Australian Music: Instruments & Artists

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Did you know that natural objects like sticks, large tree branches and leaves are sometimes used to make music? In this lesson, explore instruments and artists involved in traditional Australian music.

Background on Australia

Australia lies in the southern hemisphere between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It's a land of diverse cultures with many traditions related to music. In this lesson, we're going to explore Australian music, and learn about some its instruments and artists. But first this note: Australia has had its share of famous international recording artists like Olivia Newton John, Men at Work and INXS, but they won't be our focus. Instead, we're going to concentrate on indigenous music and instruments of Australia. Indigenous refers to the original inhabitants of a location before colonists from outside places arrived.

Overview of Australian Musical Instruments

Australia's native peoples are called Aborigines, but within this group are many tribes and cultures. Indigenous cultures have lived in Australia for thousands of years, and many have traditions of song, dance and storytelling intertwined with cultural ceremonies. In the past, some groups were more oriented to vocal music with a few percussion instruments as accompaniment. Other tribes created several kinds of musical instruments from materials they found around them.

Some Aboriginal peoples use percussive instruments called clapsticks, where one stick is struck against another to make a sound. Two kinds of clapsticks are common. One version uses one slightly flattened stick as the playing surface and a more rounded stick to strike the flattened one and create sound. Another version uses two sticks that resemble boomerangs or two actual boomerangs. The edges are clapped against each other to make a sound.

Another instrument used by indigenous peoples is a bull-roarer, which is made of a formed wood slat with a slightly tapered edge. The slat is attached to a string and whirled in a circle. The spinning movement creates a low-pitched pulsing sound. The instrument's pitch depends on how fast it's spun.

An even simpler instrument is the gum-leaf, in which a Eucalyptus leaf is held against the lips with the fingers and blown. The vibration of the leaf creates sound. Skilled gum leaf musicians like aboriginal artist Roseina Boston can produce an amazing range of sound.

Australian Musical Instruments: Didgeridoo

The didgeridoo, a wind instrument that's blown into to make a sound, is probably the most famous Australian musical instrument. It developed in cultures that lived along the northern coastline of central Australia and it's been around for thousands of years.

Examples of different sizes and various decorations on didgeridoos
examples of didgeridoos

Traditionally, the didgeridoo maker located a fairly straight branch that termites had already begun to hollow out. They cut the branch to the preferred length, usually around 1.3 meters in length, and finished hollowing it out so the entire middle was open. Ideally, the branches often had a slight flare to their ends. Then, the musician rubbed one end with beeswax to provide a smooth mouthpiece. To play the instrument, the musician puts the mouthpiece against their lips and vibrates them.

Man playing a didgeridoo
man playing a didgeridoo

The sound of a didgeridoo is deep and drone-like. The player breathes in through their nose and out through their mouth. To produce a good sound, they need a constant stream of air. They create rhythms by moving the tongue against the palette in the mouth. Different sizes of didgeridoo produce different sounds, and the surface is often decorated with elaborate imagery. In this way, they're both musical instruments and works of art.

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