Teacher background information


Year 1 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Physical sciences

Light and sound are produced by a range of sources and can be sensed (ACSSU020 - Scootle )

  • exploring how traditional musical instruments used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples produce their characteristic sounds (OI.5)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have manufactured musical instruments over many thousands of years; characteristic sounds are produced by a range of resources. Sound is produced by vibrations that travel through a medium, commonly through the air, and distinct frequencies of sound can be detected by the human ear. The type of material used in making musical instruments and the action used to produce the vibrations influences the perception of sound including tone, frequency (or pitch) and amplitude (or loudness).  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used musical instruments for social and cultural purposes to preserve, represent and communicate important knowledges in music, songs and dances. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore the musical instruments produced and used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples for millennia. Students can learn how the source material and the actions used to generate vibrations result in the production of musical instruments with distinctive sounds.

Sound is a wave that is created by a vibration and can be transmitted from one location to another through a medium, such as air or water. Hearing, or auditory perception, is the ability to perceive soundwaves through an organ, such as the ear. Variation in the properties of soundwaves, including the amplitude and frequency of soundwaves, affects the perception of the sound. The frequency of soundwaves, that is, the number of vibrations experienced per unit of time, is the property that determines pitch or how high or low a sound is perceived. Soundwaves are measured in Hertz (Hz); the range of audible frequencies differs between species. Humans can detect frequencies from 20 to 20,000 Hz, while animals such as dolphins and bats can detect up to 100,000 Hz, well beyond the upper limit of human hearing. The amplitude of a soundwave influences how a listener perceives the loudness of sound; low amplitude soundwaves are detected as quiet sounds and high amplitude soundwaves are detected as loud sounds. The detection of sound from the surrounding environment is a critical sense for many animals; it is a means of communication, can warn of potential danger, and is an important tool for many animals to hunt successfully.

For millennia humans have made devices to produce sound, including musical instruments. The sounds that are produced by such devices depend on the materials used in their construction and the methods used to generate the soundwaves. Instruments are designed to produce soundwaves that vary in frequency; the instrument user can control the amplitude of the soundwaves. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have for many thousands of years constructed musical instruments, including: idiophones, instruments that produce sound by the instrument itself vibrating without the use of strings or membranes; membranophones, instruments that produce sound through the vibration of a stretched membrane; and aerophones, instruments that produce sound by causing the air to vibrate. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ scientific understanding of how to produce and control sound has resulted in the development of a range of musical instruments that produce characteristic sounds.

There are many types of idiophones constructed and used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to generate a percussive sound. Wooden sticks, an example of an idiophone, are struck together to generate soundwaves. Several factors influence the frequency and amplitude of the soundwaves that the wooden sticks produce; the type of timber used in its construction, the length and shape of the sticks, and the position of the strike. The Peoples of the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory construct clapsticks from kartukuni (ironwood) due to the quality of the resulting sound that the hardwood makes on contact. In the western districts of Victoria, rounded clapsticks with tapered ends are struck against each other to produce a clear musical sound that can reportedly be heard at great distances. The Pintupi and Luritja Peoples of the western desert region of northern Australia use boomerangs as percussive instruments, clapping or rattling two boomerangs together or striking the boomerang on the ground to generate a deep resonant note. The Ngukurr Peoples of southern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory construct a set of percussion sticks to generate musical sounds. The set consists of several pieces of wood of varying lengths that produce different soundwave frequencies when struck. Each length of wood is balanced on the shoulder of the musician who strikes the wood with another hand-held length of wood.

Percussion tubes are another type of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ idiophone that are struck directly to generate sound. Hollow logs are beaten with a stick to generate a sound; the sound frequency depends on the length and thickness of the wood. It has been reported that in a region of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, an open-ended percussion tube was struck on its longitudinal sides with flattened stumps of pandanus palm to produce sound. Friction idiophones are instruments that produce vibrations through rubbing. The Yamatji Peoples of the Murchison region of Western Australia carve notches along an edge of the back of a spear thrower and rub a stick across the notches to produce a rasping sound. The Yawuru Peoples of the Broome region in Western Australia generate a rasping sound by scraping a small stick over notches cut into a larger stick. The Mabuaig Peoples of Mabuaig Island in the Torres Strait cut transverse grooves in a length of bamboo and produce a rasping sound by scraping a clam shell across the grooves.  

