Silence, Colonisation, and the Australian Soundscape

A Butcher Bird sings to her chick while sheltering from the rain. The calls of Australian birds were once regarded as inferior to those in Europe.
When Australia was first colonised in 1788 its soundscape was completely alien to the foreign British ear. The vibrant sounds of the tropical wilderness and desert areas were listened to with colonial disdain. The native Australian soundscape was marginalised and regarded as inferior, much like the attitude towards Australia’s indigenous inhabitants. This process of marginalisation was later described with terms such as The Great Australian Silence and The Great Australian Emptiness. In post-colonial studies this notion of silence is seen to have aided in legitimising the colonisation of Aboriginal land, a space which had been occupied for over 40,000 years.

As the colonial territory expanded the 500 Aboriginal language groups that had existed prior to 1788 were systematically silenced. English was imposed as the dominant language and along with it the cultural system in which to interpret the world. The introduction of reading and writing further devalued the Aboriginal cultures’ aural interpretations of the Australian landscape; western society favouring the visual sense above all others. Today only 250 Aboriginal languages remain. This silencing has resulted in the loss of indigenous knowledge and ways of listening to the environment throughout Australia.

During the late 19th century Australian nationalists attempted to forge a cultural identity seperate from Britain, however there was still an inability to acknowledge Australia’s unique acoustic space. This was exemplified by one of the leading literary nationalists, Adam Lindsay Gordon, describing Australia’s birds as songless.

Soundscape: Bird House.

It is now 223 years since colonisation. Has our ability to listen to the sounds specific to our environment improved, do we still hear the great silence? Reynolds argues that the silence has been broken by Aboriginal people speaking in public soundscapes, and by our developing willingness to hear, articulate and confront the unspeakable of our history.

Indeed the Australian film and tv industries now make great use of the local soundscape, and contemporary composers have attempted to interpret the calls of native animals in their compositions. After 223 years post-colonial Australia finally seems to be entering a period in which we recognise our sonic identity, our soundmarks. Perhaps this growing awareness will also benefit the acoustic spaces in which we live.

Hearing Australian Identity by Ros Bandt
The Great Australian Silence by Jane Belfrage

10 thoughts on “Silence, Colonisation, and the Australian Soundscape

    1. Thanks Des. There is so much more to say on this topic so hopefully the references at the end of the post can provide more information for those who are interested.
      There is an excellent interactive indigenous language map here. Next year I’m considering starting a new site which will include the stories and voices of people in the local area. I hope the map tides you over till then.


      1. Thanks for the language map which I found fascinating. I look forward to hearing your own recordings of the stories and voices in your local area in due course. This will be a really valuable social history project so I wish you much success with it. Do send me a link when you are up and running.


  1. One of the things I like about your blog is the placement of the players against the text. In terms of layout and timing they match each other really well as there is enough time (at least for me) to read while listening to the first recording then starting another one to read the rest. Not to mention the quality of the posts – this one is really good indeed. My cat likes it too, she’s been moving hear ears towards the headphones!


  2. There is another level of listening, Aborigines practised deep listening, it goes beyond hearing to encompass a whole of place, like any cycle everything is associated with something else, like a food chain or the relationship between a bee and a flower, my explanation is a bit simple but if you’re interested you could research it through VACAL, an Aboriginal languages center in victoria, some info may be slightly different but if you seek you will find. Australia’s tradition of devaluing anything considered different has resulted in large amounts of Aborignial knowledge being lost, it may become Australias biggest shame, who knows, some knowledge could achieve major value to all of mankind, how many cures from medicinal plant knowledge could cure cancer? I’m ashamed to have an association with that knowledge loss.


    1. Yes, we do have a pretty bad history with the Aboriginal people and I agree that it is a shame that only a minority seem active in valuing the traditional culture and knowledge away from the images used in government tourism campaigns. I’ll have to check out the VACAL site, and hope to read more about Aboriginal practices in listening in the future. Still, I think we are on the cusp of change and I hope that our ways of thinking are already beginning to change (if a little too slowly).


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