Monday, April 05, 2021

How to sing a drone of staggering beauty

A drone is a note continuously sounded throughout most or all of a song.


But singers have to breathe, so how can this be achieved?

I love a drone! It’s one of my favourite ways of creating harmony and is simple and effective. For me, it conjures up a Celtic vibe or takes me straight to Eastern Europe.

There are many different types of drone in polyphonic/ harmony singing. It is one of the most commonly used harmony effects. You can read more about drones and listen to many examples in my post The different types of polyphonic singing 2: drone polyphony.

one singer – no drone

A single human voice can’t maintain a drone for long as singers need to breathe from time to time. Instrumentalists can hold sustained notes by practising what is known as circular breathing. They maintain a reservoir of air in their cheeks whilst inhaling (here’s a great introduction on YouTube: Folk long song performance technique of Limbe performances - circular breathing). But that air then passes through an instrument, whereas singers need the air to pass through their larynx to make a sound.

several singers – staggered breathing

Since no one person can hold a note indefinitely, the solution to holding an extended drone is to share the breathing amongst the singers. This is known as staggered breathing.

Each singer takes their turn to breathe so that the group as a whole doesn’t breathe at the same time (which would lead to a gap in the sound).

If you’ve not tried staggered breathing before, the tendency is to want to hold your note for as long as possible before you need to breathe. This is not a good strategy!

The key points to effective staggered breathing are:

  • don’t breathe at the end of a phrase – or other natural musical breaks. This means that you might end up taking a breath when you don’t strictly need to. This will feel counter-intuitive at first so will need some practice.
  • listen carefully to when others breathe – once you’ve heard somebody near you breathe, then you can breathe soon afterwards. This guarantees that at least two of you won’t be breathing at the same time.
  • after breathing, gently ease your way back in – start quietly then match volume with the others. Take your time and focus on the overall sound so you can hear no difference when you re-enter.
  • match the quality of the drone sound – this may mean adjusting the timbre of your voice or the shape of the vowel so that you “fit in”.
  • keep the energy up – keeping a drone going is harder than you think! If you don’t stay focused, the energy will drop and the drone note will slip. Listen carefully to the other parts that are being sung against the drone to keep your tuning.
  • use your eyes – of course, listening to the other voices is of paramount importance, but you might find this easier if you keep constant eye contact with the other singers on the drone.

This will all take practice if you’re not familiar with staggered breathing.

group drone exercise

One great exercise in a group is to pick a note that everyone is comfortable with (in a mixed group, make sure you’re all singing in the same octave). Get everyone to shut their eyes, then sing a drone on ‘O’. If you keep this up for long enough, you will find yourself ‘disappearing’ into the sound which can be a bit scary at first.

This exercise will work in quite large groups too, just make sure that everyone is standing as close as possible.

examples of drones

The Rustavi Ensemble from Georgia singing Qartli, a work song:

A Filetta from Corsica singing the traditional song Rex Tremendae:

Arone Dyer's dronechoir:


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Chris Rowbury




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