The vocal tract and the sound of a didgeridoo

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Acoustic measurements show how a player can extract a range of timbres from this primitive instrument.


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.

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Figure 1: Acoustic measurements from a didgeridoo performance.


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Correspondence to Joe Wolfe.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Tarnopolsky, A., Fletcher, N., Hollenberg, L. et al. The vocal tract and the sound of a didgeridoo. Nature 436, 39 (2005) doi:10.1038/43639a

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