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Chemical Eye on the Didgeridoo
by Preston MacDougall


June 10, 2005

When the absolutely impossible is unmistakeably right before your eyes, you can be sure that the ongoing learning experience will be a memorable one.

jpg Preston MacDougall

That's why great chemistry demonstrations are an indispensable teaching tool, and also why they are designed to have a sizeable "Wow!" factor, much to the occasional frustration of local fire departments. (Sorry guys, but everything really was under control.)

This pedagogical truth is also why I simply had to purchase the didgeridoo that a lovely free-spirit was demonstrating for me at a craft booth here in Perth, Australia.

She was blowing into the narrow end of the long and tapered wooden instrument, but not straight-on, as a trumpet player would. Nor over the top, as a flautist does. She seemed to be directing her exhalations down the inner wall, all the while buzzing her lips and thus making a most incredible resonating sound.

I said exhalations, but the truly amazing thing was that it was really only one, long exhalation. It lasted about a minute, but I have since seen Australian Aborigines play the didgeridoo continuously for several minutes. I am told that in some rituals, they can play for an hour or more.

My Funny Valentine, the double CD live recording, is one of the most listened-to items in my jazz collection. As Aussies would say, it is totally flash. So I know it is possible to play a horn for over one hour. But even Miles Davis stops to take breaths.

If I hadn't seen it, I certainly wouldn't believe it, but to play the didgeridoo you breathe in and out at the same time. In through the nose, and out through the mouth. They call it circular breathing, and, to say the least, it takes some practice. I turned kind of blue in my failed attempts.

When an expert plays, the inhalations seem to be periodic, but the exhalation never ceases. From their puffed out cheeks, it seems that they build up pressure in their mouth so that they can still blow out while their retracting diaphragm sucks air in through the nose. At least that's my guess. Bagpipers use their airbag for the same purpose.

Among other things, Aborigines use the didgeridoo to tell musical stories about the Dreamtime, their mythical time of creation. Listening to a story involving a kangaroo, the beautiful resonating and undulating sound reminded me of a Chuck Jones-style sound effect for a bounding Pepe La Pew, deliriously in love.

Simply amazing too, was the simulated call of the Kookaburra, who in the story is not laughing, but alerting the roo, in a playful way, of the lurking saltwater crocodile. The sound for the croc's meandering approach was weird and menacing, not unlike some of the sound effects used for the sentinels in The Matrix. All from blowing into a hollowed-out piece of wood!

In Tennessee, after my own dreamtime, the day occasionally begins with a cock-a-doodle-doo that can be faintly heard in our subdivision. The nearest farm is out of crowing distance, but roosters sometimes wander.

From the bedroom in my Perth apartment, I have learned that Kookaburras are earlier risers than roosters. One must live in a tree nearby, because each day begins with a hardy laugh, and it's not coming from me or my neighbors.

Though, it isn't long before I am laughing too, as the morning TV show Sunrise, featuring Kochie and Mel, fills me in with what is still happening yesterday in the US, with heaps of good clean fun thrown in the mix. Well, I guess it's not always so clean, but it is fun. Australians are a hardy bunch.

With my ear tuned to novel sounds, shortly after my natural wake-up call I discovered that the sound made by my toothbrush, when scrubbing my lower molars, back and forth, makes a sound very much like a Kookaburra when my mouth is only slightly open. (Writing this, it strikes me that living alone in an apartment, in a city half-way around the world, knowing only a few people, allows one's mind to wander.)
My mind also wanders back to one of the most memorable demonstrations that one of my freshman chemistry professors, Dr. John Yarwood, did for his class at McMaster University. There was a long glass tube, over ten feet long, and open at both ends. It was several inches in diameter. He filled it with a combustible gas (kids don't try this at home), and lit one end.

A yellow-orange ball of flame immediately formed, and raced to the other end. It took a few seconds to make the run, but along the way there was a very loud, eerie WHOOSH. We were amazed, and after taking it in, applauded Dr. Yarwood, and asked him to do it again. Instead, he started the lecture, but he had out attention, and perhaps a few extra chemistry majors.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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