Australian Aboriginal Music

Aboriginal Art 4


The traditional music of indigenous Australians holds a lot of meaning to their culture. Music is used throughout an aboriginal's life to teach what must be known about their culture, about their place in it, and about its place in the world of nature and supernature. As a very young child, the aboriginal is encouraged to dance and sing about everyday tasks. At puberty, s/he learns the first karma songs - about totemic plants and animals of his/her clan and the history and mythology of the group - which belong to his/her lineage and have specific melodic formulas and modes that distinguish them from other group's songs. Embedded in a purely oral tradition, the music is learnt by imitation and passed on without reference to any written notations. In the bachelor's camp, the young man learns more light-hearted songs which are the basic entertainment media for the band. When he marries and enters further into group responsibilities, however, it is the karma songs that are the central part of his education and his source of strength in times of trouble. His maturity can be measured in the esoteric knowledge he has acquired through song, and as an old man, he knows that his honour is based partly on his mastery of the secret sacred songs of the band.

To the Australian aboriginal, music is understood naturally and is an integral part of life. In the west, by contrast, music tends to be separated from life. For example, a Western music student must learn to "understand" a composed piece of music, like a Beethoven symphony or one of Bach's works. This involves dissecting the music into elements of individual study - form, rhythm, harmony, melody and orchestration. The westerner can come to understand aboriginal music also, if s/he is willing to learn its language and laws ans listen to it in terms of itself. It cannot be compared to a Beethoven symphony because it has nothing to do with it. Both, however, can be enjoyed once one knows what to listen for in each.

Traditional Instruments

In constructing their instruments, Aboriginal Australians use the resources at hand. Most of their instruments fall into the idiophone class, where instruments consist of two separate parts which are stuck together to give a percussive sound. Throughout Australia, this kind of instrument takes many different forms. Of the membraphones, or skinned drum types, there is only one example. There are no chordophones, or string instruments; however in the aerophone, or wind instrument class, one example provides an outstanding exhibition of musical ingenuity.

Category Instrument Details
Idiophones Sticks Each singer holds a pair of wooden sticks, one in each hand, and provides a percussive rhythm. One, long and slightly flattened stick is generally grasped in the middle and held flat. The other, more rounded and held towards the end, is brought sharply and cleanly on to the first. The paired sticks can vary considerably in shape.
Boomerang clapsticks These provide a similar function as the sticks. At times they may be shaken so as to provide a continuous rattle.
Handclapping Handclapping and slapping various parts of the body are used by singers of both sexes, sometimes as a substitute for a pair of sticks.
Set of percussion sticks Sometimes referred to "gongs", the set of three or four variously-lengthed wooden sticks hit with a stick are used only in Yabaduruwa ceremonies.
Percussion tube A percussion tube, the "hollow log drum" is used with the Ubar ceremonies. Other percussie idiophones include a stick beaten on a shield, a stick beaten on another stick lying on the ground, and the women's bark bundle hit on the ground.
Rasp The Kimberley Tabi songs are accompanied by a rasp. A notched stick, or the side of a spear thrower is scraped by a second, smaller stick.
Rattle Island style songs from Cape York are accompanied by bunches of seed pods held in the hand.
Membranophone Skin drum A single-headed hour glass shaped drum, whose head is made from lizard or goanna skin, or on at least one occaision the rubber from a tyre inner tube, is heard from Cape York, with both traditional song types and island dance. The open end is sometimes shaped like the mouth of a crocodile.
Aerophones Didjeridu

The didjeridu is usually formed when a branch of a tree, naturally hollow, is further hollowed out by nesting termites. Aboriginal Australians cut these branches to a suitable length (approx. 1.5 metres), hollowing out both ends a little more and sometimes smoothing the mouthpiece with gum. Blown with vibrating lips, the didjeridu gives a fundamental note with a rich and complex harmonic series. Constant air pressure is maintained by simultaneously blowing out through the mouth and breathing in through the nose, using the cheeks as a reservoir. Considerable stamina is required for this technique and a good didjeridu player is considered capable of sustaining fast energetic rhythmic patterns throughout a given song. A skilled player is highly respected and may travel with a professional songman to enhance trade meetings or other interband meetings.

The function of the didjeridu is to provide a constant drone on a deep note, somewhere between D flat and G below the bass clef. This drone is not a simple held note, but is broken up into a great variety of rythmic patterns and accents by the skilful use of the tongue and cheeks. Nor is it constant in timbre, for many different tone colours are achieved by altering the shape of the mouth cavity and the position of the tongue and by shutting off various parts of the anatomy which act as resonating chambers for the human voice.

It is not, however, in the manipulation of the droned fundamental, nor in the slight rise and fall of pitch used to accent a rhythm, that the great skill of a didjeridu player lies, but in his use of two entirely different notes, which are alternated in rapid succession to form complex and fascinating cross-rhythms. These two notes are not haphazardly chosen, but invariably are pitched a major tenth apart, the upper note being the first overtone. The physical explanation for this overtone being a tenth above the fundamental has not, so far, been found; but probably lies in the fact that the tube is slightly and irregularly conical. One would expect either the octave (for a conical pipe) or a twelfth (for a cylindrical pipe) to result, but the actual interval is never less than a tenth nor more than an eleventh.

Researched and written by Hans W. Telford

Didjeridu image

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