The low drone of the instrument alone is as recognizable and synonymous with the continent of Australia as a jar of Vegemite or the band Men at Work. The didgeridoo is an ancient wind instrument created by the aboriginal peoples of northern Australia that has survived centuries of change within the land Down Under. With roots shrouded in mystery, the didgeridoo — sometimes called simply the “didge" — is an instrument as mystifying as it is mesmerizing. Here are some facts about the instrument that provides a distinct sound for a diverse continent.
1. It's Surprisingly Easy to Play
Wind instruments are notoriously difficult to master, but the didgeridoo remains an exception to the rule.
"You can pick up the basics in a few weeks," says musician, educator and didgeridoo player Randin Graves. "I've been playing for 27 years. I would not say I have mastered it. A lot of people say they have, but I defer to some of the aboriginal people I lived with as the only masters."
2. It's the World's Oldest Known Wind Instrument
Nobody knows exactly where or when it comes from, but a rock painting dated around 1,500 years ago on the northern edge of Australia's Arnhem Land plateau portrays a man playing the didgeridoo during a ceremony. Some say the instrument may be closer to 40,000 years old — placing it during the same time that woolly mammoths walked the earth.
3. Didgeridoo Players Use Circular Breathing to Play
Circular breathing is a method of playing where a musician breathes in through their nose while pushing air out of their mouth. It sounds complicated, but it's basically how Kenny G got the world record for the longest continuous note held on a wind instrument.
"Some people learn how to circular breathe within an hour," says performer and founder of Didgeridoo Down Under, Darren Liebman, in an email interview. "There are many techniques used to teach circular breathing, including blowing bubbles through a straw and buzzing water out of one's lips while trying to take quick breaths of air." Liebman adds that he spent a lot of time drooling when he first taught himself circular breathing back in 2001. "I found that a much more efficient place and time to practice circular breathing with water was while showering."
4. It's Been Dubbed the "World's Healthiest Instrument"
Seriously. While there are no definitive answers yet, a number of studies, such as a study from the National Institutes of Health in 2006, have shown that playing the didgeridoo can actually treat obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Former football player Colin McKinnon-Dodd claims it helped him breathe better after his lung cancer treatment.
"I've always been relatively fit but [after having part of a lung removed] I couldn't walk 30 or 40 feet (9-12 meters) without puffing and being exhausted," said McKinnon-Dodd in a 2013 interview with The Sunday Morning Herald. "Playing the didgeridoo gave me that training regime, and without it I think I would have been struggling."
And a Sept. 2019 study, also from the National Institutes of Health, showed that playing the didgeridoo can improve mood, relieve mental stress and promote stability of the autonomic nervous system.
5. Termites Used to Hollow Them Out
The didgeridoo was traditionally made from eucalyptus tree trunks hollowed out by termites, which were then cleaned, and fitted with a beeswax mouthpiece. Now, you can make a didgeridoo out of any number of materials including ceramic, plastic, fiberglass and even cactus.
6. It's a Ceremonial Instrument
For the indigenous people, the didgeridoo was — and still is — a vital component of a number of ceremonies. The "distinctive drone and hypnotic rhythm" was often accompanied by dancing, singing and percussion instruments called "clapsticks." Traditionally, only men were allowed to play the wind instrument — a point of contention for an aboriginal academic who accused Harper Collins of "gross cultural insensitivity" over a book that included didgeridoo lessons for girls.
7. There are Lots of Ways to Play a Didge
Thousands of years later Australians and others alike haven't stopped finding ways to incorporate the didgeridoo into a modern sound.
"A lot of players around the world bring an EDM [electronic dance music] flavor to the didgeridoo that's very far removed from the instrument's origin," adds Randin Graves. "I think mastering the instrument means just finding your own voice in it."