Australia is a country rich in diversity, culturally and geographically, a richness embodied in our music which embraces all genres and styles, is both steeped in tradition, and at the forefront of innovation and experimentation.
Music and song are inseparable in Indigenous cultures and part of unbroken traditions dating back thousands of years. Music is found in ceremony and important community activity in all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Cultures. Aboriginal songmen are revered custodians of the songs which represent rich and distinct oral traditions in each community. Sacred and secular songs are also integral to Torres Strait island life and can include western style harmonies derived from contact with other cultures.
In the twentieth and 21st centuries Indigenous musicians have played a vital role in defining Australia’s contemporary music identity, in building bridges with the broader Australian community, and in actively contributing to our cultural expression internationally. Contemporary indigenous music embraces all genres from folk and roots to blues, rock, pop, hip hop and classical forms.
Key events on the Indigenous music calendar include:
Folk, Bush and Country Music
Folk music, often handed down in oral form, has existed in Australia since our colonial days, and many local communities have folk clubs and folk festivals. There are over 50 folk festivals in Australia. Over the years Australian folk traditions have been enriched by multiple migrant cultures, including Celtic, Gaelic, Greek, Macedonian, Klezmer, Pacific Island, African, and Asian cultures. Bush and country are variants of country music, drawing on rural themes and traditions, telling stories through music of life, love and longing.
Key events on the national calendar:
Contemporary Popular Music
Rock and popular music have an almost limitless number of genres and sub categories. Some of the better known types are: alternative, country, electronic, folk, funk, grunge, indie, hip hop, pop, progressive rock, punk, R&B, rock, ska, and soul. Each can have many sub categories (heavy metal music alone has over a dozen variants), and hybrid forms abound. These multiple genres and types provide a niche for every taste and type of music lover.
Australia produces great music in all of these categories, and we are particularly known for our indie (independent) and alternative scenes, historically a function of being a small country distant from major markets. Australia continues to have an active live music scene despite impacts such as gentrification on many venues, regular tours of national and international acts, and multiple music festivals. There is a large range of professional associations, rights collection bodies and development agencies in this sector. You can access information on these organisations in our music industry section.
A selection of great Australian pops songs, artists and recordings can be found below.
- Australian Geographic’s Top Ten Songs
- News Australia’s Greatest Singers
- JJJ hottest 100 albums of all time
Festivals form a major part of Australian rock and popular music culture. Major festivals on the Australian calendar include:
- Splendour in the Grass
- Big Day Out
- Laneway Festival
- Good Life
- The Falls Festival
- Good Vibrations
- Future Music Festival
- Groovin’ The Moo
- Golden Plains
- Meredith Music Festival
World, Roots and Blues Music
These styles are music rooted in a particular tradition or place. Songs may be sung in original languages, and the music can be stylistically distinct. World music generally describes non-western music drawing on cultural traditions which can combine with Western popular and other forms. Traditional forms include Serbian Sevdah; Portuguese Morna; Spanish Flamenco; American Bluegrass, Cajun and Zydeco; Latin American Salsa and Tango; Jewish Klezmer, and West Indian reggae. World music can also include classical music from beyond the West including Indian. Japanese, Chinese and other Asian styles.
Key events on the national calendar:
With its origins in African America, jazz is an artform that bridges art and popular music. Often improvised, it ranges from traditional styles including swing and Dixieland, to highly original forms of contemporary art music. Australia has a small but high quality jazz scene, with a number of respected city venues, jazz clubs in major centres around the country, and a large number of festivals. The annual Freedman Jazz Fellowship provides a good barometer of quality jazz musicianship.
Key resources for jazz in Australia:
Key events on the national Calendar:
- Brisbane International Jazz Festival
- Melbourne International Jazz Festival
- Perth International Jazz Festival
- Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival
Classical and Art Music
Australia has a rich tradition of Western classical music with professional orchestras in every capital; an active chamber music, small ensemble and choral sector; and four professional opera companies. These are complemented by state youth orchestras, and hundreds of community based choirs, orchestras and ensembles.
