Intelligent, Informed, Independent and (occasionally) Irreverent

Skip Navigation LinksHome > Music > Instruments > Didgeridoo

The White Hat Guide to the







The didgeridoo (yidaki) is not the sort of instrument you would expect to find on pages connected with western classical music. However, in recent years it has found a unique place in Australian classical music, particularly through the collaboration of composer Peter Sculthorpe and performer/composer William Barton.

The highly distinctive sound of the didgeridoo (and let�s face it, this is an Australian website and we Australians abbreviate everything) or �didge� had been used from time to as an element of �local colour� . until classical composers started to regard it more seriously. By the 1970s George Dreyfus had included the didgeridoo in chamber music and several other composers were looking more seriously at the possibilities that the instrument provided. To be more precise, it wasn�t so much the instrument but the performers that were attracting attention. On the surface, the didgeridoo is just a piece of hollowed-out wood, but in the hands of a skilled performer this simple instrument is capable of rich and complex musical expression.

In western classical music, wind instruments are generally used for melodies or fanfares or combined into groups to provide harmonies. The didgeridoo on the other hand provides a single basic drone note (rendered continuous by �circular breathing�) which the skilled performer can vary use of harmonics and vocal interpolations introduced to the air supply. In traditional music these techniques are often used to imitate the sound of animals. Of particular significance is the fact that the performer can set up a percussive beat in the wind supply. This beat can often be quite complex and renders the instrument separate from the western classical tradition where wind instruments are not expected to also act as the percussive rhythm makers.

Probably the most significant integration of didgeridoo into the western classical tradition came around 2000 when the composer Peter Sculthorpe began his collaboration with the brilliant didgeridoo player William Barton. Sculthorpe included didgeridoo parts in several of his new works such as his Requiem and Earth Cry. However somewhat more remarkable was that Sculthorpe went back and rearranged a number of his earlier works to included didgeridoo and the result was the it sounded as though it had always been there.

Historical note on the didgeridoo

It is believed that the didgeridoo has been played for around 1,000 years by the Aboriginal people of parts of Northern Australia. Known as the yidaki, it's current traditional custodians are the Galpu clan of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land. At the the time of first European contact, the didgeridoo was not part of the culture of Aboriginal peoples in southern and eastern Australia. However it is now widely used as an iconic symbol of Aboriginal culture Australia wide and often heard at ceremonial occasions honouring local Aboriginal peoples regardless of whether the didegiridoo was part of the long term culture of that region.

A note on the name 'Didgeredoo'

The spellings 'didgeridoo' and 'didjeridu' have been the most common. However in the 1990s the hybrid spelling of 'didjeridoo' seems to have stemmed from the name adopted by a European club for marketing purposes. As a result the 'didjeridoo' spelling is often encountered in commercial and popular culture environments. After speaking to a number of Aboriginal performers we have stuck with the spelling most of them feel comfortable with - 'didgeridoo'. It should be noted that because of the large number of Aboriginal languages, the instrument is called by different names in different areas and the local name is usually used when used for local ceremonies. In fact, to complicate matters further, we are not even sure if the word 'didgeridoo' is Aboriginal in origin. A popularly repeated story says the name originates from the Gaelic words meaning 'black trumpeter' but to date we have found no reputable historical data to confirm this theory.

Some forthcoming Australian concerts and performances featuring the didgeridoo:

Selected didgeridoo sheet music: