Working With Drones

Robin Clark
06/21/16 07:52:03PM


I am often asked by folks about how they can get their noter drone playing sounding better. So I want to do a bit of myth busting and take a look at noter drone playing from the perspective of its musical texture and suggest a few tips on playing drone style dulcimer.

Firstly I want to state from the outset that playing noter drone style is fundamentally a different musical construct to playing chord melody. It is so stark a difference in style that we could perceive the chord melody dulcimer and noter drone dulcimer as being two very different instruments (which, if you look closely at pre-revival dulcimers, they are!). We are not simply talking about different techniques of playing but totally different musical constructs with very different origins. There is no natural linear progression from one style to the other. Indeed 'starting folks off' in DAA with intention of moving them on to DAd is not really doing beginners any favours at all, particularly as they are more than likely to have an instrument designed and set-up for DAd and they can more easily produce familiar sounds from that format (which is why it is overwhelmingly the popular way to learn to play dulcimer). Occasionally, individuals or groups wants to learn more traditional playing styles from the start – and that choice is absolutely fine as lessons can be focused on that goal.
However, don't choose noter drone playing because it looks 'easier' than chord melody, it is just as long and complex a learning curve to become competent in either discipline. Part of that is because we are just not used to hearing traditional dulcimer being played - it is not like its on the radio every day! - so we have to learn the rules of the road as well as learning how to drive the car. Here, I don't want to talk about what's traditional and what's not, that debate has been had infinitum on dulcimer forums and is the cause of much angst and polarization. What I want to discuss is noter drone playing purely from the construct of its musicality and, specifically, I want to talk about playing against drones.

Throughout history numerous cultures have embraced monophonic music, which essentially is music where the melody stands alone or is set against drones. Up to the Renaissance, Western music also followed this style of monophonic musical texture and it is only relatively recently that Western popular music has entered the sphere of homophony (melody accompanied by chords). In other cultures, such as Indian classical music, the construct is still monophonic.

Here is a quote from Wiki:

Unlike western music, Indian music is not based on harmony. The harmonic principle of contrast between simultaneous sounds is foreign to the Indian conception of music. The concept of modulating (or changing) keys is also absent. Instead, the music is based on a drone, a continual pitch that sounds throughout the concert. This acts as a point of reference for everything that follows, a home base that the musician returns to after a flight of improvisation.

We could say much the same about much of the 19th century folk music in the Appalachians and the English and Celtic music from which much of it was derived. Here is an exert from Wiki about the history and distribution of drones in music:

The systematic use of drones originated in instrumental music of ancient Southwest Asia, and spread north and west to Europe, east to India, and south to Africa. It is a key component of much Australian aboriginal music through the didgeridoo. It is used in Indian music and is played with the tanpura (or tambura) and other Indian drone instruments...Most of the types of bagpipes that exist worldwide have up to three drones, making this one of the first instruments that comes to mind when speaking of drone music. In America, most forms of the African-influenced banjo contain a drone string.

So where does this leave the Appalachian mountain dulcimer? Well it was derived from the monophonic drone instruments of Europe and, initially, would have played the folk tunes, dances and religious music derived from the monophonic music of the old countries. However, there's no doubt that other popular tunes written for American musical hall in the homophonic texture became part of the pre-revival dulcimer player's repertoire. And such tunes were 'back engineered' in the Appalachian communities into melodies with drone accompaniment. The Appalachian 'old time' repertoire is littered with examples such as 'Golden Slippers', 'Red Wing', 'Home Sweet Home' etc. played on fiddle, mountain banjo and dulcimer without chord accompaniment yet written on/for polyphonic instruments in the homophonic texture.

However, during the American folk revival 'folk' music was 'tidied up' and old tunes started to be played on instruments that were chord based, like the guitar (you can hear this process starting as early as the 1920s in rural America with the arrival of the guitar). By the 1960s the guitar also became the overwhelmingly dominant composition instrument for a new wave of popular (commercial) American folk musicians who wrote melodies in the context of accompanying chords. We are all aware that the dulcimer was modified to meet the needs of this new musical genera because the traditional instrument was often not a good fit for the popular music of this new folk age – so the dulcimer was changed to equal temperament fretting, the 6+ added and the primary tuning moved to DAd.

So here is my first tip for playing noter drone dulcimer – pick your tunes carefully! You are going to have a hard job convincing anyone that what you are playing is 'musical' if you choose a popular post 1960 song written and recorded around guitar chord changes unless you are doing something so different and unique with the melody and/or rhythm that your version stands up in its own right. There are thousands of tunes from around the world that will work brilliantly on noter drone dulcimer so don't get hung up if your version of 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' by Dylan sounds 'wrong' when played in noter drone style, a noter drone dulcimer is not a guitar! Go and find a Bretton dance tune instead that will sound brilliant on the instrument. Or hunt out music written on other drone instruments like the hurdy gurdy. Of course there are contemporary rock and pop tunes that will work on noter drone dulcimer and classical pieces too, and it can be a lot of fun experimenting with all styles of music to find pieces that work. Just don't try and make your noter drone dulcimer something it is not – work with it not against it.

