Australian Wind Instruments

Written by rebecca bragg
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Australian Wind Instruments
The didgeridoo, a kind of trumpet made from a hollowed-out length of wood, is Australia's best-known indigenous musical instrument. (aboriginal didgeridoo image by Vladislav Gajic from

According to the government of Australia, aboriginal people settled on the continent 50,000 years ago, although recent archeological findings suggest they may have been present as far as 68,000 years back. Indigenous Australians are thought to have the longest continuous cultural history on earth. Like much of the continent's unique plant and animal life, aboriginal artistic traditions, including music, evolved independently of outside influences. Most music was considered sacred because it hearkened back to the ancient aboriginal creation myth called the "Dreaming" or "Dream-Time," when ancestor spirits were said to have assumed human form and sang the universe into existence. Music was inspired by natural sounds like wind, thunder, running water and bird calls, and musical instruments, including the most famous one of all--the didgeridoo--were not manufactured but made or adapted from found materials.

The Didgeridoo

"Didgeridoo," a Europeanised name for the "Yidaki," is a long wooden tube (typically about 4ft.) that originated with tribes in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. Made from tree branches hollowed out by termites, different varieties of wood yield different sounds. The "didge" is played like a trumpet; air enters through the nose and is blown out through the musician's mouth while lips are vibrating. Although one instrument can only produce one note, a skilled player uses tongue, cheeks and controlled breathing to add overtones, accents and rhythmic patterns to its hypnotic low, resonant drone, often described as the signature sound of Australia. Traditionally, the didge was used to accompany singing and chanting alongside sounds produced by clapsticks, seed rattles, hand and lap clapping.

Australian Wind Instruments
(Caracol image by dogui_079 from

The Conch Shell

The circular breathing technique for producing sound from the large conch shells (also known as bugle shells) found in the coastal regions of Australia is similar to that used to play the didgeridoo. The pointed end of the shell is held to a corner of the musician's mouth while air flow and sound modulation are controlled by lips and cheeks. Since configurations of chambers in every shell are different, no two sound exactly alike.

The Gum-Leaf

Turning a eucalyptus leaf into a wind instrument using only the mouth and fingers isn't easy, but unlike the didge and the conch, the gum-leaf--also known as a folded leaf whistle--can produce a great range of notes. Players use it to imitate bird calls and create melodies either alone or with other instruments and voices.

The Llpirra

When the British began colonising Australia in 1788, they estimated that about 600 clans or tribes speaking 250 languages, and numbering about 600,000 people, were spread throughout the vast land. Variations in regions and climate zones, such as those between coastal and inland areas, yield different materials for making musical instruments. The llpirra, a trumpet-like instrument akin to the didgeridoo, is used in the traditional music of tribes native to Central Australia.

The Bull-Roarer

Like the didgeridoo, "bullroarer" is a Europeanised name--the aboriginal name is considered sacred and kept secret from outsiders. Made from a flat slat of wood affixed to a cord, which the player whirls around in a circle, the bullroarer produces sound by vibrating against the wind created by its own motion. The double windwand bullroarer, a contemporary version of the traditional one, produces a wider and more varied range of sounds. A giant bullroarer requires considerable strength to play, using a thick plank in place of a lightweight piece of wood. (See and listen to Resources.)

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