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Anmatyerr women from central Australia and Kam women from south-west China exchanging culture at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Research unit for music diversity

Like language, music is a key component of any culture
Advancing understanding of the nature, causes and implications of music diversity in Australia, drawing on excellent music research, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and advice from experts in the public sector and industry.

Research strands

The Research Unit for Music Diversity is made up of four unique strands.

Understanding music diversity

All known human societies create music: why is this so, and what implications does this observation have for current practice in music research and allied fields?


Innovation through music

What role do composers and performers play in generating musical diversity, and how is creativity enabled or constrained by current conditions in Australian society?


History of Australian music diversity

How is music-making affected by Australian society’s diverse histories, cultural communities, institutions and landscapes?


Sustaining music diversity

Cross-disciplinary collaboration with domain experts and industry to develop applied research projects addressing current issues (eg. role of music in language revitalisation; arts and cultural policy development; etc.).


The award-winning Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures, PARADISEC, was established as a collaborative cross-institutional research facility in 2003, to preserve and make accessible Australian researchers' field recordings of endangered languages and cultures of the Asia Pacific Region. Research data services and other infrastructural requirements of researchers affiliated with the Research Unit are met through the PARADISEC Sydney Unit.


Current projects

Funding source: Australia Council for the Arts

Simon Barker

Urgency! (Vol.1) Drum Chants for Kiribati and the Marshall Islands is a collection of four solo drumming chants played and developed in solidarity with communities and ecosystems facing upheaval due to climate change. Each chant is based on a unique drum set rhythm/sticking vocabulary, called “Coiling” that was developed for the project over the course of a three year research period. The four drum chants appearing on Urgency! (Vol.1) feature Coiled rhythmic forms performed across multiple rhythmic subdivisions.

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage LP140100806

Linkage Partner:
Central Land Council (CLC), University of Melbourne

Linda Barwick, Myfany Turpin, Rachel Nordlinger (Melbourne), Brian Connelly (CLC), Jenny Green (Melbourne)

The Central Land Council (CLC) Cultural Media Project is a research project which aims to look at cultural media, such as photos, sound recordings and videos, from the Central Land Council area. The Central Land Council, the partner organisation in the project, is the peak Indigenous body of elected representatives from the southern half of the Northern Territory. The aim of this project is to help Aboriginal people make decisions about how they want their cultural media to be accessed and used. The project also aims to protect old recordings that are at risk of deteriorating by digitising them. The documentary heritage of Central Australian Indigenous peoples is extensive but dispersed. The future relevance of these collections depends on several key inter-related factors: how sustainable the collections are, how well-documented and described they are, and how accessible they are to the communities who own them and to others with legitimate interests. 

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery DP1096897

Linda Barwick, Allan Marett, Martin Thomas (ANU), Amanda Harris, Reuben Brown (Melbourne)

The research project is funded by two grants from the Australian Research Council: a Future Fellowship held by Martin Thomas (FT0992291) and a five-year Discovery Project (DP1096897), held in collaboration with University of Sydney ethnomusicologists Linda Barwick and Allan Marett, which funds other expenses and personnel including research associate Amanda Harris and doctoral student Reuben Brown. The 1948 Arnhem Land project is motivated by five key questions:

  1. How do Western and Indigenous knowledge systems interact and inform each other?
  2. How do histories of intercultural research affect contemporary cultures?
  3. What does it mean for the discipline of history if the conventional activity of excavating and elucidating a past epoch is informed by a research practice that uses ethnographic techniques to explore the relationship between anthropological archives and the people they document?
  4. In what ways has Indigenous knowledge shaped Australia’s national image, its engagement with modernity and its international relationships?
  5. How might historical research strengthen the social fabric of Aboriginal communities?

We address these questions by investigating the genealogy, preparations, activities and legacies of the event known as the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (AASEAL). This expedition, a significant (if neglected) episode in the US-Australia relationship and in cross-cultural history, has been selected as a case study. In 2015 Project members organised the Image-Music-Text Symposium to discuss project results with other scholars in history, anthropology, digital humanities and the arts.

