Music and Dance

As with image making, Aboriginal music also unites consciousness with the invisible laws and energy patterns of nature

Voices of the First Day,

Music and dance are important to Aboriginal culture. They are used as part of everyday life and to mark special occasions. Songlines tell stories of the Creation and Dreamtime as Aboriginals made their journeys across the desert, while other sacred music is used in ceremonies. By singing the songs in the appropriate order indigenous Australians could navigate vast distances in the hostile desert environment.


Music is an integral part of Aboriginal ceremonies, also known as corroborees. Through mime and song they tell the mythical history of their tribe. There are sacred and non-sacred ceremonies. During sacred ceremonies people from outside of the community are not allowed to attend. Non-sacred ceremonies are usually performed at night in front of the men, women and children of the tribe. A group of adult men, seated around a small fire, chant one of their ancient songs. Others through dance and song, act out different elements of the myth they are telling. Each Tribe can have leaders in both song and dance. The 'Songman' composed songs to describe day-to-day events as well as singing ancient songs passed down through generations. Dancers were also very important -the best dancers being highly regarded. Traditional dancing involves arm, body and foot movements and a lot of foot stamping. Dances were often imitations of the movements of animals or birds.

Musical Instruments


The didgeridoo is a traditional Aboriginal instrument which is believed to be over 1,500 years old and the oldest wind instrument in the world. This is confirmed by its appearance in ancient paintings in caves and shelters. As part of Aboriginal culture it is used as an accompaniment to songs and chants. Traditionally, it is made from the Eucalyptus trees located in the North of Australia, which were hollowed out by termites. It consists of a long tube, without fingerholes, through which the player blows. Aboriginals try to replicate the sounds of nature like animals, wind, water, etc., within the droning sound of the didgeridoo.

How Traditional Didgeridoos are made

Selection of Trees - Once an appropriate location is found, usually in Northern parts of Australia, an aboriginal craftsman taps the trees to see if it is hollow and suitable trees are cut down.

Clean-out - Termites leave a residue in the hollowed out tree which must be cleaned out. This is done by soaking the wood for a few days in water then prising out the residue with a stick or coals.

Sealing - The outside bark is stripped and the stick is then tested for any holes. The stick is sealed from air at both ends and placed in water to check for bubbles. If bubbles are detected the holes are sealed with bees wax.

Mouthpiece - The stick is then cut to size and bee's wax is places around the mouthpiece to achieve a smoother seal.

Decoration - The final step in the process is decorating the instrument through painting and carving symbols on the outside wood.

Other Instruments

Other well known traditional Aboriginal instruments include the bullroarer and the gumleaf:

A piece of wood is attached to a long string, which is swung around to produce a pulsating low-pitched roaring sound. They are used in men's initiation ceremonies and the sound they produced is considered by some Indigenous cultures to represent the sound of the Rainbow Serpent.


A leaf from a Eucalyptus tree is held against the lips and blown so as to act as a vibrating valve. The leaf is held tightly against the lower lip and, in a bent shape, lightly against the upper lip. It is then stretched tightly between the two hands to make a high-pitched sound, which was originally intended to imitate birdcalls. The gum-leaf received a popular following in 2007 when Australia's Got Talent contestant Herb Patten got to the finals with his own gum leaf versions of songs like John Lennon's 'Imagine' and 'Unchained Melody'.

(see for a sample)

Contemporary Music

Today traditional Aboriginal songs and styles are becoming more popular in mainstream music. In recent times traditional sounding musicians have become popular in Australia and around the world:

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is an Indigenous Australian singer whose music is becoming increasingly popular in the Australian charts. He was born blind and speaks very little English. He speaks the Yolngu language and is from Northern Australia. At the age of 15 he was identified as a young and extremely talented musician and joined the ARIA Award winning band Yothu Yindi. Once released, his debut album grew steadily in popularity and eventually hit number 4 in the Australian charts. It also entered the European World Music Chart at number 8 in September 2008. He was nominated for 4 ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) awards and won awards for Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release. In 2009 Yunupingu was honoured with the Northern Territory Australian of the Year title confirming the increasing popularity and interest in traditional Aboriginal music and culture.

Contemporary Dance

Interest in Aboriginal dance, which is associated with traditional ceremonies, has also grown in popularity. Bangarra Dance Theatre is a dance company, which through performance and art, tells the story of Indigenous Australian history. It is 'fuelled by the spirit, energy and inspiration derived from the culture, values and traditions of Indigenous Australians'. As well as gaining in popularity as one of the leading dance companies in Australia, Bangarra's popularity has grown outside of Australia where they have toured in North America, Japan and Europe.

"At Bangarra, I love that the dance is not shoving things down your throat saying, 'Yeah, you white people have done this and that.' Instead it's saying we've got this amazing, beautiful culture here. We've had social issues, we've had genocide, we've had these things happen to us but look at what we have now. We can tell our stories with the majesty and poetry that the best dance can deliver and through a contemporary dance language that also holds the traces of a culture that is thousands of years old."

Frances Rings, Choreographer

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