Bone Drones

UPDATE: Bone Drones has been replaced with the customizable tuningDRONES web app!

I created these audio files as a part of my dissertation, and over time I hope to publish more elements of that work as I get them repackaged properly. Each drone pitch consists of the fundamental combined with fifteen carefully balanced overtones designed to blend with an acoustic trombone or other brass instrument. When using them, beats are immediately audible just as when playing with another musician. In addition to the twelve single pitches, I have also included a series of untempered fifths and one of equal tempered thirds.

How does one use drones most effectively?

  • Find a set of speakers. The goal is not to compare your pitch with the drone’s, but to hear the beats and overtones of the composite sound as they interact. For that, you need to give the sound waves space to get to know each other before they reach your ears. Headphones simply will not provide the space required to get the desired effect.
  • Play tonal music. Drones will not help you learn equal-tempered chromatic scales, but rather help you find the best untempered intervals. I find scales and scalar patterns (like Clarke trumpet studies) to be ideal for learning the pitch relationships in each key.
  • Play slowly. Give yourself time to hear and correct the intonation of each interval. There is value in eventually speeding up an exercise and only verifying the accuracy of certain signpost notes, but only after each pitch has already been worked out and is consistently in tune at a slow tempo.
  • Play long tones. You might be surprised at how different your pitch and timbre can be after holding a note for 20 or 30 seconds. A drone will highlight both of these issues for you.
  • Try using the drone on the dominant or other scale degrees besides the tonic. Learning to hear and trust these relationships will give you the confidence to tune to whatever is happening in an ensemble

I think it’s also important to discuss why one would use a drone rather than a tuner. Electronic tuners are useful tools – I use the tuner app on my phone regularly. However, tuners do have limitations, and it’s vital to know what those are.

First, and probably foremost, typical electronic tuners only understand equal temperament. This may be changing with the growing ubiquity of software tuners on phones and handheld devices, but for now, very few tuners adjust for untempered tonal music. This is a larger topic for another time, but in short, that means the tuner is guaranteed (actually designed) to be out of tune for 11 of its 12 chromatic pitches.

Also, tuners provide visual feedback in an aural environment. When playing in an ensemble, you need to be able to match the intonation levels you hear around you. Adjusting in your practice room to something you see does not develop your aural acuity for real-life scenarios. More dangerous yet, taking a tuner on stage with you tempts you to focus on what you see rather than what you hear, when the intonation level of the ensemble might drift away from the tuner’s calibration.

Drone recordings avoid all these issues. They provide an audible stimulus similar to another musician and promote untempered tonal relationships. At the same time, their invariability requires accuracy and consistency. On a deeper level, the constant presence of another note trains the mind to habitually think in a framework of sound relationships; no pitch exists in a vacuum but is always part of a larger structure of intervals. This perspective helps build the ensemble awareness necessary to predict where notes will fall even before the applicable chord has sounded.