One of the more ancient instruments, the didgeridoo is more than 1500 years old. While the instrument is most associated with Australian natives, it has spread across the world.
The instrument is most seen in native or meditative music due to its low droning sound, giving it a new following in the New Age movement, as its sound makes meditation easier.
Ironically, some electronic bands also love the sound of the didgeridoo, as it can be easily synthesized and even the natural sound goes well with most electronic sounds.
What is a Didgeridoo?
Strictly speaking, a didgeridoo is a cylindrical or conical instrument anywhere from 1 to 3 meters long, with most at around 1.2 meters. The longer the instrument the lower its pitch, with flared instruments given a higher pitch than instruments of similar length. A wax mouthpiece is sometimes used; forming a better seal. It is technically a wind instrument, similar to a straight trumpet. It has also been referred to as a “dronepipe”.
The physics of the didgeridoo give it its unusual sound. The termite-bored piece of wood has an irregular shape that generally increases in diameter towards its lower end. Its irregular shape means that its resonances are not harmonically spaced. This means that the fundamental note is not systematically assisted by instrument resonances, as would be the case with western instruments.
The secondary resonance, produced by over-blowing, usually has a frequency ratio of 8:3 to its fundamental frequency. Vocalizations can be added to increase the complexity of the sound; players use their vocal folds to produce the sounds of native animals while blowing into the instrument. The interference between the lip and vocal folds can create high-pitched to lower sounds.
What Does Didgeridoo Mean?
The name “didgeridoo” is in and of itself not actually of Aboriginal origin. It is considered an onomatopoetic word, with the sound of the instrument giving it its name. The earliest printed version is in the 1908 edition of the “Hamilton Spectator”, where it refers to a “did-gery-do” made of hollow bamboo. Another possible explanation, albeit much more controversial, is that the name comes from a corruption of the Gaelic phrase “dudaire dubh” or “duidire duth”. Depending on the context, “dudaire” or “duidire” can mean “crooner”, “hummer”, “puffer”, or “trumpeter”, while “dubh” means “black” and “duth” means “native”.
The Aborigines themselves have numerous names for the instrument, with Aboriginal peoples, fans, and scholars advocating a native word whenever possible. “Yidaki” is one of the most popular names for the instrument, although it properly refers to the Yolngu instrument, even though they have begun using “mandapul” out of respect for a Manggalili man who died with a similar name. In west Arnhem land, it is known as a “mako”, a name made popular by David Blanasi, a Binini man who brought the instrument to world prominence. Other names, such “bambu”, “bombo”, “kambu”, or “pampu”, allude to its construction of bamboo.
Where is the Didgeridoo from?
The didgeridoo is properly from Australia, specifically Arnhem Land. While the didgeridoo has spread from there and continues to spread within Australia as some tribes adopt it, the instrument was originally used by natives from the northern tip of Australia and filtered down from there over the ages.
What is a Didgeridoo Made Of?
Traditionally, the instrument is made of hardwood, usually eucalyptus. Specifically, the creator looks for a live tree made hollow by termite activity. While it can be difficult to find such a tree, a simple knock test can reveal a hollow tree. Once it has been found, it is cut down and cleaned, the ends trimmed and the exterior shaped; sometimes a rim of beeswax may be applied to the mouthpiece. Didgeridoos may be painted by their maker or dedicated artists using his preferred paints, although others are allowed to retain their natural grain with minimal or no decoration.
Modern didgeridoo design began in the late 20th Century. There is virtually no limit as to the material or shape that a modern didgeridoo can use or take, and this has created some aesthetic, legal, and ethical debates among indigenous and non-indigenous practitioners. Some didgeridoos are made of fiberglass, glass, metal, agave, resin, PVC piping, and even carbon fiber. They tend to have an upper inside diameter of 3 cm down to a bell end of between 5 and 20 cm, with a length corresponding to key desired. The end can be shaped to create a comfortable mouthpiece or one can be added, made of materials ranging from rubber, a rubber stopper with a hole, or even beeswax.
What is the Didgeridoo Used For?
Traditionally, the didgeridoo is played as an accompaniment to ceremonial dancing and singing, as well as for solo or recreational purposes. In a performance, the didgeridoo is paired with clapsticks, sometimes called “bilma” or “bimla”; the clapsticks establish the rhythm, and the rhythms are very precise. These have been handed down for generations. Interestingly, over the last century or so, playing the didgeridoo has been discouraged among women players; while traditionally there is no limitation, women have just not played the instrument.
Outside of Australia, the didgeridoo is used to enhance music, as its drone-like sound adds a nice resonance to music. It is also used for various meditation and background music as it is very good at drowning out background noises. However, it is considered “cultural theft” by many Aboriginal groups, especially those in the southeast parts of Australia. Nonetheless, non-aboriginal didgeridoo players promote and disseminate the music, sometimes with liners that spread misconceptions about taboos and their secular role in traditional Aboriginal culture.
A report in the “British Medical Journal” from 2006 reported that playing the didgeridoo could reduce snoring and sleep apnea by strengthening the muscles of the upper airway, thus reducing the tendency to collapse during sleep. A small study in 2010 noted that Aboriginal teens had improved asthma management, although critics of the study did note the small size of the study.
The didgeridoo is one of those rare instruments that seems to appeal to all people. Its low droning recalls an almost primeval era, somehow helping people relax. Its sound is one that is rather unique and is unlikely to be forgotten by those who hear it. It has a rich sound, and one whose appeal is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The didgeridoo is just one of those instruments that few have heard yet seems achingly familiar to all who hear it, making it an instrument that has withstood the test of time and is likely to be with us for millennia to follow.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.