My second tip is to pick your drones to match and enhance your melody. For example: I may lower my bass drone a 5th or octave if a tune is particularly 'dark', or run two root note drones if the 4th of the scale is a prominent note in the tune, or reverse the root and 5th if I feel the melody string needs a high root next to it, or run two 5th drones if I need some brightness etc. There are many drone combinations and pitches you can choose from, each of which will slightly alter the texture of the piece you are playing. Also, think about how you are going to sound the drones. Will you sound them on every strum, or strike them occasionally, or finger pick them, or roll through them etc. Whenever I approach a new piece I experiment with potential drone combinations and soundings to find a match for the musical texture I have in mind.

 My third tip is to concentrate on the melody. For drone playing to work the melody has to be utterly believable and carry the listener. If you can play just the melody on one string, in the way a flute or similar melody instrument would, in an engaging manner, then your piece will work against drones when you add them. Put work into your melody phrasing and timing. Playing melody against drones in very exposing of poor timing and phrasing as there are no chords to carry the listener through changes in the music's direction – all hangs on the melody and rhythm. This is makes noter drone playing quite hard to master because to create something 'good' musically requires the player to be a good way along their musical journey. Noter drone playing may be 'simple' but it is certainly not 'easy'. To use a metaphor, DAd chord melody playing is a broad lake, there are lots of scattered skills and techniques near the surface to dip into that will help make your playing sound competent, whereas noter drone playing is a deep well with the fresh water being at the bottom and harder to reach. Of course, the DAd chord melody playing lake has great depth as well for those who study the genera, it is just that noter drone playing lacks easy access shallows – it is a tougher learning process to reach a stage of sounding 'good'.

 My forth tip is eluded to on the Wiki page about drones and classical Western music:

 However, drones are less often used in common practice classical music, because equal temperament causes slight mistunings, which become more apparent over a drone, especially when also sustained.

 If you are going to get serious about your noter drone playing then have a look at dulcimers set in more natural temperaments so that every melody note blends perfectly with the drones. I'm sure that many dulcimer players have written off noter drone playing as 'un-musical' simply because it is difficult to get a really perfect sound from a dulcimer built for modern DAd playing. Ionian mode DAA in particular is very difficult to pitch on an equal temperament dulcimer as the third of the scale is so far 'off' it can make even a well played piece sound amateurish and out of tune. It is all but impossible to buy a dulcimer built specifically for noter drone playing off-the-shelf from a music shop today and difficult to find a custom dulcimer maker who has the experience of working with the temperaments, action and voicing suitable for noter drone style – although, thankfully, there are a few specialists makers now building for our style of playing. I like to buy old dulcimers (pre-DAd) because they are often a better option for the job in hand.

 My fifth tip is not to limit yourself by being a dulcimer 'traditionalist'. Think about noter drone playing as being a living monophonic musical texture that can be applied to many different genera of music from around the world. Personally, I think it is justly valid to pick tunes from a broad pool or create new pieces for noter drone dulcimer rather than sticking with only the traditional Appalachian repertoire. But make sure you learn everything you can about the skills and techniques used by the historic Appalachian players of our instrument and then be prepared to build on that knowledge to inform your personal playing. Drone backed folk music is making something of a resurgence at present with many artists producing new works in the monophonic texture so there is plenty of contemporary material to get your teeth into.

 My final tip is true for all styles of playing but is perhaps particularly pertinent for noter drone work. And that is to listen to your dulcimer. That may sound obvious but we can all be guilty of hearing what we 'think' we are playing rather than hearing the actual sound our playing is producing. For example: We set out to play Amazing Grace and as we play we are thinking about the version by the Soweto Gospel Choir and that's what we think we are playing – but what we don't hear is what we are actually playing on the dulcimer. You have to work with the instrument - the result of your playing is the noise you produce, not the context your mind places on your playing. With noter drone playing it is all too easy to hear chord changes in your head that are just not there, or to get your melody phrasing or rhythm slightly off. So work on techniques that will help you to hear what YOU are playing. Record yourself or use a metronome to force you to listen while playing. Use critical analysis of your own playing, both macro (ie Am I in tune?) and micro (ie Is my timbre right for that note?). Remember noter drone playing is very exposing of errors in timing and phrasing as all we have to work with is the melody and rhythm.

 I hope this has given you a little insight into approaching playing with drones. Developing your noter drone musicianship is not an easy road, and progress can be slow, but it is a rewarding journey.