Has Sculthorpe misappropriated indigenous melodies?

Document Type

Journal Article




Faculty of Education and Arts


Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) / Music Research Group




This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Musicology Australia on 30 May 2013 as: Paget, J. R. (2013). Has Sculthorpe misappropriated indigenous melodies?. Musicology Australia, 35(1), 86-111. Available online here


The celebrated Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe has sometimes been criticized for his adaptations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island melodies. But what are the underlying political issues, and what are the ethics of such cross-cultural borrowings? The 1980s marked changes in Sculthorpe's music: a new stylistic synthesis, the fascination with Kakadu National Park and the recycling of a small number of Indigenous melodies dubbed the Kakadu songlines. These melodies can be seen to conform to one of two pre-existing styles within Sculthorpe's works: one Japanese and one Balinese. Whereas Sculthorpe has carefully selected melodies that easily conform to these pre-existing styles, he has also shaped and moulded his idiom around the Kakadu songlines. Sculthorpe's careful attribution of the Kakadu songlines as Indigenous in origin suggests that he is subtly positioning himself in the cultural and political spectrum. Identification with Aboriginality has arguably benefited him in perpetuating his quintessentially Australian image. Nevertheless, Sculthorpe's persistent fascination with these melodies and his persistent identification with Aboriginal attitudes suggest that a sincere homage to Aboriginal culture is being made. Although Sculthorpe's methods may appear to be vestiges of a bygone era, he has consistently acknowledged his Indigenous sources and heralded Indigenous cultures in Australia and abroad.