How Does A Didgeridoo Work?

Hailing from the Aborigines of Australia over 1500 years ago and most strongly associated with their music, the didgeridoo has found prevalence across the world as a popular musical instrument.

Part of many pop culture references, from The Simpsons to Crocodile Dundee, you may be wondering how they produce such interesting sounds with what looks like a giant wooden straw.

We’ll take you through the ideas behind its unique design, as well as how exactly you’re supposed to make music with one as well as some of the original players did. Read on to discover all you need to know!

How Does A Didgeridoo Work

Didgeridoo 101

Typically long and cylindrical in shape, sometimes conical, they can measure between 1 and 3 meters long, though they usually come in at around 1.2 meters, or four feet. You might also hear them referred to as drone pipes!

The general rule of thumb is that longer instruments result in lower keys and pitches, though flared designs will emit a higher pitch than unflared instruments, even if they are the same in length.

If you want to talk about classifications, technically speaking it would be considered a wind instrument, and its form of sound production is similar to that of a straight trumpet, were they also made of wood. 

More traditional versions are crafted from hardwoods, the various species of eucalyptus especially, given they are endemic to most of northern and central Australia. This usually involves harvesting the entire trunk of the tree.

The hollowing out process is traditionally performed by termites and fire, producing a gently flaring tube that is capable of producing a range of notes and sounds with the right knowledge.

Contemporary adaptations have been made using native or non-native hardwoods, which are usually split, then hollowed out and rejoined; other materials include glass, metal, PVC, clay and carbon fiber.

How Do You Play One?

Maintaining regular circular breathing whilst continuously vibrating your lips, you can produce what is referred to as the ‘drone’ of a didgeridoo. This technique specifically requires breathing in with your nose as you express stored air through the mouth.

Circular breathing might sound complicated, but it basically means making use of air at a faster rate than you would in your natural resting state, and if you’ve played a flute or an obe you may already be familiar with such technique.

By sealing the narrow tube around your mouth and blowing, one would use muscular tension to create these vibrations, akin to the method of producing notes with brass instruments, like the tuba.

It can be tricky to figure out using your tongue and cheeks to expel air whilst inhaling and exhaling simultaneously, but once you get the hang of it, you can keep replenishing the air in your lungs for longer and longer periods of time.

With practice, the most skilled of players are able to reproduce their desired note for as long as they like - there are recordings of classic players making noise for fifty consecutive minutes, whilst modern players have been seen to achieve forty!

Want to include vocalizations alongside your drone? All you have to do (!) is make use of your vocal folds, which enable you to mimic animalistic sounds like that of the dingo and other Australian animals.

These can either be incredibly high pitched or deep and low, depending on whether or not you use your lips to interfere with the vocal folds’ vibrating. This does, however, make didgeridoo playing a whole lot more difficult!

As instruments go, this is an interesting hybrid that combines the use of a musical instrument with the human voice to create its own totally unique sound, and it is important to honor its Aboriginal heritage at all times.

Can Anyone Play The Didgeridoo?

Since its conception, didgeridoo has been played by Aboriginal people, who hail from clans in Northern Australia, as a part of their traditional ceremonies. Since its origin it has been embraced by other Aborigines, as well as non-indigenous folks worldwide.

Considered the custodians of the historic instrument, the Galpu clan, represented by Djalu Gurruwiwii, have declared their permission for those of non-Aboriginal descent to play the instrument, though it’s uncertain whether that involves women.

Though it is advised that women ought to follow diplomatic procedures and seek permission to play the instrument, especially if you live in the Northern Territory, it isn’t legally enforced and many choose not to do so.

Some claim it can be damaging to a woman’s health to play, with claims that it could cause infertility, but there’s no evidence to prove this. In fact, scientists have recorded indigendous women playing the instrument at non ceremonial occasions.

Top Tips For Successful Sound Production

  • This might sound obvious, but practice, practice, practice! Devote some time to breathing exercises, as well as the whole shebang, as this will improve your technique and endurance skills overall.
  • Focus on one thing at a time initially, then begin to incorporate all the steps when you’ve mastered each one. This way, you won’t get overwhelmed by the conflicting acts of creating noise and end up choking on your own spit.
  • Establishing a good seal around the mouthpiece of your ‘doo is imperative to the optimum drone, as any air that manages to escape will reduce your ability to maintain the desired note.
  • Regular lip stretching exercises are an ideal way to improve your technique, especially if you’re struggling with the sensation of maintaining the continuous lip vibration. Just five or ten minutes a day will greatly improve your tolerance!
  • When you’re starting out on your drone, try and produce a repeated P sound to build up some pressure on your lips before you begin buzzing, as you’ll be able to better time when you begin and how strong a start you have.
  • Again, a simplistic suggestion, but find a comfortable place to practice where you don’t feel like you’re in danger of disturbing others. That way you’ll be able to give it your all without feeling guilty!