Didgeridoo and sleep apnea

In Music and Health by Gauthier Aubé2 Comments

In 2006, a study made in Zurich showed that regular practice (20 minutes per day) of didgeridoo on a three months period reduced obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

I already provided didgeridoo courses at that time. Thus, I had heard of this study, but I had not had the opportunity to teach to students suffering from sleep apnea. It was not until 2008, when I was teaching at the MJC Montchapet Dijon, that I saw Robert, who came to learn to play didgeridoo, in aim to get ride of his apnea! You can imagine my surprise when, after a year of practice, Robert’s apnea had reduced from 64 to 43 apneas per hour, and then, a year later, from 43 to 17. All without losing any weight ! So ? Is didgeridoo an alternative to CPAP ? Yes, but motivation is needed !

Didgeridoo amongst doctors

After two years of didgeridoo practice, Robert had managed to free himself from all his obtructive apneas! As a fact, the remaining 17 ones were central apneas. During this period, he was able to put me in touch with Dr Kabeya and the ABIR (Bourguignonne Association of Respiratory Insufficiency) in aim to form a test group. Thus, I had the chance to teach didgeridoo between 2009 and 2010 to a group of ten volunteers suffering from SAS.
The apnea of the study group students was divided, at least, by three, thanks to a regular pratice of their instrument. The experience therefore gave birth to very encouraging results.

What happens ?

Most obstructive sleep apneas are due to a lack of muscle tonicity in the tongue. The tongue falls into the bottom of the oral cavity during sleep, causing a blockage that prevents air from reaching the lungs. Therefore, the tongue is a central element in most SAS cases. This is where things get interesting. The process is the same when one plays didgeridoo: all the instrument’s technique remains in the use of the tongue. Playing didgeridoo is, therefore, just a matter of re-education: the player will reinforce his/her muscular tonicity by learning the instrument! One movement appears to be very effective. It consists in pronouncing the vowel I in the didgeridoo. The tongue is pressed against the teeth. Moreover, continuous breathing does not seem necessary to get results. Indeed some students did not use it and yet managed to reduce their apnea significantly. However, despite these promising results, one must not overshadow the major constraint of didgeridoo, which is the necessity to practice daily.

What is sleep apnea ?

Sleep apnea involves respiratory micro-stops during sleep. These arrests can go from 10 to 60, and more, per hour. As a result, deep sleep is impossible. Consequently, the person awakes as tired as before. The body has simply not been able to rest. This causes symptoms such as :

  • A tired feeling all along the day, which can turn into uncontrolled sleepiness,
  • Irritability,
  • Decreased libido,
  • Depression.

The most insidious thing about this story is that the subject is not aware of his/her apnea. That is why only few people are taken care of.

There are two main types of sleep apnea :

  • Central apneas : they result from a neurological dysfunction. The brain does not give the right information, thus, the body does not know how to control breathing properly.
  • Obstructive sleep apneas : they are often related to obesity or to a metabolic problem. In this case, the person fights against the obstruction of the upper airways (nose, mouth, pharynx, larynx). This is where the practice of didgeridoo can become interesting.

The method’s limits

All method has its disadvantages, and didgeridoo is no exception to this rule. While it is true that Robert and other students were able to find the motivation to practice didgeridoo daily, it is unfortunately not the case for everyone.

From 2012 to 2015, I provided private lessons at the Médimarien medical center in Brussels in collaboration with the physiotherapist Arthur Schuiten, as a part of sleep apnea and snoring cases. During these three years, few students were able to find the motivation to play. One must know that the beginnings of didgeridoo are often laborious. And I noticed that people who do not provide themselves with the means to achieve during the first month are likely to stop praticing in the following weeks.

Although most people who practice regularly feel better after a few weeks, it takes several months to achieve tangible results. Didgeridoo is a marathon whereas some people are preparing a sprint.

The motivation of didgeridoo

The first month, didgeridoo therefore requires motivation and discipline. While many give up, others continue and hang on. At the end of the day, those like Robert, who played regularly are students who fell in love with didgeridoo. This enabled them to change their views on the instrument. Rather than seeing it as “something to do”, they saw it as a hobby, a moment of relaxation, time for them.

Your determination is most important, just as much as your wish to give yourself the means to succeed. Fortunately, a didgeridoo does not cost much (see “What didgeridoo to start with”). As a result, you lose nothing by trying. You can thus see if it suits you. You can also download the beginner’s guide to start your learning !

Feel free to ask me questions and to share your experience in the sections below, I’d be happy to answer them !

About the Author

Gauthier Aubé

Hi ! My name is Gauthier Aubé and I’m passionate about the didgeridoo. I started playing at the end of 2001. And with time, didgeridoo has become my profession. A real stroke of luck ! Since then, I’ve released two albums, written a book about how to play and invented the card game Wakatou, which helps players to create their own rhythms on the didgeridoo. Enjoy your reading !


  1. … that, on the other hand X-)=) (you know which other hand I am talking about), is a VERY informative article!
    Thank you!

    I was unfortunate to have two cases with sleep apnea in my workshops that were relatively hopeless, given the time limitations and my lack of therapeutical knowledge.
    One was a woman who suffered from a stroke and was paralyzed on one side of her face (haha, sideways playing, no, didn’t help.. 😉 ). If she had been playing before it might not have posed so much of a problem, but to begin playing was too hard for her.
    The other one was a very slender woman in her seventies who turned out to have had a surgery in her throat when she was 5 years old. She did not indulge in any kind of musical activities through all of her life, didn’t sing or listen to music *at all*. She was not interested in the Didgeridoo in itself (she found it mildly interesting) and above all wasn’t able to assess the characteristic of *any* given sound (up to the point that she sometimes managed to get her lips vibrating, but as soon as I turned around she was just doing voices becaus she found that easier … )
    I ended up teaching her how to work a mouthful of water with her mouth and cheeks and not let it run down her throat. (She wasn’t even able to do that. When brushing her teeth she leaned forward to keep water from running down her throat, she told me…)
    I wish I had known about that “l”-idea, that sounds quite promising…

    Both women were (only reluctantly, and rightly so) sent to me after they insisted they didn’t want to wear a mask.
    But without the fun of playing it or even any interest in the instrument I couldn’t see any potential there …

    1. Author

      Yes that’s exactly right : the harder thing and all the challenge about the “therapeutic didgeridoo” is the motivation of the beginner. It’s really the most difficult things to input ! And to say the truth, I didn’t find it the way yet. Still a lot of teaching to learn. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing your own experiences, it will be great if all teachers would come and share like this. 🙂

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