What is a Didgeridoo?
The didgeridoo of the Australian Aborigine comes in many different shapes and forms today but traditionally it is suggested that it was made from bamboo. The origin of the didgeridoo is not accurately known, though some research indicates its birth may have been as recent as one thousand years ago.
(World Archaeology-vol 12, no 3, Alice Moyle).
It is possible that termite hollowed trees were used in pre-colonial times but the evidence suggests that bamboo was the predominant original material. The fact that bamboo didgeridoos were quite common among northerly groups in the Northern Territory during the last century is confirmed by the word 'bamboo' which is still used in the lingua franca by some Aborigines when referring to the instrument, though 'didgeridoo', (didjeridu, didgeridoo, didgeridu) may be gaining ground.
Some observations on 'three very curious trumpets' made by R.Etheridge Jr. in 1893 are quoted for consideration in this context as they refer particularly to instruments of bamboo. Etheridge writes that:
'…..[the trumpets] are made from bamboo lengths, the diaphragms having been removed, probably by dropping live coals down the tubes. The bamboo, I am informed by Mr. Stockdale, grows about the Adelaide River over an area of about one hundred miles by fifty, and reaches to a height of eighty feet, Mr. J.H. Maiden tells me there are two bamboos indigenous in Australia, Bambusa arnhemica and B.moreheadiana, the latter a climbing species and only one or two inches in diameter.'
The suggestion here is that the first didgeridoos were of bamboo and an article in Smith's Weekly also supports this view
1919 Smith's Weekly (Sydney) 5 April 15/1
'The Northern Territory Aborigines have an infernal - allegedly musical - instrument, composed of two feet of hollow bamboo. It produces but one sound - 'didjerry, didjerry, didjerry - ' and so on ad infinitum.. When a couple of niggers started grinding their infernal 'didjerry' half the hot night through, the blasphemous manager decided on revenge.'
Because of the availability of bamboo in the north-western region of the Northern Territory, the first didgeridoo players may well have belonged to that region.
Pre-colonial Distribution of the Didgeridoo
There is also evidence that the didgeridoo may have originally been more wide spread than just in the northern regions of Australia.
Some evidence for this is to be found in the literature on central Australian groups. Spencer and Gillen (1899) refer to a "rudimentary trumpet" (60cm. In length) called ilpirra or ulpirra.
"This was used by Aboriginal men as a magic charm for obtaining wives. C.Strehlow (1908: 77 and Teil IV,p.15) shows illustrations of the tjurunga ulburu and the karakara, the latter used in an Aranda Itata, or public celebration in which women participated. T.G.H Strehlow (1947: 78-9) writes of a 'low toned wooden ulbura trumpet' used by southern Aranda people on the Finke River. The instrument is pictured representing the neck (rantja) of a venomous snake 'playfully "biting" a novice from another Aranda group' (picture facing p. 89). Eylmann (1908) refers to wooden and bamboo trumpets; and his illustrations include a 'Trompete der Waramunga', that is of a desert group in area"
Health Giving Properties of the Didgeridoo
Playing the didgeridoo can be very beneficial to the health. Lung capacity and efficiency can be improved, while great benefits can be gained from the revitalizing effects that circular breathing has. Asthmatics in particular are significantly benefited by the health giving properties of circular breathing when playing the didgeridoo. The energy boost and revitalization resulting from ten or twenty minutes of playing can be experienced by anyone and is especially noticeable when the player has been feeling lethargic or tired from too much or too little activity.
Extra breathing and lung activity increases the oxygen supplied to the body, similar in effect to exercise. The sharp breaths through the nostrils act to clear out the nasal cavities, thus eliminating excess toxin-carrying mucous. During the creation of rhythms your diaphragm muscles are actively used and exercised. Also, this active use of the diaphragm muscle aids in toning up the stomach externally.
Didgeridoo playing also has the ability to reduce stress levels and elevate the mood giving a sense of well-being and achievement, as mastery of this unique instrument is achieved.
The Didgeridoo Linked to Sleep Apnoea and Snoring Cure.
The time has finally come for the didjeridu to become a more widely accepted instrument! The emergence of recent research, linking the didgeridoo to sleep apnoea and snoring cures, has put this unique Australian icon on a sales footing "set to explode" as one recent Australian newspaper article put it. (1)
"Snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea are two highly prevalent sleep disorders caused by collapse of the upper airways." (2) This results in the sufferer gasping for breath, snoring loudly, snorting and constantly waking up. Daytime sleepiness, an increased risk of stroke, heart attack and high blood pressure are all associated with the condition-as are the rising costs they create in the workforce! This disorder costs industry millions, makes our roads less safe and even affects the sufferer's partners with disrupted sleep.
"Reports of didgeridoo players experiencing reduced daytime sleepiness and snoring after practising, led experts in Switzerland to test the theory that training of the upper airways by didgeridoo playing can improve these disorders." (3) Their findings were quite amazing: "Regular playing of the didgeridoo reduces daytime sleepiness and snoring in people with moderate obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome and also improves the sleep quality of partners. Severity of disease, expressed by the apnoea-hypopnoea index, is also substantially reduced after four months of didgeridoo playing." (4)
"Deep beneath the tidal wave of consumerism is the true, grass roots of the didgeridoo, a musical instrument that is versatile, functional, easy to learn and unique in ways unseen in other musical instruments across the world."
During the past decades the didgeridoo has become a worldwide phenomenon as a tourist item. Any visitor to Australian shores cannot avoid them and there are almost an infinite number of different shapes, colours, types and sizes available. The trend has been catching on internationally too, but mainly in the tourism and souvenir sectors only. Now, with the emergence of this new research, the didgeridoo is likely to be taken seriously by a whole new and much larger demographic, looking to benefit from the health giving properties it offers.
Didgeridoo playing has always been good for the health and this latest finding is just another hidden asset we have discovered about the instrument. Playing has long been known to possess ability to reduce stress levels and elevate the mood, giving a sense of wellbeing and vitality. Circular breathing is one of the key factors that achieve this. Vibration of the lips (a sensitive area for nerve endings), the audible effect of the soundwaves and also their physical effect, are further contributors to the instrument's ability to de-stress and revitalise the player. The energy boost and revitalization resulting from ten or twenty minutes of playing can be experienced by anyone and is especially noticeable when the player has been feeling lethargic or tired from little or too much activity. Some of the physiological effects include increased lung capacity and efficiency (up to double in some cases), oxygenation of the body and brain, and the elimination of excess toxin-carrying mucous.
The extra breathing and lung activity that occurs during playing because of circular breathing increases oxygen supply to the body and helps to expel mucus build up in the lungs (similar to the effect of exercise). Sharp breaths through the nostrils act to clear out the nasal cavities, thus eliminating excess toxin-carrying mucous. During the creation of rhythms, the player's diaphragm muscles are actively used and exercised. Furthermore, active use of the diaphragm muscle aids in toning up the stomach externally. Asthmatics and smokers in particular are significantly benefited by the health-giving properties of circular breathing.
"There exists no other musical instrument which so closely relies on nature to create its unique sound characteristics."
The didgeridoo is also very easy to learn to play, and the sense of achievement gained as one learns is another positive, healthy factor-a positive mental outlook and attitude has great power to keep the immune system active and therefore prevent illness.
Contrary to popular myths, the basics of playing a didgeridoo are extremely easy to pick up. Within any area of learning, imagination, time, energy and money are usually the only limitations to a lifetime of learning, and with the didgeridoo it only takes 3 half hour didge lessons* for the foundations of competence to be laid down.
Once the basics of didge playing have been learnt, (such as getting the drone note and learning to circular breathe), the musician is able to let their natural rhythm kick in and their imagination go. The incredible versatility of the didgeridoo means it can be played with almost any style of music and can be varied to suit many different instruments within those styles.
