The didgeridoo is a wind instrument. It was developed by Indigenous Australians of northern Australia, likely within the last 1,500 years and is now in use around the world.

Didgeridoo is a wooden trumpet “drone pipe” classified by Musicologists as a brass aerophone.

A didgeridoo is usually cylindrical or conical and can measure anywhere from 1 to 3 m (3 to 10 ft) long. Most are around 1.2 m (4 ft) long.

Generally, the longer the instrument, the lower its pitch or key. However, flared instruments play a higher pitch than unflared instruments of the same length.

Origin

There are no reliable sources of the exact age of the didgeridoo’s origin. Archaeological studies suggest that people of the Kakadu region in Northern Australia have been using the didgeridoo for less than 1,000 years, based on the dating of rock art paintings.

A clear rock painting in Ginga Wardelirrhmeng, on the northern edge of the Arnhem Land plateau, from the freshwater period (that had begun 1500 years ago) shows a didgeridoo player and two song men participating in an Ubarr Ceremony.

Playing the didgeridoo

The didgeridoo is played with continuously vibrating lips to produce the drone while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing.

This requires breathing in through the nose whilst simultaneously expelling stored air out of the mouth using the tongue and cheeks.

By use of this technique, a skilled player can replenish the air in their lungs, and with practice can sustain a note for as long as desired. Recordings exist of modern didgeridoo players playing continuously for more than 40 minutes; Mark Atkins on Didgeridoo Concerto (1994) plays for over 50 minutes continuously.

The didgeridoo functions “…as an aural kaleidoscope of timbres” and that “the extremely difficult virtuoso techniques developed by expert performers find no parallel elsewhere.

Physics and operation

A termite-bored didgeridoo has an irregular shape that, overall, usually increases in diameter towards the lower end. This shape means that its resonances occur at frequencies that are not harmonically spaced in frequency.

This contrasts with the harmonic spacing of the resonances in a cylindrical plastic pipe, whose resonant frequencies fall in the ratio 1:3:5 etc. The second resonance of a didgeridoo (the note sounded by overblowing) is usually around an 11th higher than the fundamental frequency (a frequency ratio somewhat less than 3:1).

The vibration produced by the player’s lips has harmonics, i.e., it has frequency components falling exactly in the ratio 1:2:3, etc.

However, the non-harmonic spacing of the instrument’s resonances means that the harmonics of the fundamental note are not systematically assisted by instrument resonances, as is usually the case for Western wind instruments (e.g., in the low range of the clarinet, the 1st, 3rd, and 5th harmonics of the reed are assisted by resonances of the bore).

Sufficiently strong resonances of the vocal tract can strongly influence the timbre of the instrument. At some frequencies, whose values depend on the position of the player’s tongue, resonances of the vocal tract inhibit the oscillatory flow of air into the instrument.

Bands of frequencies that are not thus inhibited produce formants in the output sound. These formants, and especially their variation during the inhalation and exhalation phases of circular breathing, give the instrument its readily recognizable sound.

Other variations in the didgeridoo’s sound can be made by adding vocalizations to the drone. Most of the vocalizations are related to sounds emitted by Australian animals, such as the dingo or the kookaburra.

To produce these sounds, the players simply have to use their vocal folds to produce the sounds of the animals whilst continuing to blow air through the instrument.

The results range from very high-pitched sounds too much lower sounds involving interference between the lip and vocal fold vibrations. Adding vocalizations increases the complexity of the playing.

Cultural significance

Traditionally, the didgeridoo was played as an accompaniment to ceremonial dancing and singing and for solo or recreational purposes.

For Aboriginal peoples of northern Australia, the didgeridoo is still used to accompany singers and dancers in cultural ceremonies.

Today, most Didgeridoo playing is recreational but it has become an important commercial activity in tourism and a more limited professional activity in music performances and recordings.

Pair sticks, sometimes called clapsticks (bilma or bimla by some traditional groups), establish the beat for the songs during ceremonies. The rhythm of the didgeridoo and the beat of the clapsticks are precise, and these patterns have been handed down for many generations.

In the Wangga genre, the song-man starts with vocals and then introduces bilma to the accompaniment of didgeridoo.

Gender-based traditional prohibition debate

Traditionally, only men play the didgeridoo and sing during ceremonial occasions and playing by females is sometimes discouraged by Aboriginal communities and elders.

In 2008, publisher Harper Collins apologized for its book The Daring Book for Girls, which openly encouraged girls to play the instrument after some Aboriginal academics described such encouragement as “extreme cultural insensitivity” and “an extreme faux pas … part of general ignorance that mainstream Australia has about Aboriginal culture.

However, Linda Barwick, an ethnomusicologist, says that though traditionally women have not played the didgeridoo in the ceremony, in informal situations there is no prohibition in the Dreaming Law.

For example, Jemima Wimalu, a Mara woman from the Roper River is very proficient at playing the didgeridoo and is featured on the record Aboriginal Sound Instruments released in 1978.

In 1995, musicologist Steve Knopoff observed Yirrkala women performing djatpangarri songs that are traditionally performed by men and in 1996, ethnomusicologist Elizabeth MacKinley reported women of the Yanyuwa group giving public performances.

While there is no prohibition in the area of the didgeridoo’s origin, such restrictions have been applied by other Indigenous communities.

The didgeridoo was introduced to the Kimberleys almost a century ago but it is only in the last decade that Aboriginal men have shown adverse reactions to women playing the instrument and prohibitions are especially evident in the South East of Australia.

The belief that women are prohibited from playing is widespread among non-Aboriginal people and is also common among Aboriginal communities in Southern Australia; some ethnomusicologists believe that the dissemination of the Taboo belief and other misconceptions is a result of commercial agendas and marketing.

Tourists generally rely on shop employees for information when purchasing a didgeridoo. Additionally, the majority of commercial didgeridoo recordings available are distributed by multinational recording companies and feature non-Aboriginals playing a New Age style of music with liner notes promoting the instrument’s spirituality which misleads consumers about the didgeridoo’s secular role in traditional Aboriginal culture.

The Taboo belief is particularly strong among many Indigenous groups in the South East of Australia, where it is forbidden and considered “cultural theft” for non-Indigenous women, and especially performers of New Age music regardless of gender, to play or even touch a didgeridoo.

Health benefits

A 2005 study reported in the British Medical Journal found that learning and practicing the didgeridoo helped reduce snoring and obstructive sleep apnea by strengthening muscles in the upper airway, thus reducing their tendency to collapse during sleep.

In the study, intervention subjects were trained in and practiced didgeridoo playing, including circular breathing and other techniques. Control subjects were asked not to play the instrument.

Subjects were surveyed before and after the study period to assess the effects of the intervention. A small 2010 study noted improvements in the asthma management of Aboriginal teens when incorporating didgeridoo playing.

*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.