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage LP160100743

Linkage Partners: 
Walpiri Media Association Inc., Kurra Aboriginal Corporation

Linda Barwick, Myfany Turpin, Nicholas Peterson (ANU), Simon Fisher (Walpiri Media Association), Valerie Martin (Walpiri Media Association)

This project aims to understand the reasons behind the reported decline in knowledge of songs amongst younger generations at Yuendumu in the past 40-50 years, using a Central Australian music archive. This project will analyse selected song repertories over time, with insights and advice from today's senior custodians; and design strategies for Warlpiri people to re-engage with this important body of Warlpiri-initiated research in their own country. This research is expected to reinvigorate inter-generational transfer of highly significant cultural knowledge and practices.               

Funding Source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery DP180100938

Linda Barwick, Jakelin Troy, M Le Breton Poll, Rachel Fensham (Melbourne), Lyndon Ormond-Parker (Melbourne), Tiriki Onus (Melbourne), Jacqueline Murphy (UC Riverside)

This project aims to reframe a period of Australian history, the Assimilation era (1935-1975), to demonstrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' active intervention in public affairs through performances of music and dance. Collaborating with present-day communities, our interdisciplinary team will recuperate and evaluate dispersed records and testimonies of performances, aiming to construct an alternative history of cultural resilience and agency. Outcomes directed at academic, community and public audiences aim to better inform current debates on Australian identity, support the work of contemporary practitioners, build international networks and validate so far hidden histories at the heart of Australian nationhood.

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Indigenous IN170100022

Researchers: Clint Bracknell, Linda Barwick, Kim Scott (Curtin)

Preserving Aboriginal language through song archives. This project aims to explore how song can preserve vanishing Indigenous languages. Song and language are integral to the wellbeing and knowledge of Indigenous peoples, and the loss of Indigenous languages is a national and global crisis. Focusing on the endangered Nyungar language of the south-west of Western Australia, this project will develop a model to recirculate and perform archival songs in online and physical spaces, engaging the community while developing resources for future use. The outcomes of this project are expected to inform global efforts to sustain intangible cultural heritage and contribute to the Australian reconciliation agenda.

Funding source: Australia Council for the Arts

Genevieve Campbell

This project, funded by the Red Cross and aimed at Tiwi children and youth, involves elders using repatriated song recordings as the starting point for storytelling and sharing of culturally significant knowledge, endangered language and genealogical information as well as being the focus of new music created digitally by young Tiwi people, sampling, editing and adding to the old recordings to produce “dance track” versions of their own identifying Dreaming song.

Funded by the Australia Council, work has also begun on corpus of new music produced by Ngarukuruwala – We Sing Songs. Along the lines of the “memorial duets” album in which the recorded voice of a deceased singer is re-engineered with a contemporary performer to produce a new version, we will create a series of duets and small ensembles, each including one old recording. With ethnographic Tiwi recordings (repatriated to the community from the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra) as the source material, we will produce music that reflects the musical, poetic and emotional response of each artist to the recording they are working with.

Funding source: Warlpiri Aboriginal Corporation

 Georgia Curran Linda Barwick

This research funding is to support Lajamanu-based activities associated with the Australian Research Council Linkage project ‘Vitality and change in Warlpiri song at Yuendumu’, headed by the University of Sydney. Activities include: interviews with Lajamanu community elders on the nature of song change; nomination of Lajamanu song repertories for project focus; setup of the project song database in Lajamanu for community access; and bringing Lajamanu-based participants to attend workshops in Yuendumu.

Funding source: Federal Dept of Communications and the Arts ILA000048

Georgia Curran

Warlpiri songs and their associated stories contain important information about country and Dreamings. Ms Nungarrayi Egan documented many of the details of this orally transmitted art form as part of the Jaru Pirrjirdi 'Strong Voices' bush trips. This project draws together the legacy of her research in multimedia forms.

Funding source: Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust

Michael Duke and David Howie

Michael Duke and David Howie, "HD Duo", will undertake a new ambitious cross-cultural project that will focus on composers of the Commonwealth. The ultimate aim is to commission, perform and record one composition from each of the 53 countries represented in the Commonwealth. This initial project will focus on the collaboration with six premiere composers from six countries. Each composer will be commissioned a ten minute chamber work for saxophone and piano that will be workshopped, premiered, toured and recorded for a CD.

