Brief Communications

Nature 436, 39 (7 July 2005) | doi:10.1038/43639a; Published online 6 July 2005

Acoustics:  The vocal tract and the sound of a didgeridoo

Alex Tarnopolsky1, Neville Fletcher1,2, Lloyd Hollenberg3, Benjamin Lange1, John Smith1 & Joe Wolfe1

The Australian didgeridoo (or yidaki in the Yolngu language of northern Australia) is a simple musical instrument that, at the lips of an experienced player, is capable of a spectacular variety of timbres — considerably greater than those that can be coaxed from orchestral instruments, for example. To understand this phenomenon, we simultaneously measured the sound produced by the didgeridoo and the acoustic impedance of the player's vocal tract. We find that the maxima in the envelope of the sound spectrum are associated with minima in the impedance of the vocal tract, as measured just inside the lips. This acoustic effect is similar to the production of vowel sounds made during human speech or singing1, although the mechanism is different, and leads to the surprising conclusion that experienced players are subconsciously using their glottis to accentuate the instrument's tonal variation.

  1. School of Physics, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales 2052, Australia
  2. Research School of Physical Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra 0200, Australia
  3. School of Physics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia

Correspondence to: Joe Wolfe1 j.wolfe@unsw.edu.au

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