HQ Hindustani drones: bathe your ears in the infinite shades of the overtone series with some longform acoustic tanpuras (25 min+). Great for meditation, general focus, and adding psychedelic texture to your improv…
Ubiquitous across India, the tanpura’s idiosyncratic buzz provides a rich canvas for melodic improvisation, accentuating the tones of the harmonic series: nature’s fundamental vibratory relationships. Some liken it to a prism, scattering pure white light to reveal the infinite shades within.
Whatever instrument you play, see what you can find in these curious, captivating sounds: use them for singing, jamming, practicing, heightening your overtonal awareness, anything! Jump to: Sa-Pa (perf. 5th), Sa-ma (perf. 4th), or other tunings – and learn more about the tanpura itself.
—Sa-Pa (Perfect 5th)—
The classic two-tone drone: Pa-Sa-Sa-Sa (5-1-1-1)
C (~130.8 Hz)
C# (~138.6 Hz)
D (~146.8 Hz)
D# (~155.6 Hz)
E (~164.8 Hz)
F (~174.6 Hz)
F# (~92.5 Hz)
G (~98 Hz)
G# (~103.8 Hz)
A (=110 Hz)
A# (~116.5 Hz)
B (~123.5 Hz)
Mandra A (=55 Hz)
“The drone…holds within itself the very essence of Indian classical music. So unobtrusive is this instrument, so self-effacing in its positioning on the stage, and so tender of nature, that it is almost taken for granted. But it is the life-giver, the soul of our music…in the internal absorption of the tanpura’s resonance, music happens.” (Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna)
—Sa-Pa tanpuras (playlist)—
—Sa-ma (Perfect 4th)—
An inverted fifth: ma-Sa-Sa-Sa (4-1-1-1)
C (~130.8 Hz)
C# (~138.6 Hz)
D (~146.8 Hz)
D# (~155.6 Hz)
E (~164.8 Hz)
F (~87.3 Hz)
F# (~92.5 Hz)
G (~98 Hz)
G# (~103.8 Hz)
A (=110 Hz)
A# (~116.5 Hz)
B (~123.5 Hz)
Mandra D (~73.4 Hz)
“The tanpura…became his bodhi vriksha [tree of enlightenment]. He often said he would never have had mystical revelation of the notes had he not constantly meditated on it. He would declare, ‘I understood that all the notes are manifestations of Sa – and that all the ragas are floods that emanate from Sa’.” (N.M. Chakravarthy describes the routines of vocal master Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur)
—Sa-ma tanpuras (playlist)—
—Alternate Tanpura Tunings—
Many artists have looked beyond these two layouts, tuning their tanpuras to three or four different notes, or even adding a fifth string. If going triadic, the new tone tends to be some variant of Dha or Ni – the 6th and 7th scale degrees – with exact pitches depending on the particularities of the raga in question (you’ll hear majors, minors, and many more…).
Vocalist Ustad Abdul Karim Khan (1872-1937) was famously inclined towards tanpuristic innovation. Likely influenced by his early string training in sitar, sarangi, and rudra veena, the great Kirana guru took to surrounding himself with a small forest of drones in performance (see above), spending many decades refining his subtle blends of Sa and Ni (but only after eloping from the Baroda royal court with the Queen’s niece). His multi-tanpura’d setups sometimes mixed different tunings, such as Sa-Pa and Sa-Ni [=’1-5 + 1-7′: a thirdless maj. 7th flavour].
Ustad Amir Khan (1912-1974) is revered for blending ideas from several singers – including the melodies of Abdul Karim Khan – to form what would become the Indore gharana (stylistic lineage). His tanpuras sometimes featured a strong Ni, either in a pair (Ni-Sa) or triad (Pa-Ni-Sa). Try out the former – it’s rare for a minor 2nd to feel so relaxing…
- Ni-Sa-Sa-Sa (D# – courtesy of SwarSeeker):
Others have gone even further. Listen to Pandit Kamalesh Maitra (1928-2005), the last true master of the tabla tarang (‘wave of tabla‘) – a semicircle of raga-tuned drums used for melodic improvisation. Their ghostly timbre doesn’t hang around in the air for long, fading rapidly compared to the heavy sustain of a sitar, voice, or violin. This leaves space for some far-out drone setups – such as this six-note sequence of Dha-re-Sa-ni-Sa-Sa (6-b2-1-b7-1-1). This oddity is just awesome…
- Dha-re-Sa-ni-Sa-Sa (~C#) – Pt. Kamalesh Maitra):
Some from outside the Subcontinent have made their mark on the drone world too. Notably, avant-garde heavyweight La Monte Young (1935-) has been fascinated by their non-linear, ‘outside of time’ feel since the 1950s, hosting all-night, nothing-but-tanpura sessions in his New York loft and exploring long, slow-shifting ‘tone clouds’ in his own works (also see my Global Instruments writeup of his microtonal piano works).