Playing the didgeridoo can be a great alternative to drugs, not only for sleep disorders, but also in the areas of respiration, vitality and mental attitude just to name a few.
*This information is based on a tuition program curriculum developed by 'Echo Tree' and is currently being used in Australian schools and private tuition with great success.
(1). Sydney Morning Herald,
(2). Milo A Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, Otto Braendii. Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: randomized controlled trial.
(3). British Medical Journal.
(4). Milo A Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, Otto Braendii. Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: randomized controlled trial.
The Didgeridoo In Harmony With Nature
"The didgeridoo represents the true spirit of Australia
and if the earth had a voice it would be the sound of the didgeridoo."
"Traditionally, an Aborigine would go into nature and listen intensely to animal sounds, not just voices but also the flapping of wings or the thump of feet on the ground. The Aborigine would also listen to the sounds of wind, thunder, trees creaking, and water running. The essences of all these sounds were played with as much accuracy as possible within the droning sound of the didjereedoo. For the Aborigine, the observation of nature immediately requires a state of empathy, which leads to an imitative expression."
Voices of the First Day
Published by Inner Traditional
Interesting Effects Caused by the Didgeridoo
Playing the Didgeridoo Will Make Your LED Clock Display 'Float' or 'Vibrate'.
Next time you are playing your didgeridoo have a look at your microwave clock or any other LED type digital display. You will find that it does strange things! This is not because it actually is, but because the vibrations caused by the instrument are also causing your skull to vibrate. This vibration interacts with the 50 cycles per second that your LED clock is flashing at (because of the AC current that is supplied by the electricity supplier). The resulting effect is similar to the one you have probably seen on TV when another TV or computer screen is shown and is seen to 'roll' or jump around. Another similar example is also on TV when a spoked wheel appears to be going backward when we know full well that it isn't.
While Playing the Didgeridoo it is Possible to Levitate a Light Object in Front of the Instrument.
While playing the didgeridoo you can try your trick with a very thin piece of paper (like a cigarette paper), a small piece of tissue or a feather. After you get a constant note, get a friend to hold the paper in front of the bottom end of the instrument, right close to the opening. It will hover and vibrate at the end of the didgeridoo! It's a good way to practice a smooth drone while circular breathing, and an interesting way to introduce the didgeridoo into conversation!
How Does a Didgeridoo Work?
Sound is actually a compression wave that travels through the air at about 340 meters every second. When the didgeridoo is blown, these waves are traveling down the inside of the instrument and coming out the bottom end. Vibration of the lips creates this sound and the speed at which they are vibrated governs the pitch that is made. The didgeridoo gains a distinctive and stronger sound when its 'harmonic' or 'resonant frequency' is reached. The resonant frequency of a particular instrument is created by the formation of a 'standing wave' along the length of the hollowed section of the didgeridoo.
For any given didgeridoo there is more than one resonant frequency. This is because the formation of harmonics is a mathematically governed process which is directly related to the length of the instrument used. The longer the didgeridoo is, the lower the note it will produce.
Below you will find diagrams and mathematical formulas that will give a more in depth look at the physics of standing waves in closed tubes - a didgeridoo becomes a closed tube when played.
Standing waves can occur in any wave medium that is enclosed, including the air. For the latter, we can produce standing sound waves, responsible for the rich tones from brass and woodwind instruments, and organs. Of equal importance, standing sound waves within our vocal tract are the basis for producing our voice for others to hear. There are both similarities and differences between standing waves on a string and standing sound waves in a pipe. We will first emphasize the differences, which are most pronounced when we consider a pipe of length L, that is open at one end and closed at the other. Later, we will look at a standing sound wave in a pipe that produces a very similar harmonic series of frequencies as those from a stretched string.
