedal bass notes of a church pipe organ function in a similar way.

There’s something seemingly sacred about drones; as Australian journalist David Rutledge wrote last year, they have “a transcendent, hypnotic quality that ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 53 / July 21, 2016
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 53: Our drone-themed issue is abuzz with music, planes, and bees. /

  2. Mapping the Matterhorn

    A six-hour 3D modeling of the Alps’ most famous peak is one way drone planes are being beaten into plowshares. /

  3. The Curious Case of Lazy Bees

    What drone males really do all day. /

  4. Beautiful Drone Photos

    The world through the lenses of quadcopters and other unmanned remote aircraft.

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 53: Links to amazing stuff.

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