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.

Dying for a Song


In this recently broadcast radio programme, BBC Radio 4 speaks to musicians from across the globe who have been persecuted for their art. Some have risked being banned or exiled from their communities for speaking out against perceived injustices and corruption; others are being tortured, imprisoned and even killed.

It’s an engaging and illuminating listen. Not just because one can better understand the value and power of music as a force that can challenge and change aspects of society, but also becuase it highlights the price and responsibility that comes with having a public platform for one’s art.

From the BBC website:

Rex Bloomstein hears from musicians from around the world about how they have been persecuted for raising their voices against political, cultural or religious repression. He talks to artists whose say their songs have led to their imprisonment, torture and to the continuing threat of violence; artists who have been driven from their homelands, artists who, literally, risk dying for a song.

Freemuse, an international organisation set up to defend freedom of expression for musicians says in one recent year alone it registered 469 cases of censorship and attacks on artists around the world, nearly double the previous year’s figure.

In the wake of horrific murders, such as that of Syrian protest singer Ibrahim Quashoush, found dead with his throat cut, Rex hears stories of tremendous courage and determination not to be intimidated and silenced. Egyptian singer Ramy Essam tells talks of he was brutally tortured after his songs rallied the crowds in Tahir Square during the Arab Spring. Iranian singer Shahin Najafi continues to perform around the world despite a fatwa calling for his death, after his songs upset the religious leaders in his home country. He says: “At night I turn to the wall and slowly close my eyes and wait for someone to slit my throat”.

Lebanese rock band Mashrou’Leila talk of how various Arab countries have tried to suppress their often provocative satirical songs addressing politics, religion and gay love.

Deeyah Kahn tells Rex that she was forced to flee Norway in the face of violent threats from her own Pakistani community aimed at stopping her singing. And he hears from Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, banned from singing in her own country because she’s a woman.

Listen to Dying For a Song here.

Form 696: The Police vs Grime Music

One might say that grime music has always been trouble. The problem child of late 90s UK garage, grime swapped the champagne dances and hyperspeed feminine R’n’B vocals for braggadocio, street tales and a willfully jarring sound palette thick with foreboding and menace.

Even as early luminaries like Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Logan Sama and Kano (later Lethal Bizzle and Skepta) packed venues and amassed sales, plaudits and prizes, the grime scene has continually been accused of providing a breeding ground for violence. In its 15 years, countless beefs and a small number of violent incidents in and around performance venues have only fanned the flames that the grime music and its parties harboured and glorified criminality.

Unsurprisingly, the state of the grime scene has not gone unnoticed by authorities. In 2008, The Metropolitan Police devised Form 696, a risk-assessment form that must be submitted by performance venues two weeks prior to an event in order to determine whether a licence should be granted (or revoked); failure to submit it can lead to a £20,000 fine or six months’ imprisonment. The form requests that licensees provide personal information about performers (stage name, real name, date of birth), and is specific to situations where:

“…you hold an event that is – promoted/advertised to the public at any time before the event, and predominantly features DJs or MCs performing to a recorded backing track, and runs anytime between the hours of 10pm and 4am, and is in a nightclub or a large public house.”

Metropolitan Police, Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696

Form 696 was revised from eight to four pages in 2008, the original having gone a step further, requesting the home addresses and phone numbers of all artists on the bill, and that details of ethnic groups likely to attend the performance be declared (these were removed as it was thought that they did not add value to the form).

The specificity of the above definition draws a uncomfortably tight border – one might say a noose – around black electronic music: techno, hiphop, dubstep, reggae, jungle and grime. Given the huge resurgence in grime music in the past five years, it is not surprising that the overtones of racial profiling have drawn criticism from prominent figures within the scene.

Released in 2014 and presented by JME, The Police vs Grime Music examines the effect of Form 696 on the grime scene and questions the lack of transparency in the process. Crucially, it asks why there has been no attempt made by the Metropolitan Police to engage in discourse with the scene’s promoters, artists and audiences on the issue of safety at grime events.

As the documentary notes, Form 696 (and by extension the police force) does not have the power to shut down an event, but it does place venues under huge pressure to pull out on the grounds of public safety. The explicit link with artists made on the form effectively chokes the scene, with venues fearful of losing their reputation and licences, and promoters less likely to host MCs and DJs who have been written up on 696s for cancelled events.

While it is disappointing that the Police themselves do not offer comment, The Police vs Grime Music remains a faithful illustration of the relationship between crime, media and culture. It exemplifies how, when a perception of threat is connected to ‘street’ music, that fear can severely damage the discourse between authorities and the social sub-groups it is identified with.


Barron, L. (2013). The sound of street corner society: UK grime music as ethnography. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16(5), 531-547.

Hiscox, D. (2009). Public enemy no 696. The Guardian.

Ilan, J. (2012). ‘The industry’s the new road’: Crime, commodification and street cultural tropes in UK urban music. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(1), 39-55.

Metropolitan Police Service (2009). Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696.

Thornton, S. (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.