There is power in the drone! I’m not talking about the military drone that can wreak havoc from the sky. I’m talking about the peaceful drone note that is often used in folk music. If I would ask you to turn your mind to the bagpipe, you would probably know what I’m talking about. The drone is that steady note that doesn’t alter in pitch, while the constantly varying melody is played against the steady drone note. It’s a haunting sound. Especially when the pipes are played at funerals. Especially when they are used to play a dirge for the war veteran or the fallen cop or firefighter. Even though we think of the bagpipe as a Scottish instrument that’s of European tradition, (its origins are more complex than that), the pipes have been absorbed into American culture and are played at many American funerals and other somber and dignified events. I saw my first bagpipe up close and personal at an air show, of all places. It was a big event attended by thousands of people. But when the piper and the drummer fired up somewhere in the middle of that vast crowd, its sound cut through it all. My friends and I tracked the sound down, and this piper-drummer duo was having a great time as people gathered around them. My second experience with a live piper was when my daughter and I were visiting friends in England. A young woman, looking quite smart in her traditional piper’s garb, played up a storm at the Shakespeare festival. But the most moving experience happened right where I live. A man from my town, Scottish by lineage, learned to play the pipes. For many years he played at funerals, dedications, and military events all over the state of Iowa. That drone note was so moving it took you right down to your knees.
But the bagpipe is not the only instrument to use a drone note. You would probably be quite surprised to know that one version of the Native American flute has a drone note that is built into its physical configuration. You can see that configuration in the three-panel photo heading up this article. The drone flute is not nearly as common as the single flute barrel with its single melody. But oh lordy, drone flutes deliver a great sound! According to flute builder and flute historian Chris Fuqua of WindPoem Flutes, remnants of the drone flute have been found in the ruins of the Mayans and the Aztecs. It’s thought that this type of flute was used in religious rituals. Chris decided one day that he wanted to build a drone flute. And so he did. (The results are shown in the image that heads up this article.) When he played it for me the other day, it took me to my knees just as the piper does at a military funeral. It’s difficult to describe how this type of flute sounds, but at the end of this article I’ve provided a link to the Listen page so you can hear Chris play it.
The drone flute is the ideal meditative instrument, should you be inclined in that direction. It’s sound is magic as the powerful Pentatonic scale based melody fits beautifully against the steady and hypnotic sound of the drone. In actuality, only two notes are being played at the same time, even though it sounds much more complex than that. You don’t physically play the drone note. It’s like playing the bagpipe; the drone is just that one note. And it sounds automatically when you play a melody on the other barrel. That’s because the drone barrel has no note holes. The melody barrel has six note holes. Play the barrel with the note holes and the drone note automatically sounds with it as you play the melody.
I asked Chris if he planned to add the drone flute to his WindPoem flute line. He said he would make drone flutes only by special order. If you are interested in the drone flute, Chris’s email is on his WindPoem page. Click this link to get there. WindPoem Flutes
Click the link to hear Chris play the Drone Flute. Hear the Native American Drone Flute