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Australian music

A photograph of Aboriginal boys playing the didgeridoo and clap sticks at Dukaladjarranji, Northern Territory.

Penny Tweedie, Aboriginal boys with didgeridoo and clap sticks at Dukaladjarranj, an important Dreaming site in Rembarrnga country, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, 1999, colour transparency. Image courtesy ofPenny Tweedie

The music of a culture reflects the intonation of language, rhythms of speech, noises in the environment and different aspects of life - all of which is culturally based. Every culture has music that is distinctive and an important aspect of its identity.

Defining an 'Australian musical sound' is about recognition of rhythmic patterns derived from our environment and a sense of place, as well as the Indigenous and the culturally diverse aspects of Australian life. Indigenous music in Australia uses the environment itself to generate unique sounds and rhythms. In addition, traditional influences from a largely migrant population have contributed significantly to the definition of Australian music. Renowned Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe said:

I'm mad about Australia, just mad about it. I care about this place. I'm involved in it: all my experience as a person is Australian and therefore I feel that in the very first place my music must be Australian.

Australian musicians performing across a range of genres, or styles, have achieved international recognition with a unique Australian approach. The opera singer Dame Nellie Melba (look at a $100 note), the composers Percy Grainger and Peter Sculthorpe, the pop and rock bands The Seekers, Yothu Yindi, INXS, country singers Slim Dusty and Keith Urban have extended and refined the definition of Australian music. An Australian musical sound can be explored through examining the main genres, or styles.

Australian classical music

A photograph of the Australian String Quartet, 2006.

Jacqui Way, The Australian String Quartet, 2006, photograph. Image courtesy of Jacqui Way

Classical music is usually based on traditional forms, such as a sonata or symphony, and often follows strict stylistic and rhythmic rules which distinguishes it from simpler or more popular music.

Australian classical music is represented by ensembles like the Australian String Quartet, Guitar Trek and the Stellar Quintet; state and community orchestras, such as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Ku-Ring-Gai Philharmonic Orchestra; choirs of all sorts based at schools, universities and community centres such as the Australian Girls Choir and the Sydney Philharmonic Choir; and operatic groups such as Opera Australia and Pinchgut Opera. Opera in Australia was born in the colonial theatres in the 1840s, and by the 1850s, larger theatres allowed for bigger productions and the emergence of Australia's first star, Anna Bishop, who toured England.

The extent of classical musical performance is illustrated by the fact that every year around 2,500 concerts of classical music are presented Australia-wide by Musica Viva and that each State and Territory capital has a symphony orchestra: Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Hobart.

A photograph of violinist Barbara Jane Gilby.

David Franklin, Portrait of Barbara Jane Gilby, 1991, photograph: gelatin silver on fibre based paper. Image courtesy of Renate Franklin

Australia's classical musicians and teachers are world standard. Violinist and viola player Barbara Jane Gilby spent fifteen years as Concertmaster of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra after earlier participation in a variety of ensembles including the Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra and North German Radio Orchestra, Hannover. Elizabeth Wallfisch, an orchestra director as well as soloist, and chamber musician, returned to Australia in 2004-05 to direct concerts from the violin with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and the Queensland Orchestra after twenty years experience of directing orchestras all over the world.

Australian pianist Duncan Gifford is established as a major artist with international successes in many of the world's most prestigious piano competitions. The Sydney Morning Herald described Duncan as 'a virtuosic and musically eloquent soloist'. Duncan has performed in recital and as soloist with many orchestras throughout Europe, Russia, Japan and Australasia.

Australian military bands perform classical and popular music at ceremonies, parades, church services, mess dinners and concerts. Since the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788, when military music accompanied the reading of the Governor's Commission, military music has had a defining role in Australian life.

Australian bush, folk and country music

Some of the earliest music in Australia had its origins in the folk genre, music originating and handed down as everyday experience. Similar to other colonial societies, early Australian bush music told of the hardships and isolation endured in the harsh new land.

A photograph of the Klezmer band Klezmeritis in performance.

The Klezmer band Klezmeritis. Photo courtesy of the Kingston Arts Centre

Australian folk song idioms have been influenced by successive waves of migrants from diverse backgrounds, beginning with the British, Irish, Scottish and Welsh convicts. Folk styles from around the world are represented through Australian musicians, including Gaelic, Celtic, Ceilidh, Sevdah, Romany, African, Cajun, Breton, American country, Bluegrass and Klezmer.

Country music in Australia has its origins in the folk songs sung from the 1780s to the 1920s based around themes of Australian folklore, especially bush ranging, loneliness and isolation, endurance, drought, floods, droving and shearing.

Tex Morton, a New Zealand born singer, is regarded as the 'father of Australian Country Music'. Tex Morton pioneered a genuine, original Australian style of country music, following his first recording in 1936, which had an enormous influence on aspiring young artists like Slim Dusty and Buddy Williams.

The best selling 78 record of all time, and Australia's first international number one hit was the radio chart hit, the Gordon Parsons penned country song, Pub With No Beer; recorded and released by Slim Dusty in 1957.

Australian country music became popular again in the 1980s and 1990s when John Williamson's classic True Blue was released, and James Blundell and Lee Kernaghan attracted record-breaking concert audiences. Major events included the Optus Gympie Music Muster and the Tamworth Festival.

Australian jazz music

Jazz, which is based on an Afro-American tradition, originated in New Orleons, USA around 1917, and is marked by frequent improvisation and syncopated rhythms. By the 1920s Australian jazz began to flourish as a new dance music phenomenon.

Australian jazz musicians, like Don Burrows and James Morrison, continue to attract significant audience support. Innovation is an integral component to jazz and it is represented in the work of artists like alto saxophonists Berne McGann, pianist Mike Nock and saxophonist Dale Barlow - all achievers on the world stage.

Australian popular music, including rock

A photograph of Midnight Oil performing at a concert at the Orange Town Hall, 1985.

Ant Healy, Midnight Oil performing at a concert at the Orange Town Hall, November 1985, photograph. Image courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Australian pop music had its origins in the 1950s and 1960s. Popular music is different from rock in that it uses simple melodies, harmonies and words to create catchy songs that are easy to remember and have wide appeal. Two Australian pop musicians, who may be considered representatives of our pop industry, are John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John.

In more recent years, alternative pop music (also known as 'indie' or music produced under independent music labels) has become popular. Recently, indie artists such as George, Kisschasy and Missy Higgins have produced toe-tapping songs and ballads, while Rogue Traders, and Butterfingers have embraced digital, rap and punk sounds with enthusiasm.

Australian rock music, a form of popular music with country and rhythm and blues roots, emerged in the 1950s and 1960s when the style of music was growing in popularity around the world. Australian rock gained confidence and world-wide attention with bands such as Men At Work, Midnight Oil, INXS, Crowded House and New Zealand 's Split Enz.

The line of where rock music ends and other styles begin is merging. Bands like Regurgitator use heavy guitar and electronic music to create their own unique sound. Yothu Yindi, who had hits in the 1990s, use traditional Aboriginal music as the basis for their songs.

Music resources

For information on prominent organisations that promote Australian music and assist composers, performers, educators and researchers please visit our music resources page.

Useful links

Australian orchestras

Australian musicians and performers

Last updated: 4th March 2008
Creators: Mijo Consulting, Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.

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