Monday, October 12, 2020

The different types of polyphonic singing 2: drone polyphony

Joseph Jordania has outlined nine different types of polyphonic singing in his book Choral singing in human evolution.


I will be working through each type trying to give a simplified explanation and some musical examples. This week it’s drone polyphony.

Not every culture has polyphonic or multi-part singing. When they do, it can take many different forms.

Last week, in part 1, I wrote about parallel polyphony.

drone polyphony

A drone is when a note is held continuously throughout most of a song. It is often (but not always) the lowest part of the song.

There needs to be at least two parts to the song: the melody and the drone, but it can also be more complex with melody, harmonies and more than one drone.

Drone polyphony is one of the most important members of the polyphonic family and has one of the biggest numbers of the subtypes. For example:

a) pedal or rhythmic drone: a pedal drone is when a note is sung continuously against the melody. It is often sung on a vowel such as ‘U’ or ‘O’. A rhythmic drone follows (most of) the syllables in the lyrics.

b) single note or moveable drone: a drone can stay on a single note throughout the song, or it can change from time to time.

c) narrow-range or wide-range drone: a drone can move by just one note (an interval of a second) – this is common in the Baltics. Or a drone can change by a fourth or a fifth – typical of the new polyphonic singing style in the Balkans.

d) modulating or non-modulating: when the drone moves by one note (a second), it can lead to modulation (or a key change). This happens a lot in Georgian table songs. Or it can remain in the same tonal system as the rest of the song as, for example, in Latvia.

e) drone in middle, top or bottom: the drone doesn’t always have to be the bass or lowest part. Having the drone in the middle is far more common in many polyphonic traditions. Some traditions have the drone in the highest part, sung by women.

f) mixed drone types: for example, more than one drone; both rhythmic and pedal drones at the same time; solo drones vs. group drones. This mix and match idea can go on forever!

examples of drone polyphony

I’m not going to explain which sub-type of drone polyphony each example is, I’ll leave that up to you to spot. The brief descriptions of each example are taken from Joseph Jordania’s book Choral singing in human evolution.

Drones don’t feature a great deal in traditional Russian polyphonic singing, but there is a special sub-type of drone polyphony in the Belgorod district – a double drone on the fifth, framing the melody from both sides (from below and above).

Ossetian polyphony is based on the wide use of drone (and double drone). Songs with a drone mostly representing two-part polyphony. In the case of double drones, these drones are the intervals of fourths, fifths, or octaves apart.

Chechen polyphony is mostly three-part. The middle part, the carrier of the main melody of songs, is accompanied by the double drone, holding the interval of the fifth ‘around’ the main melody.

Dagestan is the region in the eastern part of the Caucasian mountain range, between Azerbaijan in the south, the Caspian Sea in the east, Chechnya in the west, and Russia to the north. In Kumyk three-part drone singing, as in other polyphonic traditions of North Caucasia, the main melody is accompanied by a double drone (a fifth interval apart).

The best-known feature of eastern Georgian traditional singing is the presence of long,
drawn-out table songs from Kartli and particularly Kakheti. These songs are performed by the two melodic lines singing against a background of a steady pedal drone on ‘O’.

A Hungarian song Szerelem, szerelem (“Love, love”) sung in two parts – drone and melody – by the American women’s ensemble Kitka.

Most Greek songs are monophonic (i.e. tune only). Only in two regions, geographically situated on opposite sides of the country, are vocal forms of traditional polyphony found. One of these is Epirus. The polyphony is in three parts with a drone on the tonic.

In Sardinia, Barbagia is the main region of distribution of the rich traditional polyphony known as Cantu a tenore. The polyphony consists of four parts with two low parts – contra and the lowest part basu. The low voices usually sing double drone a fifth apart (this can also be a fourth).

Several indigenous peoples in Taiwan practice polyphonic singing. One of them is the Bunun. They are the most mountainous people on Taiwan, living in the central Taiwan mountain ranges.

Arguably the most prominent vocal polyphonic tradition from the Middle Eastern region has been recorded from the pearl divers of the Persian Gulf, around the island of Bahrain.

The traditional polyphonic songs of pearl divers are called nahma. The most salient feature of nahma songs is the exceptionally low vocal drone – hamhama (two octaves lower than the main melody).

According to Tuareg belief, strong rhythms attract spirits, so rhythmically vigorous music with the drone or ostinato is performed to cure the ‘possessed’ or ‘emotionally ill’ person. The solo lead singer is joined by the whole community (with clapping, shouting encouragements, or raspy grunts) at this very important for the Tuareg society ceremony.

Perhaps one of the most important historical lessons that Oceania (and particularly Polynesia) taught European musicology (in the 18th century) was the shock of the discovery that well-organized part-singing can exist far from European civilization.

In Albania, The Laberi style (the most mountainous part of south-central Albania) usually has three or four different parts. The polyphony is based on a drone (iso), and together with iso three other soloists participate. The range is usually not wide (within a fifth, sometimes reaching a seventh), and sometimes there is a very small space for clashing four parts within the fifth. Dissonances are quite common.

You can watch a shore documentary on this style of Albanian singing here: Albanian Folk Iso-polyphony.

next week

In the next post in this series I’ll be looking at canonic polyphony.


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Chris Rowbury




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