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Didgeridoo Basics


1- What is a didgeridoo

2- How old is the didgeridoo

3- How is the basic sound produced

4- How do you vary the sound

5- What is circular breathing

6- What is the pitch/key of a didgeridoo

7- What is a traditional Arnhem Land didgeridoo

8- Is the didgeridoo the only Aboriginal Instrument





1- What is a didgeridoo

The didgeridoo is an end-blown wind instrument, usually of wooden construction, of the Aboriginal people of northern Australia. The digeridoo (or didjeridu) is considered one of the best known of all the Aboriginal instruments. The origin of the word didgeridoo is a bit unclear. The common theory is that it’s a western onomatopoeia spelling (ie imitating the sound of the instrument). Another popular theory is the name originates from the Gaelic word meaning 'black trumpeter'.
Although the most common spelling of this unique Aboriginal instrument is ‘Didgeridoo’ the Australian government and all its agencies formally accept Didjeridu as the correct spelling. However, since didgeridoo is the more popular way of spelling, didjeridu and didgeridoo are used interchangeably. Further less common spelling variations such as didjeridoo, digeridoo and the short version didge can also be found, in addition to dozens of traditional indigenous words, the best known being yidaki.
In a traditional context, it is played in ceremonial ritual to accompany singing and dancing where it functions as a rhythmic musical instrument. It is also played recreationally and for entertainment purposes outside of ceremony in northern Australia. A special technique called "circular breathing" is used to play the didgeridoo, whereby a continuous drone is produced by the player's vibrating lips whilst quick snatches of air are inhaled through the nose.

In more contemporary times, the didgeridoo has been embraced by Aboriginal people throughout Australia and it could be considered to be Australia's national Aboriginal musical instrument. The didgeridoo has also spread far and wide across the world, finding interest among musicians and lovers of world music genres. Today, there are tens of thousands of didgeridoo players globally.
With the didgeridoo's worldwide popularity, new ways of making and playing the instrument have emerged outside of its traditional heartland in northern Australia. Many types of timbers and materials - from PVC to leather - are used today in different countries to make didgeridoos, although among the Aboriginal people of northern Australia the preferred material is a termite-hollowed eucalyptus tree trunk or branch.

Playing styles today embrace a wide range of techniques and rhythmic structures, from slow meditative drones creating wonderful ambient music to fast, percussive, dance rhythms.

Many didgeridoo players find immense joy in playing this Aboriginal instrument, perhaps because of the relaxing feeling it gives to players, as well as listeners. Recent research suggests it may also help with sleep apnea, snoring and asthma. Whatever the case may be, the didgeridoo is without a doubt one of the most unusual musical instruments in the world. 


2- How old is the didgeridoo

The didgeridoo is often said to be 40,000 years old or as old as the Aboriginal culture in Australia but this is not testable and on the available information, it is likely to be untrue.

Evidence of how long the didgeridoo has been used by Aboriginal people is hard to come by and we really only have two angles from which to approach this question. One is by collecting and studying the oral histories of the Aboriginal groups that traditionally used the instrument. Such accounts may suggest the trade or spread of the instrument from group to group, or region to region, or perhaps even the mythological origins of the didgeridoo within the tribe, but such narratives do not reference any time period. Indeed, some Aboriginal groups in northern Australia may claim that they have always had the didgeridoo, that it is part of their "Dreamtime" heritage since the beginning. As such, it is easy to see how the 40,000 year age has come about.

The other form of evidence comes from the archaeological record. No petrified wooden didgeridoos have ever been excavated for radiocarbon dating, however, Yolngu people of eastern Arnhem Land in Australia's north know where old instruments may be buried under sand or lie in the murky depths of waterholes, but these instruments are from their generation and not thousands of years old.
This presents a dilemma. Yet, luckily, the archaeological record does offer us a glimpse of how old the didgeridoo might be through the study of rock art.

George Chaloupka, one of Australia's foremost experts on rock art, determined that there were 11 main artistic styles across 3 environmental periods in what is presently known as the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia. One of those environmental periods is the freshwater period (less than 1500 years old) and it is only in the freshwater period that artistic depictions of the didgeridoo can be found as rock art. In other words, there is no rock art that is older than 1500 years that depicts the didgeridoo

It is therefore likely that the didgeridoo has been used by Aboriginal people in northern Australia for no more than 1500 years, although because of the uncertainty mentioned by Chaloupka in obtaining absolute dates, it is reasonable to suggest a span of 1500-2000 years old for the age of the didgeridoo.

It is important to note that paintings of didgeridoos on rock art HAVE NOT been dated by radiometric methods, but instead they appear in the sequence of other rock art which fall under the freshwater period so it is equally valid to suggest that the didgeridoo might be 600 years old, 1100 years old, or 1500 years old. It should also be pointed out that there are no known depictions of the didgeridoo as rock art outside of what we now call the Northern Territory.


3- How is the basic sound/drone produced

The basic sound of the didgeridoo is the drone. This is done by placing your lips on the mouthpiece of the didgeridoo (the smaller end of the instrument) and gently blowing into it with loosely vibrating lips. The embouchure is similar to that of a trumpet player only more relaxed and looser. Imagine the sound typically made by horses with their lips - "pppppfff" - this is what you should aim for. The vibrating lips technique is sometimes referred to as similar to “blowing a raspberry”

It takes a little practise to get the right amount of vibration in your lips for a nice strong drone sound. If you try to vibrate your lips with too much tension, you might not get a drone but instead a higher pitch 'trumpet' horn note (this is another technique which will be covered later, at the moment we're just concerned with the drone). Too little vibration in your lips and you might not get a sound at all.
Each didgeridoo is different and plays in its own natural key with a different frequency. For example, a longer didgeridoo generally will produce a lower drone and so you should vibrate your lips at a lower frequency to match the instrument. On the other hand, a shorter instrument will have a higher drone which requires your lips to vibrate at a higher frequency.