Young, who draws droning inspiration from the chirping of crickets and the “step-down transformers on telephone poles”, studied singing with Pandit Pran Nath (1918-1996) for over 25 years. Another austere Kirana guru, Nath is said to have run away from his Hindu household as a teenager to join the discipleship of a harsh Muslim Ustad – Abdul Wahid Khan – cousin of Abdul Karim, the multi-tanpura’d maestro we met earlier.
Nath’s winding biography involves such things as living in a remote mountain cave, working as a staff artist on All India Radio, and spending five years in devotional focus as a naga (“a naked singing saint…for five years he sat, clothed only in ashes, singing for God…“). He continued the great Kirana tanpura lineage, in turn instructing own students – including Young – who calls his 1982 cut of Nath’s 120Hz practice tanpuras (just shy of a low B), “the best tuning that I was ever able to record”:
- The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath (~B) – LMY & Marian Zazeela:
Nath’s natural tanpuras: the Pandit himself actually went drone-less for long stretches, instead using the sounds of wind and running streams while living and singing alone in the Tapkeshwar caves of Uttarakhand. In his words, “the tanpura is the sound of the creek – it is all the blessings of the saints”. (n.b. For Darbar’s VR360 filming shoots we sidestepped any string vs. stream dilemmas by saying ‘why not both?‘.)
The great guru passed away peacefully in 1996: while the album that bears his name and tanpuras (but not actually him) garnered enough acclaim to warrant a well-reviewed 1999 reissue – a beautiful reincarnation of sorts. See more of Nath and Young in the wonderful 1986 profile In Between The Notes (27 mins) – also featuring the man with the world’s most awesome job title (far too cool for LinkedIn…then again what isn’t?):
“First comes the drone…fluxing and oscillating, too high up in the mix for the bureaucrats…It’s like the rush of a marsh on a midsummer night with a million crickets, or the howling wind stirring the power lines outside a cabin in backwoods Idaho, or the hushed roar of the stream in front of a hermit’s cave in Dehradun…” (Alexander Keefe in Lord of the Drone)
—Side Note: Droning Etymologies—
‘Tapkeshwar’, a gloriously onomatopeic word meaning ‘that which drips’, derives from “how water drops from the [cave’s] ceiling…trickle down over the Shiva-linga [icon] in a continuous downpour” (audible and visible in the film). Curiously, the area’s most famous feature is known as…the ‘Drona’ Cave – via a completely unrelated Hindu etymology involving the twelve-year penance of Droṇāchārya and his son Aśvatthāmā, who, in hard economic times, received milk from Lord Shiva via the cave’s now-auspiciously leaky roof (see below).
The English word ‘drone‘, associated with “deep humming” for at least five centuries, comes from the Old English for “male honeybee…whose primary role is to impregnate a fertile queen”. The “idler, lazy worker” sense has also existed for over five hundred years (drone bees produce no honey for the hive), and the “speak in a dull, monotonous tone” usage for over four hundred. Even the “unmanned flying robot” meaning is over 70 years old.
The French equivalent – ‘bourdon‘ (‘low, continuous pitch’) – comes from the Old French ‘bordon’ (‘insect, bee’), via the Medieval Latin ‘burdo’ (‘bumblebee’), the Proto-Germanic ‘buzdô’ (‘grub, ground-beetle, swelling’), and, probably, the Proto-Indo-European root word ‘būs-‘ (‘expanding, flowing, moving quickly’). Truly the mundane to the divine. As for the word ‘tanpura’ itself: read on…
- Water drips in the ‘Drona’ caves:
“The tanpura is the sound of the creek – it is all the blessings of the saints…without spiritual help, music has no effect” (Pandit Pran Nath)
—About the Tanpura—
India’s iconic droning lutes occupy a strange role. At Darbar we received countless tanpura-themed queries from post-concert audiences – though intrigued, newcomers were understandably confused as to quite what these towering fretless monoliths had been up to. Likewise, the artists who had sat among the drones would often lament the lack of broader awareness around their cultural and historical roots.
