Gendered Instruments

The discoursal features and wider significance of music and lyrics have each been addressed through several different fields of study and theoretical approaches. Linguistics, discourse analysis, musicology and ethnomusicology have all been employed to examine and interpret that which is ‘said with sound’ (van Leeuwen 1999:4), how layers of personal and social identities, cultural constructs and values shape (and are shaped by) the sound of a performance. But what can be said of the instruments used to make these sounds?

Dournon & Arom (1981) adopt the view of musical instruments as tools and artifacts that both produce sound and carry a variety of meanings reflective of their cultures. Independent of the musician and the specific discourse of their performance, instruments are said to be objects with identities and powers of their own (Doubleday 2008). This perspective can effectively set the performer against the instrument, creating a ‘contested site of meaning’, whereby instruments can be implicated in different kinds of personal, cultural and social relations (Bates 2012).

There is a wealth of research in the field of western music education that attests to the way in which society perceives musical instruments as possessing a particular gender (Abeles 2009, Wych 2012, Abeles et al. 2014 among others). As school aged-children select which instruments to learn, this genderisation has a direct influence on the decision making process.

Studies conducted in a number of countries have consistently found that flutes, violins and clarinets (smaller, higher-pitched) are typically played by girls, while instruments such as drums, trumpets and trombones (louder, lower-pitched) are typically played by boys. (In research carried out by Hallam et al. (2008), the least gendered instruments were African drums, cornet, French horn, saxophone and tenor horn). Apparent contradictions of these associations are often deemed transgressions, punishable by social or relational ostracizing (the sexualisation or questioning of one’s musicianship, for instance).

In all but a handful of nations, this imbalance continues through to semi-professional and professional levels. Studies by Sheldon and Price (2005) into the make up of 170 ensembles in 25 countries showed that whether male dominated (much of Europe and Africa), female dominated (Australia, England, Iceland and Japan) or equally divided (Australia and North America), the split across instruments echoed many of the same patterns of genderisation (Wych 2012).

Launched in 2014, Zohra is the first all-female orchestral ensemble in Afghanistan.

This carries into the ‘masculine-coded’ domains that have been cornerstones of artistic creativity in Western music since the early 20th century: pubs, bars, clubs, recording studios and record shops (Bayton 2000). In popular music, the demarcation between male and female instrumental roles can be most clearly observed in the use of drums, electronic instruments – particularly guitars – and other technology (for DJing, mixing, production and mastering), all of which may be considered by audiences as ‘interruptive to femininity’ (Green 1997). It is interesting to note that, while the role of public performer has historically been dominated by men, in the 130 years that preceded the invention of the electric guitar, female [acoustic] guitarists actually outnumbered them. This serves to illustrate how female musicians were, and still are, pushed to the margins of society, with the mastery of one’s instrument seen as a gender-privileged aspect of musicianship (Koskoff 1995, Jarman-Ivens 2011).

The didjerdidu (digeridoo) presents an interesting deviation from these ingrained relationships and underlines the ‘fluid and negotiable’ nature of gender itself. An instrument with a history spanning almost 2,000 years, its symbolic meaning and the discourse around it has shifted significantly in the last four decades.

Originally developed by the indigenous Aboriginal people of what is now northern Australia, the ‘personhood’ and symbolic qualities of the didjerdidu are continually debated. In traditional ceremonies it is almost exclusively played by males – indeed, among some indigenous communities it is thought that a woman who touches the instrument would become pregnant (Barwick 1997).

Of course, this certainly would not be the first culture in which the ‘division of musical labour’ is linked to notions of gender ideology and control. Music is central to many religious ceremonies, secular rituals, rites of passage and even social movements. Within these settings, there are often defined gender roles which are reflective of long-established socioeconomic power relations. With very few exceptions, men are principal musicians or bandleaders while women are singers, dancers or other accompanists.