Standing sound waves in a pipe or didgeridoo, open at one end and closed at the other end, differ from standing waves on a string. First, there is an obvious difference in the wave medium. For the latter, the leftward going and rightward going traveling waves that are superimposed to form the standing wave pattern are transverse displacements of a string. For standing sound waves, the wave medium is typically air, and the waves themselves are longitudinal, corresponding to regions of compression and rarefaction of the air. A second important difference is how the traveling sound waves are reflected at the two ends of the pipe. At the end of a pipe open to the air, the pressure at the end of the pipe cannot oscillate. Instead, it is fixed at the ambient pressure of the surrounding air. This is completely analogous to the fixed end of a string; in other words, at the open end of the pipe, the standing sound wave pattern must have a node. The situation is different for the closed end of the pipe. Here, the pressure can vary; in fact, for the standing sound wave, the air pressure oscillation at the closed end has its greatest amplitude. In other words, there is an antinode in the standing sound wave pattern at the closed end of the pipe
For the fundamental standing sound wave, there is only a single node at the open end of the pipe. At the closed end, there is an antinode. The wave pattern looks as drawn below.
The standing sound wave pattern for the fundamental does not even have half a wavelength fitting into the pipe! Instead, the spatial variation of the pressure oscillations starts from a node at the open end and grows to the maximum amplitude oscillation at the closed end. In other words, only one-fourth of a wavelength fits into the pipe for the fundamental. This is expressed in the equation above. Using it and the speed of sound in air, Vs, we get the frequency of the fundamental.
The next highest frequency is produced by adding a single node to the standing wave pattern for the fundamental. The nodes and antinodes of the resulting pattern are spaced evenly through the tube, starting with a node at the open end and ending with an antinode at the closed end. The resulting standing wave pattern is shown below.
From the shape of the standing wave pattern, we see that three fourths of a wavelength fits into the length, L, of the tube. From the wavelength we can get the frequency of the next standing wave pattern. (See diagram to the right.)
Unlike the situation for the string, where the next standing wave mode after the fundamental has a frequency 2f1, for a pipe open at one end and closed at the other, the next standing wave mode after the fundamental has three times higher frequency! This means we have skipped the second harmonic in the harmonic series.
We can repeat the rules discussed earlier to find the next standing wave mode for a pipe. We add a node to the standing wave pattern of the third harmonic, and demand that the nodes and antinodes are evenly spaced along the length of the tube. The resulting pattern looks like:
From the picture, it shouldn't be too hard too see that the three nodes and three antinodes split up the length of the tube into five parts. One full wave cycle in the standing wave pattern is completed in four of these parts, meaning that the wavelength is 4L/5. From this, we can find the frequency of this mode (See diagram to the right.)
Where Does the Word 'Didgeridoo' Come From?
There are probably over 50 different synonyms for the didgeridoo. Some are bambu, bombo, kambu, pampuu, (may reflect didgeridoo origins from bamboo), garnbak, illpirra, martba, Jiragi, Yiraki, Yidaki, (seem close dialectically and which means "bamoo" although no longer commonly made from bamboo).
The table below details more names with their tribal groups and regions also listed:
|TRIBAL GROUP||REGION||NAME FOR DIDGERIDOO|
|Anindilyakwa||Groote Eylandt||ngarrriralkpwina = play didge|
|Gupapuygu||Arnhem Land||Yiraka= trachea, windpipe|
|Iwaidja||Cobourg Peninsula||Wuyimba = trachea
buyigi = blow a didgeridoo
|Jawoyn||Katherine||artawirr = hollow log|
|Nyul Nyul||Kimberleys WA||ngaribi = bamboo|
|Warray||Adelaide River||bambu = used for singing|
Termites and the Didgeridoo
Did you know that termites are the reason for the unique sound of the didgeridoo?
When termites (sometimes called 'white ants', which is not actually technically correct!) hollow out the centre of a didgeridoo, hundreds of channels and irregularities are formed. This alters the resonance of the didgeridoo creating the unique sound that represents the spirit of Australia. The resonance is altered because sound waves react with the irregular surface inside the termite hollowed instrument. Many overtones (like ripples in a creek when the water runs over shallow pebbles) are created; giving a full harmonious and warm sound that is 'multi-layered' in its characteristics.
