Dr Roger Blench

Date & time

4pm 14 August 2014


Lecture Theatre 3


Dr Roger Blench, Chief Research Officer, Kay Williamson Educational Foundation


Associate Professor Aaron Corn

Can the patterns of musical practice in Melanesia be tied to linguistic and archaeological affiliation?

The musical instruments in use in Melanesia are extremely restricted compared with island SE Asia. In particular in the Non-Austronesian (NAN) area, they are few both in number and organological type. Typically these are large slit-gongs, hourglass drums, end-blown trumpets, flutes, ocarinas and jews’ harps. It seems likely that the incoming Oceanic speakers brought new instrument types and that their distribution can be plotted against linguistic affiliation. However, there is some evidence the Austronesians also borrowed musical instruments from mainland Papua and carried them onwards to remote Oceania. In addition, there appears to be a comparable pattern with respect to vocal music. Papuan music can sometimes be polyphonic, with two or more distinct vocal lines sung against one another. In the Austronesian world this is only known from Taiwan, Flores and Timor, and otherwise music tends to be monodic, despite the complex heterophony of Java and related cultures. However, there is a striking example of two-voice polypony on Manus, a key site where early Oceanic speakers interacted with speakers of NAN languages.

It is suggested that this is the origin of the polyphony characteristic of Malekula and Grande Ile in New Caledonia. This also points to the possibility of linking musical instrument distributions with arcaheological horizons, notably the Lapita culture. The paper synthesises the distributional data on musical practice and language to suggest how the impact of Austronesian speakers on the culture of Papua can be detected.

Updated:  12 June 2013/Responsible Officer:  Head, School of Music/Page Contact:  Development Officer