However, the specific case of the didjerdidu draws into focus a conflict around its social meaning and cultural (re)positioning in today’s Australia, interweaving issues of nationalism, popularism and modernity. Notably, since the 1980s, the instrument ‘has been considered the primary aural signifier of Aboriginality, both in Australian public culture and New Age discourse’ (Doubleday 2008), where gender associations are more fluid and attitudes to ceremony more eclectic (Lopez-Atkinson 2017). In order for the instrument to be accepted as an icon in the Australian mainstream, it has been largely disassociated from its gender-stratified traditions.

The status conferred to the didjerdidu on both sides of this debate elucidates how interpretations of an inanimate object can directly inform the definitions of ‘persons, institutes or cultures’ (Tilley et al., 2006:10). Not only does the instrument become a medium through which ideas, customs and social behaviour materialise but, having first been endued with specific powers, then co-opted and recontextualised in a new social structure with its own value systems and gender expectations, the didjerdidu constructs multiple ethnicities and/or identities for a single social group (Halstead & Rolvsjord 2015).

There are very few, if any, areas of culture that are free of bias. Likewise, instruments are not simply passive tools; they directly facilitate ‘the performance of personal and social identities’ (Bates 2012, Dawe 2001). Musicians may use an instrument to empower themselves, either by affirming roles granted through a given social order, or by willfully disrupting these social conventions. This approach to the social lives of instruments points to what Jones (1994:349) describes as a ‘complex, dynamic and frequently ambiguous history of contestation, co-option and reconstruction’ that continues to the present day.


Abeles, H. F., Hafeli, M., & Sears, C. (2014). Musicians crossing musical instrument gender stereotypes: a study of computer-mediated communication. Music Education Research, 16(3), 346-366.

Barwick, L. (1997). Gender ‘taboos’ and didjeridus. In K. Neuenfeldt (Ed.), The didjerdidu: From Arnhem land to internet (pp. 89-98). Sydney: John Libbey and Company.

Bates, E. (2012). The social life of musical instruments. Ethnomusicology, 56(3), 363–395.

Bayton, M. (2000). Women and popular music making in urban spaces. In J. Darke, S. Ledwith, R. Woods, & J. Campling (Eds.), Visibility and voice in urban space. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Dawe, K. (2001). People, Objects, Meaning: Recent Work on the Study and Collection of Musical Instruments. The Galpin Society Journal, 54, 219.

Doubleday, V. (2008). Sounds of Power: An Overview of Musical Instruments and Gender. Ethnomusicology Forum, 17(1), 3-39.

Dournon, G., & Arom, S. (1981). Guide for the Collection of Traditional Musical Instruments. Paris: UNESCO.

Green, L. (1997). Music, Gender, Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hallam, S., Rogers, L., & Creech, A. (2008). Gender differences in musical instrument choice. International Journal of Music Education, 26(1), 7-19.

Halstead, J., & Rolvsjord, R. (2015). The gendering of musical instruments: what is it? Why does it matter to music therapy. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 26(1), 3-24.

Jarman-Ivens, F. (2011). Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities, and the Musical Flaw. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Koskoff, E. (1995). When Women Play: The Relationship between Musical Instruments and Gender Style. Canadian University Music Review, 16(1), 114.

Lopez-Atkinson, S. (2017). The Didgeridoo, an Instrument of Oppression or Decolonisation. In Feminism (s) in Early Childhood (pp. 25-33). Springer.

Sheldon, D. A., & Price, H. E. (2005). Sex and instrumentation distribution in an international cross-section of wind and percussion ensembles. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education13, 163, 43–51.

Tilley, C., Keane, W., Kuechler-Fogden, S., Rowlands, M., & Spyer, P. (2006). Handbook of Material Culture. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

van Leeuwen, T. (1999). Speech, Music, Sound. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Wych, G. (2012). Gender and Instrument Associations, Stereotypes, and Stratification: A Literature Review. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 30(2), 22-31.


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