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May 11, 2006

Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Didjeridu & Traditional Music of the Top End
The content of this page was originally created by Peter Lister

Didjeridu Home : Traditional Didjeridu and Music : Variations in Didjeridu Style and Playing

Variations in didjeridu style and playing within the Top End

As already discussed, there are three main musical styles/genres in the region. The type of didjeridu used depends upon the region and the genre of music being performed. This page provides a general overview of regional variation amongst Top End didjeridus and the way in which they are played.

It is important to remember that Top End musical performances are composed of four elements: voice, sticks, didjeridu and dance. Of these, only voice is rarely, if ever used solely. Many casual listeners are quick to criticize traditional didjeridu playing as boring and repetitive, forgetting or not knowing the context in which it is meant to be used. To play the didjeridu solely in a traditional manner seems to leave these listeners cold, yet it is expected that contemporary didjeridu be played as a solo instrument at times, or at least to play a rather prominent role in the music, rather than as an accompaniment as it is in traditional music.

"The voice is the primary sound-producing instrument of the Australian Aboriginals" (Stubington, 1979)

Regional Styles of Instrument

The didjeridu in Wangga and Kun-borrk Music

In Wangga and Kun-borrk music the didjeridu is often chosen so that the pitch of the instrument matches the pitch of the songman's voice and there is a noticeable use of vocalised harmonics, in particular low croaks, by the didjeriduist. 'A-Type' accompaniments are played, rhythm is deceptively simple and played over a smooth drone, pieces lasting for up to a few minutes in length.

Instrument morphology
Instruments used in these styles of playing are, as a general rule, shorter, at times quite straight, and with a larger, free-flowing bore. As such they have low backpressure and are often highly pitched. These instruments are known by Kunwinjku/Kuninjku as Mako (or Mago) and by Gundjeihmi as Mole (Morle).

The didjeridu in Bunggul Music

The pitch of the instrument appears to be largely unimportant in bunggul pieces. The didjeriduist employs a variety of techniques above that used by players outside of this stylistic region. Vocals (often falsetto) are sometimes used to mimic bird calls, for example that of the brolga, and also to generate low 'croaks' and pulsing. 'B-type' playing is the norm and pieces tend to be short (20-30 seconds is not uncommon), the rhythm more complex with a faster tempo.

B-type playing is employed by the Yolngu and their neighbours, the Enindilyaugwa of Groote Eylandt, the Nunggubuyu of southeastern Arnhem Land (around Numbulwar - opposite Groote Eylandt) (Moyle,1981), and those in central Arnhem Land such as the Rembarrnga and Kune, and the western edge of coastal eastern Arnhem Land, the Burarra. (Garde, 1997).

Instrument morphology
Instruments used in this style of playing are, as a general rule, longer, may be quite straight or sinuous but notably have a narrower, less-tapered bore. The bore maybe slighltly tapered over much of its' length, or have the upper third or so fairly parallel then with a reasonable taper all the way to the distal end. Much variation in backpressure exists according to the bore shape, and the narrower, more parallel shape enables the overtone to be played with relative ease. Amongst Yolngu the didjeridu is commonly known as Yidaki (Yirdaki).

It should be noted that in addition there is much variation in yidaki morphology in eastern and northeastern Arnhem Land. Dhuwa and Yirritja instruments are different lengths and shapes, and within each moiety there is further variation depending upon clan affiliation.

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Instrument artwork

I'll make brief mention here about the artwork on instruments. Traditional pieces used in ceremony are usually very plain. Either painted all the one colour, or portions of the instrument painted in a few different colours. The elaborate artwork seen on many instruments today, although often reflecting the makers' affiliations with clan/country, are really only there to raise the aesthetics and value of the instrument. Frankly, most of the instruments purchased today are bought because of their appearance - most owners will never play them - they're an artwork in their own right. To discuss further, the artistic content, would be to broach cultural ground so I will leave the discussion at that.

Playing technique

Traditional playing techniques are fundamentally different to contemporary playing heard on the many commercially available recordings. Traditional playing technique also varies across the Top End. Use the links below to get an overview of traditional playing technique.

Have a look at Ed Drury's western Arnhem Land techniques page. The cheeks are often used in part to aid the smoothing of the drone.

Here is an example of me attempting to play an A-Type accompaniment.

Very little cheek, if any, is used. Playing is both strenuous and exhaustive with short rapid breaths being snatched - often 2 short breaths (within one second) taken in quick succession. I think this style of playing is better described as circular panting, rather than "circular breathing". The overtone is played as both a sustained note of some 2 seconds or so, or as extremely brief "spat" notes that add to the percussive structure of the music. The tongue is used forcefully and rapidly in conjunction with the diaphragm to "pop" the air column within the bore, forming a characteristic and major structural component of the playing.

