Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Poetics of Central Australian Song

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Poetics of Central Australian Song

Article excerpt

Abstract: An often cited feature of traditional songs from Central Australia (CA songs) is the obfuscation of meaning. This arises partly from the difficulties of translation and partly from the difficulties in identifying words in song. The latter is the subject of this paper, where I argue it is a by-product of adhering to the requirements of a highly structured art form. Drawing upon a set of songs from the Arandic language group, I describe the CA song as having three independent obligatory components (text, rhythm and melody) and specify how text is set to rhythm within a rhythmic and a phonological constraint. I show how syllable counting, for the purposes of text setting, reflects a feature of the Arandic sound system. The resultant rhythmic text is then set to melody while adhering to a pattern of text alliteration.


To understand how Australian Aboriginal performers combine text, music, dance and art, is, as Marett has stated, 'to approach the core of the poetics and aesthetics of their tradition' (2005:81). In Central Australia many songs are part of larger performance genres involving dance, gesture and visual designs that are associated with a particular tract of land, often referred to as a 'country' (Moyle 1986:3). (1) While dance, visual designs, hand-clapping, and the telling of associated narratives are not obligatory when performing such land-based songs, rhythm, melody and text are. By exploring how the essential components of song are woven together I hope to assist listeners to gain a deeper level of appreciation of the aesthetics of CA song. (2)

The approach here draws upon the ideas of Dell and Halle (in press), set out in their analysis of text setting in French and English songs, to show how a CA song is a composite of three independent structures: text, rhythm and melody. An important aspect of the composite is what is often referred to as constituency matching--the matching of units within each component (Dell and Halle in press). (3) In this article I identify the structure of these three independent components in Akwelye songs (pronounced akOOlya) and show that constituency matching between text and rhythm occurs within two constraints; the first affecting text and the second affecting rhythm:

* syllables must begin with a consonant

* rhythmic units (rhythmic cells) with fewer notes must not precede ones with more.

The rhythmic text is repeated until the melody is complete. In this process, the beginning and end of the composite rhythmic text is concealed. Ellis (1985:109-11) and Barwick (2000:331) have described such cyclic songs as having a 'timeless' aesthetic quality. (4) Timelessness is also a feature of the altyerre ('Dreaming')--the law that underpins Aboriginal society and all that that has created it, existing simultaneously in the past, present and future - which Stanner translates as the 'everywhen' (1953:24). (5)

Song as a composite

In most English songs, text is an independent structure to the 'tune'; tune having both rhythm and melody. Different verses (texts) can be put to the same tune and the song is regarded as the one song. In contrast, rhythm and melody are independent in CA songs. (6) Here substitution of a different text while maintaining the same melody and rhythm would be regarded as either incorrect or a different song. The different relationship between text, rhythm and melody in these two song styles is shown in Figure 1.



Central Australian songs often set the same rhythmic text to different parts of the melody. In a Central Australian song, text, rhythm and melody interact in a set order with constraints on how text is set to rhythm, and how the resulting rhythmic text is set to melody. Figure 2 shows these components of the song composite. (7)

Figure 2 (i) represents the process of aligning rhythmic and text groups, which I call 'text setting' or 'versification'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.