Week 1 – Drones and Modes

Hello.  Each week this blog will focus on a different topic for a compositional study and critical/reflective discussion.  Beginning this week with; Drones and Modes.

In music a drone can be defined as “a sustained tone, usually rather low in pitch, providing a sonorous foundation for a melody or melodies sounding at a higher pitch level” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014).  Use of different modes of scales over a sustaining drone is a way of shifting tonality in a piece of music in order to shift between different emotions in a piece of music which are contrasting and interesting for the listener.  Scales can be defined as “a set of notes with a particular arrangement of whole and half steps” (Hall, 1992) e.g. Major, Minor etc…  Modes can be defined as “scales derived from Major and Minor scales” (Hall, 1992).  There are seven diatonic modes (Ionian/Major, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian/Minor, and Locrian).

For this week’s compositional study I have chosen to create a drone based around a root note of C.  My method, in order to create a drone that was interesting and evolving, was to create a weave using different layers of FM synthesis sounds.  FM synthesis was advantageous due to its ability to create long evolving timbres with interesting noise patterns and metallic qualities.  After layering several patches to create an evolving drone full of interesting textures, all layers were further enhanced through the use of volume automation in order to slowly bring different layers to prominence at different times and keep the drone constantly evolving.  Another advantage of FM synthesis was that it was possible to further evolve the drone through ‘automation’ of note velocities, as this radically alters the timbre of some FM synth patches creating interesting results.  The tonality of the drone is heavily rooted on C with very little additional tonal harmonic content but, plenty of nice noise textures thus, clearly defining the key of C, over which to experiment with the diatonic modes.  The synth used to create the entire (6 layers of) drone sound was Native Instruments FM7 (Pictured below).

FM7 Drone

Over the drone ambient melodies were played through an electric guitar, which was double tracked in order to cut through the synth layers, heavily compressed to allow long sustaining of notes and drenched in loads of reverb to give a big atmospheric sound.  The piece goes through the following modes in order; Aeolian/Minor, Phrygian, Lydian, Phrygian and finally, back to Aeolian/Minor.  The modes are explained below:

Aeolian/Minor – The saddest of scales, most often used to express sorrow and pain.

Phrygian – Derived from the major scale by lowering the second, third, sixth and seventh notes by ½ a step (semitone).  Known for having a flamenco/Spanish sort of flavour.  Often used by fusion and speed metal players.  Sounds kind of sinister in the context of this piece.

Lydian – Derived from the major scale by raising the fourth note ½ a step (semitone).  The mode sounds ‘light’ and ‘airy’.  Used a lot by artists such as Vai, Satriani and Eric Johnson etc…  Lends itself well to Jazz, rock and fusion styles.  In the context of this piece it is used for a few bars in the middle and sounds in contrast to the rest of the track much lighter, more positive and less dark.

Here is a link to this weeks composition:


Brent, Jeff, with Schell Barkley (2011). Modalogy: Scales, Modes & Chords: The Primordial Building Blocks of Music. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4584-1397-0

Cann, Simon (2010).  Becoming a Synthesizer Wizard.  Frequency Modulation Synthesis.  P128-135.  Cengage Learning.  ISBN-13:  978-1-59863-550-8.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2014).  Drone (Music).  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/171795/drone.  Accessed – Fri 7th Feb 2014.

Erickson, Robert (1976). Sound Structure in Music. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02376-5.

Hall, Steve.  Manus, Ron (March, 1992).  Scales and Modes for Guitar.  Alfred Music.  ISBN-13: 978-0882845456.

Van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.


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