Funding source: Council on Australia Latin America Relations (DFAT) COALAR083A

Michael Duke and David Howie

HD Duo (saxophone and piano) will collaborate with some of Mexico's premiere composers to commission, workshop and produce new music for a cross-cultural concert tour and CD recording. After recent performances at the Festival of Mexico, HD Duo has begun to plan this project that will bring together the composition of Mexico with Australian musicians. We will perform the new music in both Australia and Mexico.

Funding source: Australia Council for the Arts

: Matthew Hindson


Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project 180101547

Catherine Ingram

Musical resilience within marginal groups in culturally diverse societies. This project aims to examine and compare the music of minorities in one Western and one non-Western culturally diverse society to better understand how certain musics thrive. This project will improve understanding of the musical and social lives of minority communities in culturally diverse societies. By exploring how communities perceive and handle challenges to musical practices, it will expand knowledge of the ways that music can enhance the lives of minority peoples and our society. The outcomes will include practical guidance that can inform community activities and policy at a range of levels, and benefit society through positive social change.

Funding Source: Newton International Fellowship Alumni follow-on funding (Royal Society UK)

Catherine Ingram

This research funding from the Royal Society (UK) focuses on the relationship between music and place in the context of East Asian music. It seeks to develop new ways of understanding this relationship and how it operates in diverse musical contexts within the region, and how it may be operating in a range of different domains within one musical context. This includes, for example, the expression of locality through the continued maintenance of oral musical traditions, and the traditions’ concurrent function and integration within national and international systems of intangible cultural heritage. It also includes the incorporation of musical techniques, instruments or playing styles from the East Asian region into musical performances that also draw on many Western musical traditions, instruments and idioms.

Funding source: The University of Sydney Postdoctoral Fellowship (DVC Research)

Catherine Ingram

This three-year project investigates the musical aesthetics and agency of non-mainstream cultural, ethnic and/or indigenous groups in Australia and China, and represents the first comparative study of the musical activities of cultural minorities in the two countries. It seeks to better understand how music may enhance the effectiveness of cultural minorities’ engagement with their wider social context. The core of the project comprises a detailed musical ethnographic study of the under-documented musical activities of selected minorities in each country. The China-based project component focuses on aesthetics, agency and modes of engagement manifest in the music-making of Kam (in Chinese, Dong 侗) and Zhuang (壮) minority communities. These groups number approximately 3 million and 17 million respectively, are resident in southwestern China, and are speakers of two separate Tai-Kadai family languages that are completely different from Chinese and have no widely used written forms. Both groups have faced massive social transformations in recent decades due mainly to youth migration away from rural communities for employment along China’s eastern seaboard. The Australia-based component of the study investigates the music-making of Australia’s South Sudanese migrant — and almost exclusively refugee — community. Members of this community identify with a diverse range of South Sudanese ethnicities or cultural groups. During 2001-2011 they comprised the second fastest-growing migrant community in Australia, and represent a new and significant minority presence in this country. 

Funding source: Tasman UGG Australia Culture Fund

Catherine Ingram

Research donation to support the performance, workshop, and research involved re the project Songs of home: an Australia-China musical exchange led by Dr Catherine Ingram under the supervision of Prof Linda Barwick.

Funding source: Japan Foundation

Researchers: Allan Marett

The Oppenheimer Noh Project focused on the creation and performance of a new English-language Noh play, Oppenheimer, that was performed in the Music Workshop Theatre on Wednesday 30 September and Thursday 1 October 2015. The project included a public workshop and public lecture and is a key event in two conferences: Wounds, Scars and Healing: Civil Society and Postwar Pacific Basic Reconciliation and Musical Dialogues: the 38th National Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia. It was a collaboration between Emeritus Professor Allan Marett (SCM), Professor Richard Emmert (Musashino University, Tokyo) and master actor-teacher of the Kita School of Japanese classical Noh theatre, Akira Matsui. The principal performers include both Japanese professionals and Japanese-trained members of the Theatre Nohgaku, whose mission is ‘is to share Noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers.’

