Music of Oceania: Characteristics and Instruments of Polynesian Voice & Australian Aboriginal Music

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  • 0:01 Music in Oceania
  • 0:52 Polynesian Music
  • 2:54 Music in Australia
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Oceania is full of various musical traditions. In this lesson, explore the distinct musical styles of Polynesia and Australia, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Music in Oceania

Now, this is what I need. A nice beach, palm trees, a coconut with a little umbrella sticking out of it. Yep, this is what I've been missing. Of course, we're not here for vacation, we're here to work. But still, what a place to work!

You see, today we're researching musical traditions of Oceania, the geographical region encompassing the tropical islands of the Southern Pacific Ocean. The first people to arrive in this area did so around 50,000 BCE, which is a long time ago. Since then, the cultures of Australia and Polynesia developed distinct and complex musical traditions. Yep, I think some musical research is just what I needed.

Polynesian Music

Let's start over here in Polynesia, the cultural group of smaller islands east of Australia. Now, for us in modern Western culture, we think of music in a very specific way. Download your favorite songs, listen to them on your phone with headphones; it's a very personal, individual experience.

Traditional Polynesian culture isn't like that. Music was completely a social event and was found all throughout society. From work to warfare to prayers and ceremonies, music was something performed by people together that demonstrated community and helped pass on stories and legends. After all, Polynesian culture was non-literate before the advent of European colonization. They didn't have a formal writing system, and this meant that histories and myths were passed on through songs.

So, obviously music was very important in Polynesia. Traditionally, Polynesians had a few instruments, drums and whatnot, but music was really focused on the vocal elements. Chants and songs carried throughout all life. Western musicians call the vocal mixture of music and poetry chant-songs. The Polynesians call them mele. Mele are chanted and sung with complex lyrics but simple melodies.

Traditionally, there were several types of mele, from the chants you sang while working to those you sang while rowing or fishing, to those you sang while participating in a religious ceremony. Every person also had a chant dedicated to them at birth. This chant belonged to that person and only he or she was allowed to use it. These traditional practices are not as common now as they once were, since European style music has had a major impact on the islands. However, music still plays a major role in Polynesian society.

Music in Australia

In Oceania, the largest island by far is the country we now know as Australia. Before European colonization, Australia was inhabited by a people we now call Aborigines, although that's not a term they would ever have used themselves. Traditional aboriginal Australian music, like that of Polynesia, was very focused on storytelling. Aboriginal Australian groups shared certain songs that were unique to their societies, called clan songs. Each clan had their own clan songs, which were a way to identify different cultures.

In general, these songs were believed to be given to people from the dreamtime, a spiritual world that people entered through ritual trances. In the dreamtime, nature spirits and humans could communicate. The dreamtime was a place outside of time and space, so anybody who ever visited the dreamtime shared it together, all at once. This means that you could meet with ancestors, future clan members, anybody who was in the dream state. This is where Australian Aborigines went to find new songs, and actually the original source of all culture, according to traditional beliefs.

Singing and chanting were important to the Aboriginal Australians, just like they were to the Polynesians. However, traditional Australian music did have more of a focus on instruments. Music was generally part of an entire performance that included singing, instruments and dancing all together. Instruments often included drums and other things to help maintain a rhythm. One common percussion instrument was the clapstick, two decorated pieces of wood that were hit against each other to create a steady beat.

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