Indirectly struck idiophones are instruments that produce vibrations through the indirect action of the operator rather than through direct contact. Such instruments include rattles and shakers, and have long been manufactured and used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to produce distinctive sounds. Many Torres Strait Islander Peoples manufacture kulaps, rattles made from the seeds of the matchbox bean vine. The hard, brown shells of the seeds are cut in half and strung together in a cluster using a length of twine. The Yupungathi Peoples of the western Cape York Peninsula make rattles using particular shells strung together. Soundwaves are produced through the movement of the person holding the instrument, causing the components to strike against each other. The amplitude of the soundwaves is controlled by the musician’s actions while the frequency is a result of the shape and size of the seed pods or shells used in the construction of the instrument.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples manufacture membranophones using animal skins stretched across the hollow end of a drum. Soundwaves are produced when the skin is struck with a hand or implement, such as a stick. The frequency of the soundwaves depends on the tension of the stretched skin, the materials used in the construction of the membranophone, and the dimensions of the wooden tube. The Wik-Mungkan Peoples of the northern Cape York Peninsula manufacture two specialised skin drums, one constructed from a hollow stem of pandanus tree wood and the other from messmate wood. Goanna skin is used to cover one end of each drum, and the drum reportedly makes loud and soft sounds when struck with the hand. The Gumbaynggir Peoples of the mid-north coast of New South Wales manufacture buljirr (that translates to drum in English) using possum skin as the drum membrane while in other regions kangaroo hide is used. The warup is a unique, hourglass shaped drum belonging to Peoples of the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea. One end of the warup remains open, and the other circular-shaped end covered with animal hide, often from monitor lizards, although skin from other organisms including pufferfish has also been recorded. The membrane is fastened in place with beeswax and twine. The musician controls the tension of the membrane to regulate the frequency of the soundwaves that are produced. Other forms of percussive instruments include stretched out and tightly rolled or folded possum skins that are beaten with the hand to generate a percussive sound. These drums may contain shells to generate a jingling or rattling sound on impact. The Murawari Peoples from the central Queensland – New South Wales border use a drum manufactured from kangaroo hide and stuffed with possum fur as a percussive instrument.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use various materials and designs to construct aerophones, musical instruments that produce soundwaves through the vibration of air. Aerophone musical instruments constructed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples include whistles, trumpets, pipes and leaves. Leaf playing is an example of a simple reed aerophone that has long been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Leaf blowing produces sound by producing regular vibrations of the air as the leaf vibrates against the lip. The tension between the leaf and the lip can be modified to alter the frequency of the soundwaves that are produced. The Mabuaig Peoples of Mabuaig Island in the Torres Strait blow air from their lips through doubled over leaves of the karbi tree; the passage of air between the leaf folds generates a musical sound. On mainland Australia many species of Eucalyptus are favoured as leaf instruments. On Mer Island in the Torres Strait wind flutes are constructed from varying lengths of bamboo or reed and vibrations are generated through the air by blowing air across the top of the instrument. Air blown across the top of a whistle constructed from hollow seed pods, called a persok in the language of the Mer Islander Peoples, is also a means of generating distinctive musical sounds. Wind pipes are also used by Aboriginal Peoples in areas of mainland Australia, including the Jirribal Peoples of the Tully River region of north Queensland, who produce sound by blowing air across the top of hollow reeds with the ends cut off.

Trumpets are aerophone musical instruments where the air is set in motion by the player’s vibrating lips. The didjeridu is arguably the most recognisable aerophone instrument of Aboriginal Peoples. Conjecture surrounds the origin of the term didjeridu. Many consider that it is not a traditional language word, introduced after European colonisation as an onomatopoeic description of the sound the instrument makes. Prior to colonisation didjeridus were restricted to northern Australia and each Language Group had their own name for the instrument. For example, in the language of the Yolgnu Peoples of eastern Arnhem Land it is referred to as a yidaki.

The initial soundwave is generated by the player’s lips. The soundwaves travel in every available direction, both forwards into the instrument and backwards into the vocal tract of the player. The vocal tract acts as a resonator amplifying certain frequencies while suppressing others. Thus, skilled players manipulate not only the force of the air from the lungs and the vibrations of their lips, but also the shapes of their mouths and their tongue articulations. In so doing they alter the frequency, wavelength and amplitude of the sound wave as it reflects through the lips, pushed by the movement of air from the lungs and through into the bore (interior chamber) of the instrument. This produces the distinct and unique sounds for which such instruments are renowned. Each instrument is unique, and its acoustic behaviour is determined by the length and shape of its bore. The diameter of the bore also affects the amplitude (loudness) of the sound that is generated. Trumpet instruments are found in many parts of northern Australia. The Iwaidja Peoples of the Coburg Peninsula region in the Northern Territory construct a trumpet from a thick length of bamboo that is used to propagate soundwaves through the vibratory motion of a player’s lips. The instrument may be moistened with water before playing to improve the tone of the sound produced.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore the many and varied musical instruments that have been constructed and used for millennia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The variety of resources used in the construction of musical devices and the methods employed in the initiation and propagation of soundwaves results in the production of unique and characteristic sounds. Music has long been an important aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ social and cultural life, vital to the preservation and communication of knowledge. Students can explore a range of source materials and musical techniques used to produce soundwaves in the musical instruments of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

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Bradley, J., & Mackinlay, E. (2000). Songs from a plastic water rat: An introduction to the musical traditions of the Yanyuwa community of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria. Brisbane, Qld: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Queensland.

Bradley, K. (1995). Leaf music in Australia. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 2-14.

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Fletcher, N. H. (2003). Australian aboriginal musical instruments: The didjeridu, the bullroarer and the gumleaf. Acoustics Australia, 31(2), 51-54.

Fletcher, N. H. (2003). Australian Aboriginal musical instruments: The didjeridu, the bullroarer and the gumleaf. Retrieved from http://www.didjshop.com/austrAboriginalMusicInstruments.htm

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Kulap seed pod rattle used by Torres Strait Islander dancers. (2011, September 15). ABC News.  Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-15/kulap-seed-pod-rattle-used-by-torres-strait-islander-dancers/2900742

McConnel, U. H. (1936). Totemic hero-cults in Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland (Continued). Oceania, 7(1), 69-105.

Moyle, A. M. (1977). Songs from North Queensland. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Moyle, A. M. (1978). Aboriginal sound instruments. In B. Butler, & J. Beckett (Eds.). Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

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Riley, L. (2016). Reclaiming tradition and re-affirming cultural identity through creating kangaroo skin cloaks and possum skin cloaks. Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing, 1(1), 5-22.

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Ryan, R. A. (1999). A spiritual sound, a lonely sound: Leaf music of southeastern Aboriginal Australians, 1890s–1990s (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://monash.figshare.com/articles/_A_spiritual_sound_a_lonely_sound_leaf_music_of_Southeastern_aboriginal_Australians_1890s-1990s/5440717

Soto, R. (2018). Aboriginal Art Online: Traditional Aboriginal musical instruments. Retrieved from http://aboriginalartonline.com/culture-amusic2-php/

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