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Music of Australia

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Music of Australia

List of Oceanic and Australian folk music traditions | Australian country music | Australian hardcore | Australian hip hop | Australian jazz | Australian rock | Indigenous Australian music | Surf music

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Music of Australia
Indigenous Australian English, Irish and Scottish
Pub Other immigrants
Genres Classical - Hip hop - Jazz - Country- Rock (Indie Hardcore punk)
Organisations ARIA
Awards Australian Music Centre ARIA Music Awards The Deadlys
Charts ARIA Charts, JJJ Hottest 100
Festivals List: Big Day Out Livid Homebake Falls Stompem Ground
Tamworth (Country) Womadelaide
Media CAAMA, Countdown, Rage, Triple J, ABC
National anthem "Advance Australia Fair"

The earliest music of Australia was the folk music of the Australian Aborigines. Aboriginal music declined after European colonisation, and has only recently begun to be revived, often with modernised influences. Bands like Yothu Yindi have generated an increased interest in Aboriginal music in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Australia has also been home to notable classical composers as well as artists working in popular music genres such as rock, jazz, country, Gospel music and electronic music.


Indigenous Australian music

Main article: Indigenous Australian music
Traditional Aboriginal instrument, the Didgeridoo Traditional Aboriginal instrument, the Didgeridoo

Indigenous Australian music has become a vehicle for social protest, and has been linked, by both performers and outsiders, with similar forms from Native Americans; Jamaican singer Bob Marley is often credited with helping to revive traditional Aboriginal music, as did the movie Wrong Side of the Road, which depicted Aboriginal reggae bands struggling for recognition and linked it with land rights. Yothu Yindi's sudden pop success in the 1990s surprised many observers, and helped bring many Aboriginal issues into mainstream Australian affairs. In 1980, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) began broadcasting traditional music and has become extremely successful. CAAMA has helped popularise remote musical communities, such as Blek Bala Mujik whose "Walking Together" became a sort of Australian anthem after its use in a Qantas commercial. The Deadlys are the major showcase of contemporary Indigenous Australian music.

Classical music and contemporary classical music

Perhaps the first Australian musician to gain international recognition (at the end of the 19th Century) was soprano Dame Nellie Melba. She was followed half a century later by another prominent soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland.

The first important composer of classical music in Australia is Alfred Hill, who was trained in Leipzig (Germany) but even studied the music of the native people of Australia and New Zealand, e.g. the Māori.

Composer Peter Sculthorpe is notable for his incorporation of the sounds of the Australian bushland and outback in his symphonic works such as Kakadu, Mangrove and Earth Cry.


Main article: Australian jazz

The history of jazz and related genres in Australia extends back into the 19th century. During the gold rush era of the 1850s American, British and locally formed 'blackface' (white actor-musicians in blackface) minstrel troupes began to tour Australia, touring not only the capital cities but also many of the booming regional towns like Ballarat and Bendigo. Minstrel orchestra music featured jazz-like musical characteristics including improvisatory embellishment and polyrhythm in the (pre-classic) banjo playing and clever percussion breaks. Some genuine African-American minstrel and jubilee singing troupes toured from the 1870s. A more jazz-like form of minstrelsy reached Australia in the late 1890s in the form of improvisatory and syncopated coon-song and cake-walk music, two early forms of ragtime. The next two decades brought ensemble, piano and vocal ragtime and leading (mostly white) American ragtime artists, including Ben Harney, 'Emperor of Ragtime' Gene Greene and pianist Charlie Straight. Some of these visitors taught Australians how to 'rag' (improvise unsyncopated popular music into ragtime-style music).

By the mid 1920s, phonograph machines, increased contact with American popular music and visiting white American dance musicians had firmly established jazz (meaning jazz inflected modern dance and stage music) in Australia. The first recordings of jazz in Australia are Mastertouch piano rolls recorded in Sydney from around 1922 but jazz began to be recorded on disc by 1925, first in Melbourne and soon thereafter in Sydney.