What Different Materials Can a Didgeridoo Be Made From?
- Stringy Bark (Eucalyptus Tetrodonta)
- Wooly Butt (Eucalyptus Miniata)
- River Red Gum (Eucalyptus Camaldulensis)
- Ironwood (Erythrophlaeum Laboucherii)
- Mallee eucalyptus (at least 4 different species are commonly used in Western Australia.)
- Box Gum and Wattle from South Australia, (the instrument is not native to this region)
- Poly-Vinyl-Chloride (Pvc)
- Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (Abs)
- River Red Gum (Eucalyptus Camaldulensis)
- Century Plant
- Glass (Pyrex)
- Paper Machie
- Golf Club Tubes Etc.
- Fiberglass (Not a good idea due to minute glass fibres which travel up and lodge in the lungs)
- Kevlar Impregnated Carbon Fiber
- Stainless Steel
Should Women Play the Didgeridoo?
Following is an excellent article that was written by Linda Barwick. It addresses the 'big picture' in a realistic, balanced way and is a good overview of this subject.
"This aims to clarify some misunderstandings of the role of didgeridoo in traditional Aboriginal culture, in particular the popular conception that it is taboo for women to play or even touch a didjeridu".
"While it is true that in the traditional didjeridu accompanied genres of Northern Australia, (e.g. Wangga and Bunggurl) women do not play in public ceremony, in these areas there appears to be few restrictions on women playing in an informal capacity. The area in which there are the strictest restrictions on women playing and touching the didjeridu appears to be in the south east of Australia, where in fact didjeridu has only recently been introduced. I believe that the international dissemination of the "taboo" results from its compatibility with the commercial agendas of New Age niche marketing.
My understanding of Aboriginal culture in Australia has been formed as an academic ethnomusicologist, through acquaintance with the ethnomusicological and anthropological literature as well as through personal contact, during classes and fieldwork, with the Aboriginal people in a number of communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.
It is true that traditionally women have not played the didjeridu in ceremony. However let us review the evidence for Aboriginal women playing didjeridu in informal situations. In discussions with women in the Belyuen community near Darwin in 1995. I was told that there was no prohibition on women playing and in fact several of the older women mentioned a women in the Daly River area who used to play the didjeridu.
"In a discussion with men from Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar and Gunbalanya it was agreed that there was no explicit Dreaming Law that women should not play didjeridu, it was more that women did not know how to. From Yirrkala, there are reports that while both boys and girls as young children play with toy instruments, within a few years, girls stop playing the instrument in public. There are reports that women engage in preparation of didjeridus for sale to tourists also playing instruments to test their useability.
Reports of women playing the didjeridu are especially common in the Kimberley and Gulf regions the Westerly and Easterly extremes of it's distribution in traditional music. The didjeridu has only begun to be played in these areas this century where it accompanies genres originally deriving from Arnhem Land (Bunggurl) or the Daly region (Wangga, Lirrga and Gunborrg).
The clamour of conflicting voices about the use of didjeridu by women and by outsiders has drawn attention to the potential for international exploitation and appropriation of traditional music and other Aboriginal cultural property. In addition, the debate has drawn to international attention the fact that there are levels of the sacred and the secret in traditional Aboriginal beliefs, many of them restricted according to gender. Perhaps the didjeridu in this case is functioning as a false front, standing in for other truly sacred and restricted according to Aboriginal ceremonial life that it cannot be named in public. In this way, the spiritualising of the didjeridu not only panders to the commercial New Age niche, but also serves as a means of warning non-Aboriginal people to be wary of inquiring too closely into sacred matters."
Written by Linda Barwick
The didjeridu, From Arnhem Land to Internet
Perfect Beat Publications / Karl Keuenfeldt