Folk Drone

This model originates from folk music. Technically this drone is based on the tonic plus the tonic-fifth pitches, played simultaneously. It is sometimes described as tonic-and-dominant pedal, which deceivingly suggests its double harmonic function. Bergander (1999) uses much better term – tonic-fifth pedal point, which implies its tonic-character. The fifth is already present in the harmonics of the tonic.

Tonic-fifth (in further text T5) drone originates from bagpipe music, where two drone-pipes are often tuned to these two pitches (sometimes they are tuned to the octave).[1] It is interesting that although much of the folk music is accompanied with a single drone, the reference to it in western art music is almost always a T5. The double drone is sometimes called pedal a la musette.[2]  Listen to these fragments:





T5 drone is imported in stylized folk dances, such as Chopin’s mazurkas:


What is the essence of folk-drone? What makes it recognizable? What makes it being a model? To answer this question let us examine the piece that is perhaps the mostly referred to, related to folk drones: Beethoven’s 6th symphony.

In the introduction I have suggested that having the idea of how bagpipe music sounds (thus with drones), provides the listener a direct link between Pastoral Symphony and the images of nature and folk-ness. Of course, the perfect-fifth drones are being associated with folk music and folk music with folk-ness and the nature. In this way, a mental linking takes place and hearing the symphony can have the effect of bringing the listener to a different place and time, the one suggested by the programmatic title of the first movement: Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside. Simple as that. However, some recordings do not at all remind us of bagpipe drones, and from there comes the question: is it not the other way around, are we not brought to the idea of folk-ness by the title (rather than by drones)? Is it possible that one recognizes folk-drones as a result of thinking of nature, sheep, and folk music?


I don’t want to make any statement in the line with previous questions but it seems that there is at least some truth in them. The fact is that not all the T5 drones immediately associate with folk-ness (think of Paert’s Fratres for string quartet, e.g.). The sound seems to be important: performances on old instruments are more convincing due to somewhat sharper sound. The register also matters: the drones must not be too detached from the melodic register, both should not be too high or too low.

In comparison between Pastoral symphony, musette music, and Fratres (or another piece with T5 that does not associate with folk drones), we can conclude that melodic and harmonic material could be fundamentally important. In the excerpts of musette music (above), we have heard the diatonic melody, mostly built from ascending and descending steps. Harmonically, it is very simple, mostly implying the tonic chord, with occasional dominant and subdominant. The variety can be achieved by ‘modulating’ to the subdominant area, where the T5 drone turns into D5 drone. Together, the tone system could be heard as Mixolydian (possibly, it could be perceived as having two anchoring points, the drone-pitch and the fourth from the drone).[3]

Harmonically, there is occasional conflict between the drones and the harmony implied in the melody. Different than in the case of harmonic pedal (‘default’ pedal), most of the implied chords are the tonic. In these moments, the melody is cooperative with the drone. In general, the two are having an accommodating interaction: there is a balance between cooperation and conflict. The melody never goes too far away from the drone and it always returns to it. The resulting harmonic structure is tonic-prolongational; all the non-tonic harmonies could be felt as neighboring.

The temporal synchronization of the melody and the drone could also be relevant. Due to purely practical reasons - the drone pipes have to be tuned - the drones often start sounding before the melody enters. Hearing them, and being familiar with the concept folk-drones, the listener understands that they are there to stay, that no ‘resolution’ needs to be expected. As such, these drones do not work as sound terms, but rather as neutral elements, not implying anything beyond themselves. Neither of expectancy-related tensions is present.

Returning to Pastoral symphony with these ideas in mind, we see that its melodic material is rather simple: diatonic tone set, mostly stepwise movement, simple rhythm, simple implied harmony. It is believed that Beethoven was inspired by a Croatian folk melody, that he had once heard.[4] Its harmonization in the symphony is also simple: alternating of I and V. Next to this, there are other programmatic elements, such as tone painting in the flute part m.42. Altogether, the folk-drones in this symphony are not just the sustained tonic fifth; they are the result of the interaction of many more elements.

Turning to another piece, for a comparison, let us look at Chopin’s Mazurka op.6 no.2. It opens with the phrase that is organized around triple drone (double tonic and a tonic fifth). The drones are embracing (or framing?) the melody - which unfolds in the register between them. Of course, we know that the piece is in C# minor, so the drones are actually outlining the dominant chord. However, recognizing the folk-drones in them, turns them into being the tonic, resulting in a kind of Mixolydian mode (neither E nor E# are present in the first four bars, the listener cannot know that the piece will be directed toward the minor tonic).




In conclusion, a tonic-fifth needs, next to a pervasive sound, a particular context, in order to be perceived as a folk drone. It needs harmonic and melodic simplicity. Actually, the musical material has to resemble folk music. In this musical context, a T5 has fair chances to be perceived as a folk drone.


next: Rhytmic Pedal In The Accompanying Voices    or return to menu


[1] This drones could be tuned also differently. A Highland-bagpipe drones are tuned to the octave and the double-ocave under the lowest tone of the chanter. No fifth. French cornemuse has several drone-pipes, tuned to octave with or without added fifth.

[2] Živković (1996:220).

[3] Oliver Seeler explains that Highland bagpipe music is in Mixolydian mode. (c.f. Universe of Bagpipes, on

[4] C.f. Bartok (2003).

Beethoven, 6th Symphony, fragments from the first movement

Chopin, Mazurkas from op. 6, 7, and 56