Soon after World War 2, jazz in Australia diverged into two strands. One was based on the earlier collectively improvised called "dixieland" or traditional jazz. The other so-called modernist stream was based around big band swing, small band progressive swing, boogie woogie, and, by 1947, watered down version of bebop. By the 1950s American bop, itself, was dividing into so-called 'cool' and 'hard' bop schools, the latter being more polyrhythmic and aggressive. This division reached Australia on a small scale by the end of the 1950s. From the mid-1950s rock and roll began to draw young audiences and social dancers away from jazz. British-style dixieland, called Trad, became popular in the early 1960s. Most modern players stuck with the 'cool' (often called West Coast) style, but some experimented with free jazz, modal jazz, experiment with 'Eastern' influences, art music and visual art concept, electronic and jazz-rock fusions.

The 1970s brought tertiary jazz education courses and continuing innovation and diversification in jazz which, by the late 1980s, included world music fusion and contemporary classical and jazz crossovers. From this time, the trend towards eclectic style fusions has continued with ensembles like The Catholics, Australian Art Orchestra, Tongue and Groove, AustraLYSIS, Wanderlust, The Necks and many others. It is questionable whether the label jazz is elastic enough to continue to embrace the ever-widening range of improvisatory musics that are associated with the term jazz in Australia. However, mainstream modern jazz and dixieland still have the strongest following and patron still flock to hear famous mainstream artists who have been around for decades, such as One Night Stand players Dugald Shaw and Blair Jordan, reeds player Don Burrows and trumpeter James Morrison and, sometimes, the famous pioneer of traditional jazz in Australia, Graeme Bell.

See: Andrew Bisset. Black Roots White Flowers, Golden Press, 1978 Bruce Johnson. The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz OUP, 1987 John Whiteoak. Playing Ad Lib:Improvisatory Music in Australia: 1836-1970, Currency Press, 1999

Country music

Main article: Australian country music

Australia has a long tradition of country music, which has developed a style quite distinct from its U.S. counterpart. Waltzing Matilda, often regarded as Australia's unofficial National anthem, is a quintessential Australian country song, influenced more by Celtic folk ballads than by American Country and Western music. This strain of Australian country music, with lyrics focusing on strictly Australian subjects, is generally known as "bush music" or "bush band music." The most successful Australian bush band is Melbourne's Bushwackers, active since the early 1970s.

Another, more Americanized form of Australian country music was pioneered in the 1930s by such recording artists as Tex Morton, and later popularized by Slim Dusty, best remembered for his 1957 song "A Pub With No Beer". In recent years local contemporary country music, featuring much crossover with popular music, has enjoyed considerable popularity in Australia; notable musicians of this genre include Beccy Cole, Gina Jeffries, Lee Kernaghan, Sara Storer, Keith Urban, and the hugely successful Kasey Chambers.

Rock and popular music

Main article: Australian rock

Australia has produced a wide variety of popular and rock music. While many musicians and bands (some notable examples include the 1960s successes of The Easybeats and the folk-pop group The Seekers, through the heavy rock of AC/DC, and the slick pop of INXS and more recently Savage Garden) have had considerable international success, there remains some debate over whether Australian popular music really has a distinctive sound. Perhaps the most striking common feature of Australian music, like many other Australian art forms, is the dry, often self-deprecating humor evident in the lyrics.

First wave of Australian rock

In the mid-1950s, American rockabilly was spreading across the world. Sydney's independent record label Festival Records was the first to get on the bandwagon in Australia, releasing Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in 1956. It became the biggest-selling Australian single ever.

Johnny O'Keefe was the first Australian rock star, rising to fame by imitating Americans like Elvis Presley and Little Richard. O'Keefe and other "first wave" bands were popular until about 1961, when a wave of clean-cut family bands took their place.

Though mainstream audiences in the early sixties preferred a clean band, grungier bands inspired by American and British surf, garage and psychedelic rock were appearing major cities, including Sydney and Melbourne. These included The Atlantics and The Denvermen.

Second wave of Australian rock

The "second wave" of Australian rock is said to have begun in about 1964, with the advent of Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs. There were also cult acts like The Throb, as well as a wave of acts from New Zealand, including Dinah Lee and The La De Das.

Third wave of Australian rock

Midnight Oil Midnight Oil

The "third wave" of Australian rock began in about 1970 with the last of the early 60s groups dissolving. Few acts from this era got major international success, and it was even difficult to achieve continued fame across Australia, due to low radio airplay.