4- How do you vary the sound

Apart from the basic drone, a good didgeridoo player is also able to produce a variety of other sounds in order to create rhythms and music, instead of a plain continuous drone. This is done using various techniques.

Animal sounds or calls are done using the vocal cords whereby the didgeridoo player creates the drone with vibrating lips whilst also talking, yelling or screaming into the instrument. Popular animal sounds include bird calls and dingo yelps, in fact, you can imitate any animal you like by playing the drone and using your voice to make those animal sounds at the same time.

The vocal cords can also be used in another way, which is to passively allow them to vibrate at a low frequency. Instead of the high-pitch animal calls, you get a low hum from passively using your voice. This hum is lower than the pitch of the basic drone and adds another dimension to the overall sound of the didgeridoo.

Other sounds are produced with the tongue or by varying the degree of "puffiness" of your cheeks. Move your tongue around whilst you are playing the basic drone and you'll notice a slight change in sound. A good player is able to move the tongue deliberately to create certain changes in harmonics or to produce rhythmic patterns. Try puffing your cheeks in and out and you will also notice subtle changes in harmonics and timbre.

In addition to using the vocal cords, tongue and cheeks to vary the sound of the didgeridoo and to make it more interesting, the lips can also be used to create variety by either tensing or loosening them. A trumpet note is produced when you purse your lips tightly, and an accomplished didgeridoo is able to "hit"  two  or more of these trumpet notes, each with its own distinctive pitch. The opposite effect is created by loosening the lips slightly so that the basic drone note drops a little.

In this way, an astonishing variety of sounds can be produced on a didgeridoo, and when aided by circular breathing, allows you to play continuously without a break for as long as you like.

5- What is circular breathing

Circular breathing is a technique used by didgeridoo players to produce an continuous sound. This is done by playing an interrupted sound on the didgeridoo whilst occasionally breathing in through the nose.


6- What is pitch/key of a didgeridoo 

The pitch or note of a didgeridoo is simply what key the drone plays in. This can be measured easily and quickly with a guitar or chromatic tuner. Almost all  didgeridoos are found in the following key range

A, A#, B               (lower keys)        

C, C#, D, D#,E    (middle keys)          

F, F#, G, G#        (higher keys)

Lower keys such as A’s  and    B’s    are good for slower meditative and more relaxed playing  and are great for creating atmospheric music .These instruments however require more air and effort to play them well .The lower keys are often more sensitive  on the mouthpiece  requiring greater lip control.

Higher keys such as F’s and G’s are suited to fast, percussive, rhythmic styles of play. They often have less sensitivity on the mouthpiece  which allows them to be played with greater ease. These instruments however also require greater lip control often in the form of tighter lips  and  a player needs greater  control in technique and timing.

Middle key including  C’s, D’s and E’s are the easiest keys to play for a beginner. The reduced lip control required to play them and the versatility of being in the mid range allows them to  be  usually played fast or slow

As each didgeridoo is unique  with its own set of characteristics and features it is still quite feasible to find instruments leaning towards the lower or higher  keys  that are still  good beginners instruments. The above key guide is a sensible approach to choosing a first didgeridoo but by no means a hard and fast rule .

7- What is a traditional Arnhem Land  Didgeridoo

A traditional  didgeridoo, typically called yidaki , mago or more recently mandapul, is one which originates from one of the   several distinct regions in  Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia . The best known of these would be the Yidaki .The word yidaki is applied to traditional didgeridoos  from North East Arnhem Land  that are made by Yolngu people that often have distinct differences, acoustically and structurally, that set them apart from standard didgeridoos.

They are decorated with natural earth pigments (ochres) that represent special clan designs and motifs. Natural mouthpieces are quite common along with the use of sugarbag wax from the native bee.

Yidakis represent the highest level of cultural integrity with respect to the didgeridoo- being made by the traditional owners and custodians of the instrument in an unbroken tradition that spans thousands of years.

A mago is a variant of the traditional instrument more commonly found in the Western part of Arnhem Land. A Mago is typically shorter than and acoustically different to a yidaki. In terms of sound characteristics, mago are somewhat richer and more full-bodied than yidaki.  


8- Is the didgeridoo the only Aboriginal Instrument

Although the didgeridoo is by far the most popular and important Aboriginal instrument and the most complex to master, there are several other Aboriginal instruments or musical expressions. The most iconic perhaps being the clapstick and the bullroarer

Clapsticks- At one stage the most common and important Aboriginal instrument throughout many areas and sometimes the only instrument in certain areas was the clapstick. Essentially wooden sticks, they may be single and beaten against some other object (e.g. the ground ,trees, or a shield ) or paired and beaten against each other to create a percussive rhythm to song or to the didgeridoo in the Northern parts of Australia.

Often the smaller rounder clapstick was beaten against the flatter larger clapstick or two boomerang shaped clapsticks were beaten against each other to create the percussive element.

Bullroarer- a simple slat of wood approximately 15-30cm in length, 5-10cm wide and a few mm in thickness which is swung around the end of a thin cord to create a roaring/growling sound. The bullroarer was an important ceremonial Aboriginal instrument.

Other musical sounds/expressions include the gum leaf (a leaf whistle) seed rattles, hand and thigh clapping, the rasp and the skin drum.