Despite its global fame, the tanpura has always occupied a zone of intense musical mystique (…might it be humanity’s most instantly-recognisable sonic signifier for ‘spirituality’?). In recognition of this: here’s a brief introduction to the world’s most psychedelic pumpkin preparation…
• Basic Role •
Crucially, the tanpura isn’t there to provide melody, rhythm, or any other ‘standard’ instrumental element. Instead, it adds a static texture – a sort of ‘colour framework‘ – resonating in set sequence rather than responding to the sounds around it. Its sparkling cascades both anchor and intensify the raga at hand, providing an unchanging vibrational context while also drawing out the power of particular intervals and overtones.
Thus, the drone is a double-edged sword, giving musicians sonic stability while also shining stark light onto even the smallest of their tonal inaccuracies. Unforgiving in its warmth, it illuminates the path towards perfection: in the words of Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, “only a musician who has experienced this sanctity can be a true musical vehicle. In the internal absorption of the tanpura’s resonance, music happens.”
• Spiritual Roots •
As both the first and last sound heard in a classical concert, the tanpura will invariably reshade every note played inbetween. The omnipresent nature of its resonance has deep cultural foundations, pointing towards to the Vedic concept of nada brahma – ‘universe as sound’ – the belief that eternal cosmic vibration is the ultimate foundation of our reality.
The drone, while overflowing with immediate, inherent motion, never offers up any kind of narrative sequence to follow. It has no clear start or endpoint, with a cross-resonance that fades in smoothly even as the strings are first strummed – as if the listener had just walked slowly towards a sound source that had ‘been there all along’. It’s easy to see how its ‘outside of time‘ associations arise.
Metaphysics aside, the idea certainly makes ‘sensory sense’: while a thick blindfold will essentially block out all light, there is no real equivalent when it comes to sound vibration. Try as you might, it’s very difficult to stop a strong sound source from entering the ears and minds of every sentient being who happens to be nearby (…just ask my housemates). Thus, the tanpura’s musical ever-presence acts as both a symbol and a direct manifestation of nada brahma.
• Origins & History •
The tanpura’s eternal associations, in combination with its seemingly simple design, lead many to assume that it has essentially ‘always been around’ in India’s classical music – an interweaving set of traditions that stretch back several millennia. The real history may therefore present something of a surprise. In the words of tablist, luthier, and Hindustani historian Toss Levy, the modern drone is in fact “a comparatively recent development, dating from about the early 16th century (the latter part of Emperor Akbar’s reign)…it is not until the late 17th century that there is any pictorial or literary evidence of the tanpura’s existence”.
As with many Indian instruments, there is debate as to how much of its lineage is indigenous to the Subcontinent, versus imported from the outside. But seems probable that the modern tanpura is a direct descendent of the tanbur, a long-necked lute from the Middle East with likely roots in the age of the Akkadian Empire, imported to India via successive waves of Mughal conquest.
However, Levy also notes the profound influence of existing Indian instruments on the drone’s conception, pointing to, “the lyre and…ancient instruments from the pre-Indus Valley times…[and] sculptures from about the 6th and 7th centuries depict ‘long lute’ players, only it is difficult to determine exactly what kind of instrument they are. They do, however, imply that the drone was used in one way or another.”
• Construction •
Designed to maximise sustain in all the right places, the tanpura’s main air chamber (tumba) is made from a large, outdoor-grown pumpkin. As noted by Ankit Agrawal, “each pumpkin used for the instrument weighs 40-45 kg, and has to be sun-dried just so as to retain its shape”. To this gourd is attached a resonant soundboard (tabli) – and the strings, made of brass, bronze, and steel, pass above a hardwood neck (dandi) made of tun or teak. Length varies, with models for male voices having a scale length of around 1 metre, and females around 25% shorter.
The bridge (jawari) is often made from ebony wood, stag horn, or camel bone (the latter of which apparently has “a rather harsher sound”). It is precisely curved in such a way as to ‘graze’ the strings as they vibrate, which are in turn slightly elevated from its surface by thin cotton threads (jiva). This combination ‘nudges’ the end of the string’s oscillation path just enough to help separate out its overtones, creating the distinctive, ever-cycling ‘cascade’ effect.