Classical music in Australia is derived from our European history and traditions. It is generally notated, written for specific instruments, and follows defined structures. Contemporary classical or ‘new music’ does away with and redefines some traditional approaches. Classical music has multiple forms, some of the best known of which are early or medieval music, baroque, classical, romantic, contemporary and new music.
In Australia, as in other countries, orchestral activity is at the heart of Western classical music. Orchestras reach the largest audiences, provide the most reliable employment for classical performers, and are often synonymous with the cultural identity of a city. There are over ten professional orchestras in Australia and many excellent part time professional orchestras and a few pro-am orchestras. All present regular concert recitals, and many collaborate with other companies, release recordings, tour, and run workshops. In addition, dozens of youth and community orchestras present concerts around the country.
The six major state capital cities each have a full-time orchestra, originally established and owned by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Over a period of years in recent times these orchestras moved apart from the ABC and by 2006 were all totally independent and locally owned. So named because they retain sufficient numbers and ability to play the great symphonic repertoire, a symphony orchestra can have up to 110 players on stage, more for some repertoire. These orchestras each give subscription programs in their home states, support local and visiting productions, tour regionally, and run extensive education programs.
These orchestras are:
- Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO)
- Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO)
- Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO)
- Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO)
- Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO)
- West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO)
There are also two full-time pit orchestras, so named because they perform in the orchestra pit in front of the stage of large theatres, who support the national opera and ballet companies, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet. They are:
Owned and operated by Opera Australia, Sydney’s Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra gives some 175 opera performances, and over 80 ballet performances. Orchestra Victoria is a subsidiary of the Australian Ballet and performs for The Australian Ballet, Opera Australia, Victorian Opera and The Production Company in Melbourne.
Chamber and Part Time Orchestras
The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), was established in 1975 by its musician members and is led by violinist Richard Tognetti, who has been at the helm since 1989. Several group members play on remarkable and rare 17th century stringed instruments. This full-time group tours extensively nationally and internationally, presents varied and adventurous programming, and has built a stellar international reputation for the quality of their work.
As their name suggests the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra specialise in, but are not limited to, music of the Baroque period. This Sydney based group led by Paul Dyer play on period instruments, perform nationally and regionally and have released sixteen recordings with ABC Classics include five ARIA Award winners for Best Classical Album.
Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) performs its concert series in Llewellyn Hall, Australian National University. It has grown from grass roots beginnings in 1950 to being a fully professional part-time orchestra for the Nation’s capital. It offers an annual subscription program and a number of well received matinee and outdoor concerts and an Annual Prom at Government House, Yarralumla.
The Darwin Symphony Orchestra (DSO) is based in the remote capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin. It draws its membership from the professional, semi-professional, student and amateur musicians in Darwin. It stages regular annual concerts on an annual basis and tours to remote locations including Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt, as well as Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine.
Other part time orchestras in Australia include:
Youth orchestras are community-based rather than school-based, play a key role in the development of young payers, and can provide a pathway to professional career as a performer. The Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO) is a national youth orchestra, whose members are selected through national auditions. It performs nationally and tours internationally. Each of the major capital cities has a youth orchestra association that manages one or more orchestras. These orchestras meet year-round. The best orchestras in each of these associations are of very high standard. Apart from the AYO they are:
- Adelaide Youth Orchestra
- Canberra Youth Music
- Darwin Youth Orchestra
- Melbourne Youth Music
- Queensland Youth Orchestras
- Sydney Youth Orchestra
- Tasmanian Youth Orchestra
- Western Australian Youth Music Association
Music Australia has estimated there are well over 100 youth and community based orchestras in Australia. Our research has shown this to be diverse and creative sector embracing all age groups and playing a wide range of music. Read more about community music.
