We often get asked here at Didgeridoo Breath – “Lads… what do you mean the didge has a key??” So let’s break it down once and for all now…
Key, in musical terms, is another way to describe a note. It could be the Key Signature of a written piece of music – a particular note that becomes the basis from which other notes progress in relation to, and usually come back to. You may have heard a jazz band calling out amongst themselves which “key” they will play the song in this time. They are speaking about a foundation key, also called “the tonic”.
In the Didge World, we are dealing with drone instruments that (with the exception of sliding multi-key didgeridoos) by and large have one note/pitch at which they drone…. this note is the key of the didgeridoo!
We would love to say that there was an easy formula to guarantee the note of a didgeridoo, but due to a variety of organic factors it can be tricky to pick just by looking at the instrument. For example, if all didgeridoos were made out of uniform PVC tubing, the same width and thickness all the way through, we could easily say that the longer the didgeridoo – the deeper the note. However, an authentic didgeridoo is a Eucalyptus tree hollowed out by termites as it grows over numerous years in the various climates and regions of the continent of Australia. It could be a Bloodwood tree from the tropics of the Cape, or a Mallee from the rainforests of Queensland. It could be a Salmongum from the dry wheatbelts of Western Australia or a Stringybark from Arnhemland. Each of these growing conditions will have an effect on the consistency & density of the instrument wood. This has much to do with affecting the “timbre” of the overall sound as well as the final key.
Still, shape is by far the swaying factor when it comes to the key of a particular didge. Here at Didgeridoo Breath we have didgeridoos as small as they come (just under 1 metre) that may be in the key of F#, for example. We also have huge and heavy didges on the professional wall that may be 1.4 metres long and ALSO in the key of F#. Although the reasoning behind this is still a bit of a mystery to us (and we like it that way!), we can say however that a large F# will always overpower a small F# when it comes to volume, clarity, and general vibrational juiciness. Let this be a Rule of Thumb for you should you come across a decision between two same-key didgeridoos of different shapes. It is within the first 1/3rd or so of the length of the didgeridoo that the majority of the Key is determined. The remaining portion and shape being the resonator for that note. This is handy information for anyone out there interested in making his or her own didgeridoo. Cut a slice of wood off the top of a didge and witness the key change reasonably dramatically, yet cut the same size piece off from the base of a didge and the key change will be minimal.
A didgeridoo maker, once they have cut their tree using ethical & sustainable practices will go about their drying process for the wood. This may take anywhere from a few days to a few years, and can be approached from many angles. Some traditional methods include burying the didgeridoo tree in earth & lighting a fire above, placing it in a flowing river to wash out tannins, soaking it in the salt water of the sea, or air drying over time. For a long-lasting & high quality didgeridoo, we suggest that the longer/slower the drying process – the better and more reliably durable the wood will be.
Once dry, further woodwork is done including thinning the walls and widening the interior of the bell beyond the termite tunnel to improve resonance. Thinning back the walls of the instrument will raise the key slightly, or rather; prevent a “muddy” sound.
Some didgeridoo makers, once satisfied with their woodwork, will leave the didgeridoo length as is, and let the didge simply speak for itself. Others will “Tune their Didge” as this stage by cutting slices from the mouthpiece to raise the key to an appropriate note. It is important to check closely at this stage because you cannot UNCUT a piece of your didge of course!
Assuming the wood is well dried and sealed, the didge length is set, and a mouthpiece is affixed – the boys at Didgeridoo Breath would consider the key SET. You may notice that some didgeridoos on our website will show the Key of the instrument and some numbers next to the Key. For example: D (444Hz), or F (440Hz). This is to say that when we have put our frequency tuner near the didge to measure the key, we have either set it to Common Tuning (A=440Hz), or a more traditional tuning method such as the old Solfeggio (more on that in a later post ya’ll!). Certain climatic extremes may effect the Key of your didgeridoo in the way that they effect the conditions of wood in general. If you own a didgeridoo and are playing in the heat or frost – keep it in your insulated Oilskin bag as much as possible to avoid the wood shrinking/expanding.
Before too long, you will be able to develop an ear for the key of a didgeridoo and know what is what. Beyond this you may find that you also develop a greater understanding of which key will work for you or a particular mood at any one time. Everything has a resonant frequency (a frequency at which a substance begins to resonate and come “alive with energy”). Certain keys resonate in our bodies in different parts, and correspond to the major chakras and their match in the colour spectrum in terms of frequency.
If you have any interest in these subjects – feel free to write to us and get a dialogue going, or create a post in the www.didgehq.com forums. We are all enjoying working towards a greater understanding of our art and how vibrations effect the nature of all things.
– Benni Böötz