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage LP120200721

Kathryn Marsh, Sally Treloyn (Melbourne), Jane Davidson (Melbourne), Andrea Emberly (UWA)

Through collaborative research and an innovative approach to assessing music-based teaching and learning, this project will identify strategies to support Aboriginal stakeholders and organizations in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in their efforts to maintain and sustain critically endangered cultural practices and knowledges. Researchers from the Kimberley Language and Resource Centre, The University of Western Australia, The University of Melbourne, and The University of Sydney will engage with Aboriginal teachers and practitioners in remote communities to survey, identify, analyse and develop innovative strategies for music-based teaching and learning on Country and in community contexts.

Funding source: Office of Learning and Teaching, Australian Government SD14-3629

Helen Mitchell

How do we listen to music performers when we don’t see what we hear? This research project investigates audiences’ perceptions and descriptions of performances, through sound alone and through an audio-visual fusion of sensory information. Working in partnership with Roger Benedict, and Dr Lotte Latukefu of the University of Wollongong, Dr Helen Mitchell’s project will enable music students to experience the complexities and pitfalls of performance evaluation, to learn from music industry experts and develop training strategies to advance their listening acuity for performance and performer evaluation. Helen says ‘I’m interested in how students learn the skills they need to judge blind and sighted auditions and performances. Students need to be able to make informed, consistent and justifiable decisions.’

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project 170101976

Neal Peres Da Costa, Clive Brown (University of Leeds)

Deciphering nineteenth-century pianism. The project aims to investigate the nature of 19th-century piano playing and offer new and alternative ways of interpreting 19th-century repertoire. Current approaches to playing 19th-century piano music differ from evidence of historical practices. The project will address this with ideas on 19th-century piano practice, the relationship between music notation and performance, increased interpretive choices, and a method for historically informed performance. Published multi-modal outputs will serve as industry models fostering diversity in performing styles.The project aims to bring social and psychological health benefits, increase wellbeing in our culture and society, and boost the music economy.

Funding source: Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (SOAS) MDP03222A

Isabel O’Keeffe, Linda Barwick, Ruth Singer (University of Melbourne)

This project aims to empower Indigenous youth to create a comprehensive pan-varietal, ethnobiological, anthropological record of Kun-barlang through training in low-cost language documentation technology. Kun-barlang is a highly endangered language spoken in northwestern Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. Fewer than 60 speakers remain and most are elderly, so the need to annotate existing materials and create new recordings is urgent. Younger people will be trained and supported in the use of low-cost language documentation technology. Particular emphasis will be on documenting the full range of remaining varieties and registers, including the undocumented ‘widow’s language,’ as well as language in the domains of kinship, ethnobiology, music and public ceremony.

Funding source: Australia Council for the Arts

Damien Ricketson

The Secret Noise was a major hybrid creative work, led by Dr Damien Ricketson. The project involved research into cultural practices that deliberately shield music from public life, the creation of new musical instruments and the composition of original live and electronic music. The live version of The Secret Noise occupied a unique artistic space between music, dance and installation and was premiered by Ensemble Offspring at the Sydney Town Hall in a season of sold-out performances in Nov 2014. The work won the ‘Instrumental Work of the Year’ in the 2015 Art Music Awards and recently showcased at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane at APAM 2016. A collection of recordings are also available on vinyl and CD via a website dedicated to the project.

Funding Source: Australia Council for the Arts

David Theak

The Sydney Conservatorium International Jazz Festival held on June 3, 2018 is curated by David Theak and has Australian music at its core. Heavily featuring Australian artists and collaborations between Australian and International artists, audience education workshops and mentoring opportunities for young musicians, the Sydney Conservatorium International Jazz Festival is unique in that is staged over one day, is an entirely acoustic music festival (no PA's), and is located in a single venue utilising all 5 concert halls within the Conservatorium.

Funding source:  Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Large Grant AH/M004457/1

Joseph Toltz, Stephen Muir (Leeds), Helen Finch (Leeds), Lisa Peschel (York), Nick Barraclough (York), Teryl Dobbs (Madison-Wisconsin)

Displacement in the 20th century has affected the musical, theatrical and literary output of Jewish artists in myriad ways. Many works are thought to have been lost or have, until recently, languished in obscure archives. Performing the Jewish Archive is a multidisciplinary project involving eleven academics on four continents, motivated by a desire to recover and engage anew with these creative artefacts, via the following objectives:

  1. To theorise and reconceptualise the Jewish archive. We engage with creative works, traditional archival documentation, and ethnographic archives (oral history and testimony) that provide historical information and illuminate the subjective meaning of events to past and present generations. Rather than privileging some of this material as ‘text’ and others as ‘context’, we view the material as components of a non-hierarchical, non-linear system that destabilises the relationship between past, present and future, origin and diaspora.
  2. To explore archives that have recently come to light and seek out archives which have yet to be located.
  3. To disseminate the results of our research through scholarly outputs for academic beneficiaries and performance practices that create impact for a wider public, measured by audience response testing.
  4. To create a new, sustainable archive for the future and pathways for the perpetuation of our scholarly and performance related outcomes.

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship FT140100783

Myfany Turpin

Song, dance and design were once the principal means by which knowledge was transferred in Australian Aboriginal societies. Some songs were traded, prized for their knowledge, artistic merit and power. Today, traditional song genres remain vital to Indigenous identity, yet many are highly endangered. As records of history, law and religion, songs abound with social and ecological information. As poetry and music, they expose the rhythm of language and reveal different ways that people organise sound. And as items of trade, they leave clues to the interactions that occurred between different linguistic groups. This project will work with Aboriginal people in the inland region of Australia to document their traditional songs. The project will seek to address three broad questions:

  • What are the forms and meanings of songs from inland Australia?
  • Are there regional musical-poetic styles across the region?
  • Does the mapping of musical-poetic styles inform understandings of cultural diffusion across Australia?

Funding Source: DVC Research

Myfany Turpin

This project aims to strengthen the impact of my research on songs by:

  1. increasing public understanding of classical Indigenous culture; 
  2. achieving greater impact of my findings through international engagement;
  3. developing collaborations between Indigenous people and archival institutions;
  4. broadening my capacity to influence policy affecting Aboriginal cultural practices. 

Through the SOAR Fellowship I will investigate the amazing history of the wanji-wanji, a public travelling ceremony once known widely across central and Western Australia, and Aboriginal people’s memories of this ceremony. The astonishment and joy of Aboriginal elders as they hear a verse of wanji-wanji, often for the first time in 50 or more years, will be shared though podcast and film, attesting to the universal power of music.

Funding source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project DP150100845

Myfany Turpin, Mark Harvey (Newcastle)

This project seeks to understand the structure of syllables and words in the Australian language, Kaytetye.  The project will consider the implications of Kaytetye sound structure for general theories of phonology, and more importantly, for ideas about universals in language. Kaytetye is an endangered language spoken by some 200 people, 300kms north of Alice Springs. A number of linguists are working on this project: Mark Harvey (University of Newcastle), Myf Turpin and Michael Proctor (Macquarie University). There are many Kaytetye speakers working on this project, including Alison Ross, Shirly Ampetyane and Tommy Jangala. We are also collaborating with Indigenous organisation Batchelor Institute to assist in the production of Kaytetye language resources. Katia, Nay and Forrest have been working on phonetic transcriptions of Kaytetye and linking digital audio with published Kaytetye resources, such as the Learners Guide to Kaytetye and the Kaytetye to English Dictionary published through IAD Press. Kaytetye language resources. We have been targeting words in the domain of the natural world, and we hope to update the Kaytetye bird app, which can be downloaded here (iTunes), with these new recordings soon. 

Funding Source: Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage LP150100973

Linkage Partners: 
Further Arts, Wantok Musik Foundation, National Centre for Scientific Research, France (CNRS)

Administering Institution: Macquarie University

Michael Webb, Denis Crowdy, Heather Horst, Jason MacLeod, Thomas Dick, David Bridie, Camellia Webb-Gannon, Monika Stern

This project seeks to understand how communities mobilise in Melanesia through the integration of digital media, mobile phones and music. Community integration and cohesion has long been connected to music as a vital medium in the region. This project plans to draw on new uses of mobile phones for creating, disseminating and listening to music to transform related social, cultural and industrial practices in Melanesia. The intended outcomes of this project – novel phone apps and distribution strategies – will be designed to enable the creation and dissemination of community-building music more widely and affordably, and to provide an income-stimulating model of music distribution for Melanesian musicians.