Chamber music is small scale classical music, designed historically for intimate settings, or ‘chambers’, and popular instrument combinations are trios, quartets and quintets. Australia’s leading chamber music organisation is Musica Viva Australia, a national presenting and touring organisation with a network of local branches. Performances are presented also at public and conservatorium recital halls and by some performing arts centres and independent presenters.
Professional ensembles presenting chamber music include:
- The Australia Ensemble
- Australian String Quartet
- Camerata of St Johns
- Goldner String Quartet
- Selby and Friends
- Southern Cross Soloists
Early music generally refers to music up until around 1800, and is often played on period instruments of the time. Repertoire includes music from that period, and there is also contemporary music composed for early instruments. Early music groups in Australia include:
- Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
- Adelaide Baroque
- Elysium Ensemble
- The Marais Project
- Salut! Baroque
- The Sydney Consort
New music is contemporary classical or art music composed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Sound art and computer generated music are related genres. Australia has a large number of high quality ensembles, many focusing on performing works by Australian composers. Sydney based New Music Network lists some twenty new music groups in Sydney and elsewhere. In West Australia Tura New Music presents concerts, tours outback WA and presents the biennial Totally Huge New Music Festival.
Opera is the largest and most dramatic of the classical music artforms. Opera in Australia is based on the rich European traditions with its origins in the Renaissance period. It is highly complex, and can involve vocal and instrumental music, poetry, drama, dance and visual arts. A professional opera production of classic repertoire can involve more than 200 people on and off stage, ranging from highly trained soloists and choristers to dancers, actors, other performers, stage technicians, support staff, and an orchestral accompaniment.
Professional Opera Companies
Australia has four professional opera companies based in the five mainland state capital five cities. Like orchestras, opera companies play a vital role in sustaining classical music, are the main source of employment for classical singers, and generate significant employment for performers and other creative and technical professionals. Each presents main stage productions in their home cities, which include Sydney and Melbourne, for Opera Australia; often engage in collaborations with each other, with overseas companies, with other ensembles and artists, and with festivals; take smaller productions on tour and maintain education and outreach programs.
Australia’s four professional companies are:
Chamber opera is small scale opera designed to be performed with chamber ensembles and can have traditional classical or contemporary forms. Australian chamber opera companies include:
Choral music can involve large numbers of voices and in Australia is, unsurprisingly, mainly an amateur activity. Standards however can be very high and the main choirs in the large cities and many major regional centres, perform complex repertoire of high standard. The opera companies retain professional choruses and there are some smaller professional vocal ensembles such as The Song Company and now, The Australian Voices. Children’s choirs in the large cities, some of very high standard such as Gondwana Voices, the national children’s choir. Some of the children’s choirs have been active in commissioning Australian repertoire. The Australian National Choral Association provides further information.
Music Australia has estimated there may be over 1,000 community choirs in Australia. Our research has shown these groups to be strongly engaged in local communities, with skilled leadership, and a real interest in performing Australian material. You can access more information on community choirs. in our community section here.
Almost all the major capital city festivals include classical music, often experimental music, including:
- Perth International Festival
- Adelaide Festival of Arts
- Melbourne Festival
- Sydney Festival
- Brisbane Festival
There are also many boutique style chamber music festivals around Australia. A selection include:
- Australian Festival of Chamber Music
- Bangalow Music Festival
- Canberra International Music Festival
- Huntington Music Festival
- TarraWarra Chamber Music Festival
- Vasse Felix Chamber Music Festival
Competitions can be important in establishing the career of a young concert performer. The best known high level international competitions are the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and the Sydney International Piano Competition. The ABC’s Young Performer Awards is a respected domestic competition.
There are many classical music awards in the eisteddfod competitions in the big cities and regional centres. Eisteddfod often play a central role in the cultural life of a regional community. Eisteddfod Australia provides listing of eisteddfods around the country.
You can access more information about different types of Australian music here: