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Database was last updated on:
May 11, 2006

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* Recordings by Australian Indigenous Artists 1899-1998 [PDF Format]
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* Skinnyfish Music
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* Yirdaki Making With Djalu Gurruwiwi
* Garma Festival of Traditional Culture
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Didjeridu & Traditional Music of the Top End
The content of this page was originally created by Peter Lister

Didjeridu Home : Traditional Didjeridu and Music : Traditional Musical Styles

Traditional musical styles/genres of the region

 This is a summary of the major traditional musical styles (genres, if you like) within the Top End. Within these major genres, there are smaller divisions that relate to music of a ceremonial nature. It is neither my place nor my intention to discuss any of these. My comments here are based upon my own observations and drawn from a range of other materials, most of which are listed in the References & Discography, and discuss mainly the technical and structural differences between/within genres. I do not discuss the music of the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands.

Traditional Aboriginal society is purely oral, written song texts and notation are non-existent and so music is learnt in an informal fashion (mostly experiential) and passed on. Depending upon the type of music, the content may vary over time, though sometimes it's surprising how similar pieces are despite the reliance upon memory. Variation is allowed, in fact, in some styles of music improvisation is the norm, but always around a set of underlying parameters. Different songs and different contexts allow for differing degrees of variation from this strict base. Only in more esoteric/inside music are the rules not to be broken (Stubington, 1979).

To quote West (1963) in reference to traditional performers in Arnhem land, "Western songmen and didjeridu pullers are complimented for strong, penetrating tonal production, accurate memory and smooth transitions. Eastern songmen are complimented for poetic feeling and both they and the didjeridu pullers for overall musical sense and coherent rhythmic structure. Usually both western and eastern Arnhem Landers sing with a slightly forced voice and half-closed throat. An appreciative listener will say of a western virtuoso, "He has a good throat!" but of the easterner, "He has a good head!"".

and Elkin (1979, p. 299);

" music and dance the significance of the individual is not blurred. He transmits, modifies and produces. The songman, in particular, is a symbol od individuality and originality. But didjeridu players and dancers are also valued for their individual skills and virtuosity, and have opportunities to exhibit their powers. We can therefore speak of a tradition of individual gifts, skill and ownership."

A typical performance will consist of one or more singers (one of whom is the lead songman), each with a pair of sticks or something else percussive (at times makeshift) and one didjeriduist. Some genres of music do not use didjeridu, but where used, only one is ever played at a time. If for some reason a didjeriduist is unavailable, the piece can still be performed.


Map 3. Traditional music styles/genres in the Top End of the Northern Territory

music styles map
Abbreviations (D = Darwin) and red dots match those of Map 2. Base maps; LM West, (1963), Arnhem Land Popular Classics notes and Morphy, H. (1991) Ancestral Connections.

Run your cursor over the map - wherever the cursor appears as;

- clicking this symbol will allow you to hear a sample of the style of music from that region

- clicking this symbol will allow you to hear a solo didjeridu sample from that region

The sound files are Real Audio files (*.ram format) - if you have trouble
playing them, you can download the free Real One Player here.


Map 3. summarises the appoximate distribution of the three major music styles (genres) within the region, viz; Wangga (often spelt Wongga, esp. in older texts), Kun-borrk (often spelt Gunborg, esp. in older texts) and Bunggul (or Bungurl, Bunggal, or Bungle). 'A-type' and 'B-type' (see Variations in didjeridu style and playing) refer to the type of didjeridu accompaniment within each music style. As is readily seen 'A-type' accompaniments occur over much of the area from the Kimberley east through western and central Arnhem Land and southeast into the Gulf country. 'B-type' didjeridu accompaniments are restricted to central and eastern Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt. The black, sinuous line marks the northeastern portion of Arnhem Land and in this case defines the eastern and southern boundaries of the Yolngu cultural bloc. In central Arnhem Land, both 'A-type' and 'B-type' accompaniments are used. Please note that since Wests' original study, these boundaries may have shifted with the movement of people between settlements and the exchange of songs/music/ceremony.




Wangga style music traditionally occurred southwest of a line running from the mouth of the South Alligator River southeast towards Ngukurr, south as far as the Katherine region and west into the Kimberley. Elkin (1979, p. 290) describes the characteristic long, high sung note at the beginning after which the 'song' commences with stick beats and didjeridu, typical of many Wangga pieces, and he says "...starts as a sudden high note, then descends in regular intervals to a low pitch, after which the songman just beats his sticks to the accompaniment of the didjeridu. Twenty seconds or more later, the melody is sung as before and so on...". 'Lyrics' for these songs often consist largely of syllables.

As a general rule, Wangga songs start with didjeridu, are followed by the vocals and sticks, sometimes the sticks entering last. In the Kimberley, the order may be quite different; sticks, then voice and finally didjeridu. When the song finishes, it's usually the didjeridu or vocals that cease first, sometimes they cease simultaneously, but most commonly the vocals and sticks finish later and in that order. The stick beating never finishes first. The didjeridu never starts last or finishes last.

Examples: Songs from the Northern Territory, Vol. 1, tracks 7, 12, 13(b)


Kun-borrk style music occurs east of a line running from the Adelaide River southeast towards Katherine. Its' eastern boundary is just east of the Mann River and southeast almost to Rose River, then along the Gulf coastline beyond Borroloola. Kun-borrk music contains actual song words. Often there are designated breaks in songs where all the performers stop briefly, then recommence.

Kun-borrk songs almost always (with the exception of a particular regional variant) start with the didjeridu and are soon followed by sticks and vocals in that order. There are songs where didjeridu and voice or didjeridu and sticks start together, followed by sticks and voice respectively. Kun-borrk songs from Kunbarllanjnja (Gunbalanya) almost always follow the order of didjeridu, voice then sticks. Kun-borrk songs terminate most commonly with the didjeridu first, often in conjunction with vocals. Sometimes the vocals finish first, then the didjeridu finishes and finally the sticks. On rare occasions the didjeridu and sticks finish and the vocals finish a short time after - similar to an unaccompanied vocal termination (UVT). The didjeridu never starts last or finishes last.

Examples: Songs from the Northern Territory, Vol. 1, tracks 2, 4, 6(a)


Bunggul style music is performed east of the Mann River almost as far south as Mainoru and southeast through the Rose River region to Numbulwar. Bunggul also contains specific song words and structure, and often there is a "final recitative" - where lyrics are sung in a prolonged manner well after the didjeridu and stick beating has ceased. Moyle refers to this as an Unaccompanied Vocal Termination (UVT). Some songs tell of epic journeys of individuals during the ancestral past (dreaming) - for example, one song series from NE Arnhem Land consists of 188 songs totalling some 90 printed pages (Elkin, 1979, p 304.). Others, such as those belonging to the Djatpangarri style, are of everyday events. The lyrics of Bunggul music are fundamentally different and can vary from performance to performance - the songman and didjeriduist improvise within a variable structure of patterns. The dance leader, or more correctly the ritual leader, choreographs not only the dancers, but also the music, rather than the lead songman (as is often the case in western Arnhem Land).

Examples: Songs from the Northern Territory, Vol. 3, tracks 9, 11, 12


Wangga - Brinken Bunggul - Djarrak song Bunggul - Warramirri central AL - Borog style Kunborrk Kunborrk - Kunballanjnja Mago - Lumbuk



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