The Tradition of Aboriginal Music

The Tradition of Aboriginal Music

Indigenous music refers to music owned, composed and/or performed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It includes musical styles originating before European settlement, and musical styles which have been taken up by Indigenous musicians since. Music plays an important social and spiritual role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and is closely linked with dance, ceremony and storytelling.

In this article we will be focusing on a broader understanding of traditional Aboriginal music which, like the 250 or more languages of their culture, varies in different parts of the continent. Many of the musical styles are still practiced in northern and central parts of Australia but these performance traditions, which are among the oldest in the world, are also among the most endangered.

Aboriginal music instruments and practices

Traditionally Aboriginal music is primarily vocal. Singers are often accompanied with percussion and several other singers of the same gender. Tribes accompany this with various instruments including boomerangs, clubs, sticks, hollow logs, drums, seed rattles and of course the didgeridoo. Hand clapping and lap/thigh slapping are also common. Most instruments fall into the idiophone class, where instruments consist of two separate parts which are stuck together to give a percussive sound. In constructing their instruments, Aboriginals use the resources at hand including hollowed logs, animal skins and shells.

Music often accompanies performance and ceremony, which traditionally take place without written prompts. These performances often involve dancing: vigorous and energetic male performances and more contained but still virtuosic female performances. Other ceremonial practices include body painting, rock painting, costumes and the use of props.


Music of the Dreamtime

Music and the Dreamtime are indisputably linked. The word ‘Dreamtime’ refers to the myths explaining the origin of Aboriginal land, people and natural phenomena. These stories provide a source of social organisation and mores, a blueprint for Aboriginal law and helps to explain the relationship between Aboriginal people and the natural world. 

Most traditional Aboriginal songs are believed to have come from the Dreaming. During ceremonies, songs reference the Dreaming through names, natures and activities of the creative ancestor heroes. These songs, which are often related to ancestors and particular areas of land, are owned and sung by living relatives. Singing these songs is an assertion of the signer’s right to the land and also encourages the tradition of oral histories, ensuring that stories are passed down to younger generations.

Song Lines

In addition to telling stories of the Dreamtime, Aboriginal music traditions also provide a means of navigating and connecting to the land. A Songline, also called dreaming track, is a path across the land (or sometimes the sky) which marks the route followed by localised "creator-beings" during the Dreaming. The paths of the Songlines are recorded in traditional song cycles, stories, dance, and art, and are often the basis of ceremonies. A knowledgeable person is able to navigate across the land by repeating the words learnt through song, which describe the location of landmarks, waterholes, and other natural phenomena.

Links to the Watarrka Foundation

The Watarrka Foundation is passionate about delivering educational opportunities that help Aboriginal communities stay connected with cultural histories. As stated earlier, the traditions of song and performance are some of the oldest in the world but also exist as some of the most endangered. These traditions are critical as they are an expression of philosophy, ancestry and Aboriginal beliefs. Without urgent action and education, surviving mores, such as the tradition of music and performance, will be at risk of disappearing within a generation or two. The Watarrka Foundation is here to work with our community to avoid such loss of culture and in turn, give the Aboriginal kids of today a better future.

To support the Foundation and our projects within the Northern Territory, make a donation at

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