By the end of the decade, artists like John Paul Young (the first Australian to have an international hit with 1978's "Love Is in the Air") were able to get on Australian radio and had developed a unique sound to Australian rock. One of the reasons for the increased exposure was the success of a television show called Countdown as well as the first all-rock radio station Double Jay. Hard rock band AC/DC also found a major audience in the late 70s and early 80s, touring all over the world, while a score of Australian expatriates like Olivia Newton-John and Peter Allen became pop stars. Icehouse also formed in the late 1970's

This period also saw bands like Skyhooks moving towards New Wave, and punk rock bands like The Saints, as well as electronic musical groups, such as Severed Heads and Essendon Airport. Perhaps most influential of the underground scenes, however, was Australian pub rock, which began in Adelaide in the early 1970s with bands like Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil.


John Farnham John Farnham

In the 1980s, numerous innovative Australian rock bands arose. These included Hunters & Collectors, perhaps best known for their hit "Throw Your Arms Around Me", The Church ("Under the Milky Way"), Hoodoo Gurus, John Farnham, Men at Work, The Go-Betweens and The Triffids. During this period a number of Australian bands began to reflect their urban environment in songs dealing with day to day experiences of inner-city life eg Paul Kelly& the Coloured Girls perhaps best exemplified in his songs "From St. Kilda to Kings Cross" and "Leaps & Bounds", John Kennedy's Love Gone Wrong in songs such us "King Street" and The Mexican Spitfires in tracks like "Sydney Town" and "Town Hall Steps." This decade also saw the rise of world music groups like Dead Can Dance; of special importance is Yothu Yindi, who helped found the field of Aboriginal rock.

The first annual ARIA Music Awards were held in 1987. John Farnham and Crowded House were the most successful artists of the event.

1990s: indie rock

Main article: Australian indie rock
Regurgitator Regurgitator

Silverchair Silverchair

Powderfinger's third album Powderfinger's third album

In the 1990s, the excesses of the 80s provided a bleak backdrop for commercial music, with only bands like AC/DC and INXS able to break into the US and European markets. On the home front, the indie scene that sprouted power pop bands like RatCat and Falling Joys began to become popular. There was also success for songwriters like Tom Morgan from Sydney band Smudge who collaborated with popular US band The Lemonheads. Morgan was affiliated with the Half A Cow record label which was one of many label/records stores that existed during the 90s. Half A Cow owner Nic Dalton also played in The Lemonheads and had his own bands such as Godstar and Sneeze.

American and British alternative music, especially genres such as grunge and Britpop became popular toward the mid 90s, leading to the rise of Australian alternative bands which included Regurgitator, Powderfinger, Silverchair, Something for Kate and the Clouds. With the 90s came the centralization of many of the independent labels that saw the passing of labels such as Red Eye and Waterfront after the failed attempt by Polydor to provide a commercial outlet for these independent labels.

Industrial and electronic music also saw some fame in the 1990s, especially with bands such as Itch-E and Scratch-E, Severed Heads and Snog. The most internationally popular Australian band of the decade, however, was undoubtedly the electropop duo Savage Garden.


2000s and later

Delta Goodrem Delta Goodrem

Kylie Minogue Kylie Minogue

Later in the 1990s, and into the new millennium, garage rock saw a resurgence in Australia, alongside the US and UK. Bands such as Jet and The Vines rose to prominence. During this time Australian roots music came to some prominence with artists such as John Butler (leading the John Butler Trio), and The Waifs. Even more popular were singers-songwriters such as Missy Higgins, Delta Goodrem (famous from Neighbours), and Ben Lee.

The Dance scene in Australia (especially in Sydney) is growing, with the success of Australian acts overseas such as Kylie Minogue, Rogue Traders and Slinkee Minx. Minogue's early success helped catapult Australian Dance music into the US, UK and Europe.

Somewhat belatedly, Australian hip hop artists began to receive commercial attention through artists like Hilltop Hoods, MC Trey, Maya Jupiter, 1200 Techniques and The Herd.

There is also a small, but vibrant underground hardcore punk and straight edge music scene with bands such as Embodiment 12:14, I Killed The Prom Queen and Parkway Drive (band) as well as an emerging electro pop-rock movement started with Sydney-based band Sam Joole Band.

Alt-Rock bands like Architecture in Helsinki, Augie March, The Avalanches, Because of Ghosts, Lucius Hunt, Expatriate, Sleep parade and Snowman have also begun to spring up and feature in the annual Triple J Hottest 100.


  • Breen, Marcus. "The Original Songlines". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 8-19. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

External links

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.