This tiny thread is crucial to the overall magic. An IIT research project which filmed vibrating tanpura strings at 10000fps – both with and without the jiva – concluded that it: “not only brings out a richer set of overtones, but is clearly marked by a definite change in the pattern of how overtones evolve over time“. You don’t need to read the graphs exactly to see that there’s a lot going on (most importantly: the fundamental is brought into closer volume balance with its partials):
Overtone evolution, without (a) and with (b) the jiva (Gupta/Pisharody/ITT)
The finest tanpuras on the planet are made in Miraj, a small Maharashtra town long renowned for its craftsmenship. Drone innovator Ustad Abdul Karim Khan lived there, and the region’s master luthiers – notably including the Mirajkar family – continue the legacy of these old masters today. Watch some of the stages of Miraj tanpura manufacture in action in the clip below (and see this 2hr mega-cut for more):
- Making a Mirajkar Tanpura (2019):
- n.b. The Carnatic tanpura (a.k.a. the ‘tambura‘) is constructed somewhat differently to the Hindustani one, ditching the pumpkin gourd and instead using exclusively jackwood or rosewood. Confusingly, Hindustani music also has the ‘tanpuri‘ – a smaller, gourd-less variant designed to be more convenient.
• Playing Mechanics •
Though lute-shaped, the tanpura is played more like a lyre. All strings resonate at their full length at all times, with the performer sitting cross-legged in unobtrusive meditation throughout a performance (I was honoured when my guru-ji asked me to play the tanpura for him, but by the end I was fighting back grimaces at how much my legs hurt…no mention of how to account for football-related knee injuries in the Natya Shastra or great Vedic texts).
The sound resembles ‘beautifully-tuned white noise‘ in a sense beyond the metaphorical. While white noise is defined by having a ‘flat spectral density’ (i.e. the same signal intensity at all audible frequencies), the tanpura’s buzzing colour cascades intentionally comprise only very specific ratios and overtonal interactions, with each string set hyper-precisely against the rest.
Consequently, it is far harder to play well than you might think. While a monkey could probably get some decent noises out of a good tanpura (intentionally or otherwise), summoning and sustaining the ideal harmonic tapestry throughout a full-length concert is no mean feat. The overtone profile varies depending on how each string is plucked: force, angle, regularity, fingernail shape, mic placement, and much more…
Read more on playing and tuning in Rudi Seitz’s superb writeup (“the bottom note in a fifth generates a 13/8 harmonic…while the upper note in a fifth generates its own 9/8 harmonic, that is just a little higher than harmonic mentioned before…If these two close-but-not-exactly-matching harmonics happen to be very loud, a listener may well hear them as conflicting, even though the interval that gave rise to them is perfectly tuned…”).
• Today •
The tanpura’s revered position within Indian classical music is under no real threat. By design, the melodies are inseparable from the drones, and I’ve never heard anyone wish it otherwise. An exalted spiritual status, however, offers few material guarantees in this earthly realm (just ask a surbahar or rudra veena player). While the tanpura remains a ubiquitous presence on every major concert stage, the human foundations behind its existence have had to endure a mix of real-world challenges.
The rise of the electronic tanpura, while coming as a much-needed leveller for countless cash-strapped musicians, has squeezed out some of the demand for the acoustic version. The first self-contained ‘shruti box’ was presented at the 1979 Madras Music Conference, and four decades on we can also choose from a plethora of web and smartphone apps. They are – to put it kindly – of highly variable quality: iTablaPro is the best I’ve found (…I’ve even seen it used in top classical performances).
However, the trend of job automation among tanpura players is fiercely criticised too. P.N. Sundaresan, writing in Sruti magazine, challenges any true rasika (connosseiur) to sit back and let the robots take over without fighting back: “Any model electronic tanpura produces a sound that is necessarily artificial, which is the opposite of artistic. The electronic substitute has no artistic value, and has nothing to teach us but repetitive unnatural boredom“. If you agree, let your favourite artists and concert promoters know you care!
Long-term geopolitical pressures manifest at the local level too. The British razed many of India’s teak forests to export as track sleepers for overseas colonial railways, and, as explained by Toss Levy, “climate change is also making an impact…Due to a drought in 2016, gourd crops have not grown enough to reach the required size of a male tanpura”. COVID-19 has also decimated orders, and limited the ability to ship globally – while broader economic upheaval has dissuaded many of the younger generation from following in the footsteps of their forebears.
But, despite these challenges, a dedicated core of drone-building masters still strive to produce the very best sounds – at the behest of countless artists, students, and listeners who know there will never be a substitute for the real thing. May the drones ring immortal!
