The Consonant

Musical Language

The Didgeridoo unlike most other woodwind and brass instruments is primarily linguistic in the way sound is produced. Just like in speech, vowels and consonants are used to shape air movement in the mouth. But instead of symbolic language - this is a musical language.

Vocal Anatomy
Vocal Anatomy

This discussion will cover how consonants work in playing the didgeridoo. The type of consonants commonly heard in didge playing are called plosives. A plosive is a sound that is made by an interruption of air through the vocal tract.

Location, Location, Location

In DidgIt, we break down didgeridoo consonants into two category groupings. K/G and T/D. The categories are grouped this way because of their similarities in tongue position and how it is used to interrupt the flow of air through the vocal tract.

For example, a K sound is made by briefly interrupting the flow of air with the back of the tongue. Similarly, the G sound is made bit further back where the Root of the tongue closes the Pharynx briefly. With the G sound you may also feel some slight movement of the Epiglottis (See Vocal Anatomy image).

You can also observe the same kind of action at the tip of the tongue when a T sound is played. It is done with the tip of the tongue against the top/front teeth. But a D sound is made by putting the tip of the tongue further back touching the Alveolar Ridge (See Vocal Anatomy image). This also lessons the sharpness of the attack.

This video is of a beatboxer performing while an MRI is recording the action. Although the beatboxer is not playing didge, the principals are identical.

Economy of Movement

It is important to understand the differences of articulation when working to perfect your didgeridoo rhythm creation. There needs to be an economy of movement using the tongue. The smooth complex rhythms of a competent didge player are due to a firm understanding of economy of movement. Do the least amount of work to achieve the desired sound. Some sounds are easier to make after having just made an opposing sound. T or D sounds are easier to maker just after having just having made a K or G sound.

Think of the tongue like a seesaw. T is up on one end of the tongue and K is up on the other side. If T and K are played in succession quickly you can feel this rocking motion. This is economy of motion. Economy of motion allows faster contrasting sound progressions. You can observe this motion in the video.

Now for some beginners this may seem daunting. However, It dis the next step after learning Circular Breathing. You will notice that circular breathing has its own rhythm. It is more subtle than a hard plosive consonant. But as you practice the drone powered by the circular breathing, try interrupting the drone pressure just briefly with a hard K from the back of the tongue. Do this by closing the the back of the tongue against the Soft Palate (See Vocal Anatomy image).

It this interrupts the drone, it’s OK. Just try again with a softer K. You will find there are levels to the K plosive. You can make it ever so subtle or a firm interruption of flow for strong emphasis. Once you feel like you are comfortable with a K sound the difficult part is over. The T sound tends to come a bit easier for many. This is done simply by blocking the flow of air for an instant with the tip of the tongue against the top front teeth. Practice this with varying levels of pressure.

Once you feel confident with this, return to the idea of the seesaw. You can move back and forth.

TA KA WA TA KA WA TA KA WA

In this rhythm the WA represents a breath. As you learn economy of movement, you will begin to understand that you are in a good configuration to take a breath when you do the KA sounds because the back of your tongue is up, creating a cavity of air for you to push out with your tongue while taking in a quick sniff of air through your nose. If you were to change the rhythm to KA TA WA, the tip of your tongue would up in the front of the mount. This would be a much more difficult place to move into a breath, because you would have to change tongue placement to be able to push the air out with your tongue. As you practice, muscle memory will begin to handle breath transitions like TA KA WA without a thought. It will become as natural as breathing.