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  • Writer's pictureIona Catherine

Drones in folk fiddle playing 🎻

Drone: "In music, a drone is an effect where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece."

The tension and release that is generated when regarding a drone as a constant pitch for a series of notes to interact with can be spectacular. Let me break this down in terms of music theory. Let's take an imagined drone to be the home note. All the other pitches played in a given imagined folk tune have a relationship to that home note with regards to the intervallic space that exists between them.

Different intervals create different strong or weak alliances with each other. For example, an octave’s intervallic space sounds very harmonious. For example, if my home note is an open D on my fiddle and I simultaneously play a D the octave above (3rd finger on the A string) using the double-stopping violin technique there will be very little tension between those notes. They will sound settled. But if I play my open D and the major seventh above it, a.k.a. C# (second finger on the A string) it will create a very unsettled effect. Every interval that I could choose to play above my open D string has its own distinct tension relationship. If you are a violinist it would be well worth your time to experiment with the other notes you can play over any given drone. What notes could you play against an open D? Or an open A? An E on the D string (1st finger)? And so on. Which notes ‘crunch’ and which notes feel ‘harmonious’?

Does now apply this idea to folk tunes over a drone. A folk tune (or any other tune) can be described as a series of pitches played in a given rhythm. If we play a tune over a drone, whether generated on the violin or on an accompanying instrument, it will create its own tension relationships via the intervallic theory noted above. But it will also create resolutions. If I move from a major 7th C# to an 8ve D over an open D drone I have ‘resolved’ the tension. Emotionally, the 7th will cause a ‘distressing’ effect, only to be ‘cured’ by the consonance of the return to the 8ve.

To me, it is in this constant process of tension and release relationships that is evoked in folk tunes over a drone that is totally magical. I implore you to try it if your are a fiddler, or to find yourself hearing drones from a new perspective when listening to folk tunes being played.

Check out this Hurdy Gurdy drone performance... No it's not a fiddle... But it DOES perfectly demonstrate the use of drones in folk music!

Thank you for reading. If you would like further musical guidance on folk fiddle playing, from me, Iona Catherine, then do contact me here at I would love to hear from you. Happy fiddling!

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