“The pumpkins are used as floats while crossing rivers; and then to make tanpuras and sitars. It is not just the gourd that is critical in the making…the seasoning of the wood, the shape…thickness, the location of the bridge – and above all, the extremely nuanced understanding of the jawari work – all go into its making. And this is learnt only when one is actually a musician themselves…” (Balasaheb Mirajkar)
- …by now, I’m probably the one droning on – listen to what Dhrupad vocalist Pelva Naik has to say instead (3 mins):
• Further Learning •
—Watch: Check out esteemed vocalist Pt. Ajoy Chakraborty’s hour-long lecture, covering North Indian drone from a true scholar’s perspective. His daughter Kaushiki has recorded shorter demos for Darbar, set among the sounds of the outdoors, and Rithvik Raja‘s series is also informative. And listen to Aruna Sairam and Ranjani Sivakumar for a South Indian perspective. Also the Pt. Nath mini-doc In Between the Notes, and Toss Levy‘s luthiery channel. And if you want to check out some alternative Indian folk drones: the ektara is central to Baul spiritual song, and I remember vividly how the shankha (conch shell) accompanied priestly chanting during Varanasi’s river ceremonies.
—Articles: Alexander Keefe’s Lord of the Drone, Jahnavi Harrison’s One-Note Wonder (part of a larger collection I edited for Darbar), T.M. Krishna’s eloquent drone reflections, an interview with Miraj craftspeople in The Hindu, a Times of India feature covering COVID’s impact on Miraj, more on Abdul Karim Khan from Swarjya, Ankit Agrawal’s pumpkin-themed photo collection, Martin Spaink on electronic limitations, an RBMA interview with La Monte Young & co – and an image blog detailing the repair of a smashed Benares tanpura, along with more divine sound samples. And from academia: the excellent Experimental investigations of tanpura acoustics paper by Pisharody & Gupta, A Real-Time Synthesis Oriented Tanpura Model by van Walstijn et al, and the research volume Acoustical Analysis of the Tanpura.
• Audio Info •
—Samples: The Sa-Pa set come from a longer Pa-Sa-Sa-Sa recording pitched to A-D-D-D, and the Sa-ma from a sample set a cent or two below G-D-D-D. I sped/slowed them in Ableton to cover all A440 12-tet keys, with high>low ‘breakpoints’ set at the F-F# and E-F gaps respectively (ear-chosen as the most natural-sounding: going lower and slower tends to work better than squeezing upwards too far). Gentle EQ was applied to each of the files manually to normalise speed-change effects (e.g. rolling down overly abrasive buzz, balancing unnatural clashes). Superlow (‘mandra’) cuts are just for fun!
—Tuning: I fine-pitched using a combination of Izotope’s Ozone Imager plugin to visually place different overtone frequencies (=reading straight from the digital files), and Peterson’s iStroboSoft cent-tuner to check the actual output frequencies (via a Shure MV88 mic placed ~1m from two KRK Rokit 6 monitors: with drones blarin’ loud and heavy). Any inaccuracy is probably human error on my part: although longform acoustic recording always involves some imperfection (e.g. the full-length Sa-ma file features a barely-perceptible flattening over its full length).
—Source: Both originals have been in my collection for many years, first coming to me via the liberal circulation of practice resources among online ICM learners. All the audio files are long-shorn of metatags (and I can’t really Google the lyrics) – but while doing further drone-gathering I noticed that the Sa-ma sound matches one in Matt Rahaim’s collection, hosted on a UC Berkeley computing site (‘D sa-ma‘). I’ve emailed Matt to see where he got them from…please let me know if they’re yours!
“Sadhana [immersive practice] is the time for complete focus. Close your eyes, and go into the tanpura drone…” (Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande)
- Top: Unknown web image, possibly taken in Nebraska (Joshi)
- Sa-Pa: Ornate model from Darbar’s Wonders of India (Darbar/VA)
- Sa-ma: Five-string teak tanpura crafted in the 1980s (Bernunzio)
- Singing (b&w): Pt. Abdul Karim Khan’s drone forest (N. Mirajkar)
- Bengali Baba: Still from In Between The Notes doc (Farley/Nath)
- Cavemouth: Cropped from a Twitter image (A. Devadatta)
- Singing (↑): Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande at Darbar (R. Rayatt)
. George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons! everything 100% ad-free and open-access
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
everything 100% ad-free and open-access