Here is an example of me attempting a B-Type accompaniment. The heavier accented beats in this rhythm are the "pops" described above, the overtones occur at the end of the sample.

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'A-Type' & 'B-type' accompaniments

Moyle (1978) uses the terms "A-type" and "B-type" to distinguish between western and eastern Arnhem Land playing styles, viz;

"As a rule, 'A-type' didjeridu accompaniments are heard in western Arnhem Land; 'B-type' didjeridu accompaniments in eastern Arnhem Land. Though these accompaniments vary according to song types, the chief difference between them is in the sounding of an upper or overblown tone, an octave or more (usually a tenth) above the lower or 'drone' tone, a feature of all eastern Arnhem Land accompaniments classed as 'B-type' ".

This higher note (also known as the overtone or overblown note) is achieved by increasing both lip tension and air flow, more like the embouchure employed by brass wind instrument players. Although the overtone can often be produced on western Arnhem Land instruments, it is not used in the music from that region as it's difficult to achieve a clear overtone with a smooth transition back to the fundamental drone.

In central Arnhem Land (east and south from Maningrida) in an area bounded roughly by the Mann & Blyth Rivers, there is an overlap in both the musical styles and instrument types and both A & B-type accompaniments are employed. People of this region whom perform music with both A & B type accompaniments include the Burarra, Rembarrnga and Kune.

Map 3. delineates these major regions and also those areas in which A-type and B-type playing is used.

Here is an example of me attempting an A-Type accompaniment.

Here is an example of me attempting a B-Type accompaniment.

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'Mouth Sounds'

Ethnomusicologist Dr Alice Moyle coined this term. Garde (1997) describes it well;

"Many [traditional] didjeridu players start performing in ceremonies as teenagers and rely on a mnemonic device which I describe as 'rhythm vocalisation' in order to remember the often complex rhythmic patterns of individual song accompaniment. The English name of the instrument itself 'didjeridu' is a simple onamatapoeic example of this device."

Mouth sounds are employed as follows;

  • as an aid to learning and practising rhythms,
  • used between songman and didjeriduist to convey the type of rhythmic accompaniment required for the performance,
  • sometimes forms part of the lyrics. It may form a short intro to the piece (in a manner similar to the previous point), but more commonly as an unaccompanied vocal termination (UVT) - a terminating vocalised end to the song.

See Moyle's Songs of the Northern Territory, Vol 2, tracks 8 (b), 10 (c,d), 12 (b).

The actual mouth sounds themselves are not spoken/played into the instrument. They are a means of representing the didj with the voice - just like if you were to hum a tune to jog someones memory - or to indicate what you'd want them to play on the piano, guitar, drums, whatever. We can't make the equivalent sounds with our voices, so we use vocal representations of the sound.

There is no standard vocal sound that represents a particular didj note, although some mouth sounds such as "dup" are used over a wide area - in this case it represents a short "spat" overtone. Similarly, the rolling of the tongue in a mouth sound often represents a deep vocal growl on the didj.

A few examples of common mouth sounds to help illustrate the point:

In the "Did-ar-o" type of mouth sound from western Arnhem Land, the "Did-" is a a forceful outbreath combined with a forceful tongue push that strikes the palate just above the teeth; the "-ar" is a fast retraction of the tongue and an opening of the throat; the -o", a low vocalised growl.

The "dup" sound (the 'u' pronounced as in 'put') used in central, eastern, northeastern AL and Groote Eylandt  is not vocalised, but the same lip and tongue action is used to generate the brief "spat" overtone.


Moyle (1981) suggests a possible connection between the use of the overtone in B-Type playing and language. Something like 7/8ths of Australia is dominated by languages of the Pama-Nyungan 'family'. The Top End (the remaining 1/8th), by contrast contains some twenty different 'families', except for the Yolngu region in the northeast - which oddly is also Pama-Nyungan. So in the Top End, Yolngu (Pama-Nyungan type speakers) use the overtone, while most of western and southern Arnhem Land, whom are non-Pama-Nyungan speakers, do not. The exception is those regions adjacent to the Yolngu cultural bloc mentioned previously that may have adopted the use of the overtone through prolonged contact with Yolngu (Garde).

Traditional playing technique seems more difficult to learn for those whom do not speak any Australian languages (or conversely for those whom are exclusively English speakers). This may be in part due to the different sounds that exist in Aboriginal languages that are not used in English (for example). These sounds require tongue positions that we, as English speakers, do not use and hence are difficult to learn. It has also been suggested that our lower, flatter palates and more restricted sinuses may play a restrictive role.

For more information on Yolngu languages see:





Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister