Aboriginal Music


Since Aboriginal people had no form of writing, Aboriginal music played a strong role in preserving Aboriginal culture through the generations. Aboriginal people recorded their history by 'singing their country' in elaborate ceremonial events that combined storytelling, singing and dancing. These ceremonies told the stories of their ancestors, the topography of the country, significant sites and the laws and customs.

Even today, ceremonies are performed to celebrate the stories of creation and the songlines recall the invisible pathways and tracks taken by their ancestors.

Aboriginal music and songs exist for a variety of occasions: songs of the creation and heroic figures, songs of birth and death and songs for trade and taboo. The songs or chants are mnemonic – a memory aid to serve an education purpose. The words are repeated to remember the facts and are brief, rhythmic and communal to ensure the accurate transmission of the information.

Being a purely oral culture, indigenous music is learnt by imitation. From a very early age, children are included in the dancing and singing. A mother may whisper a lullaby to her small child. An old man may chant verses of folk lore to the young. Elders chant secret business during initiation as they paint the bodies of the young men.

Both men and women perform ceremonies to maintain their Dreaming stories. Senior women paint the Awelye (women's ceremony) designs on the bodies of other women and chant as they paint. They chant again during the dance performance.

In men's ceremony, the elders prepare the ceremonial ground, supervise the painting of the dancers with the appropriate designs and accompany the performance by singing ritual songs, to the accompaniment of boomerangs or clapping sticks. Many of the men's Dreaming paintings have also been sung while they were being painted.

Each Dreaming story has an associated song. When an artist paints, whether in the sand, on a body or on canvas, they chant a song associated with that story.

To observe the making of art in a traditional environment we would hear the song as the painting is being produced. To reach a greater appreciation of an artwork recall the context of the work with its association song and dance and feel as well as see the rhythm in many of the works.

Aboriginal word glossary