Māori music

Māori music

Te Pūoro Māori or Māori Music is music composed or performed by Māori, the native people of New Zealand, and includes a wide variety of folk music styles, often integrated with poetry and dance, as well as modern rock and roll, soul, reggae and hip hop.



Pre-European Māori music was predominantly sung, but researchers Hirini Melbourne, Richard Nunns and Brian Flintoff have unearthed a rich tradition of wind, percussion and whirled instruments known by the collective term Taonga pūoro or musical instruments which were tools used mainly by Tohunga (Maori Expert) for communication between the temporal and spiritual realms.

Songs (waiata) were sung solo, in unison or at the octave. Types of song included lullabies (oriori), love songs (waitata aroha) and laments (waiata tangi). Traditionally all speeches usually follow with a song and the group of supporters would usually join in. Some of the smaller wind instruments were also sung into, and the sound of the poi (raupo ball swung on the end of a flax cord) provided a rhythmic accompaniment to waiata poi.

Captain Cook reported that the Māori sang in "semitones" and others reported that the Māori had no singing/vocal music at all or sang discordantly, but this is incorrect. Europeans could not hear the microtones the Māori were singing. A pre-European song could have a range of as little as a minor third but with several more than the four notes of European music within that range. A song would repeat a single melodic line, generally centred on one note, falling away at the end of the last line. It was a bad omen for a song to be interrupted, so singers in groups would cover for each other while individuals took breaths. It was missionary influence that led to the harmonisation of modern Māori music. Through the 19th and 20th centuries the compass of new songs in traditional style gradually increased, so that it is possible to date a song approximately by its range.

An important collection of traditional song lyrics is Ngā Mōteatea by Sir Apirana Ngata but it was Mervyn McLean, in "Traditional Songs of the Maori", who first notated the microtones of a significant number of them.

Māori culture group at 1981 Nambassa festival.

As part of a deliberate campaign to revive Māori music and culture in the early 20th century, Ngata virtually invented the "action song" (waiata-a-ringa) in which stylised body movements, many with standardised meanings, synchronise with the singing. He, Tuini Ngawai and the tourist concert parties of Rotorua developed the familiar performance of today, with sung entrance, poi, haka ("war dance"), stick game, hymn, ancient song and/or action song, and sung exit. The group that performs it is known as a kapa haka, and in the last few decades, competitions within iwi (tribes) and religious denominations (notably the Kotahitanga sect)[citation needed], regionally and nationally, have raised their performances to a high standard.

While the guitar has become an almost universal instrument to accompany Maori performances today, this only dates from the mid 20th century. Earlier performers used the piano or violin. Some modern artists have revived the use of traditional instruments such as Hinewehi Mohi, Tiki Taane, Maisey Rika and Taisha Tari.

Ngata and Tuini Ngawai composed many songs using European tunes, to encourage Māori pride and, from 1939, to raise morale among Māori at home and at the war. Many, such as "Hoki mai e tama mā" and "E te Hokowhiti-a-Tū" (to the tune of "In the Mood") are still sung today. More recently, other styles originating overseas, including jazz, swing and rock have been incorporated. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hirini Melbourne composed prolifically in an adapted form of traditional style (His Tīhore mai te rangi seldom ranges outside a major third, and Ngā iwi e outside a fourth) and groups like Herbs created a Māori style of reggae.

In 1964, Te Matatini O Te Ra or in other words, the Aotearoa Traditional Māori Performing Arts Festival was founded, though the board did not actually schedule its first concert until 1972, with the express purpose of encouraging the development of Māori music.


This is a formal call, ceremonial call - a ceremonial call of welcome to visitors onto a Marae (traditional Maori pa or tribal grounds), or equivalent venue, at the start of a pōwhiri (welcome ceremony). The Karanga is given by women (or kaikaranga) only as the Maori people believe that a woman's voice is a powerful thing because she is the giver of life. Her karanga calls us from the darkness of Te Po (the night) and takes us into Te Ao Marama (the world of light). Her energy unlocks the pulse of life.

The Karanga is also used for the responses from the visiting party/group to the ceremonial call from the tangata whenua (people of the land). It follows a format which includes a series of discussions (such as whaikorero, mihi and whakawhanaungatanga) and addressing and greeting each other and the people they are representing and paying tribute to the dead, especially those who have died recently. The purpose of the occasion is also addressed during this time. Traditionally, this was a time where the tangata whenua could determine whether the visiting party were visiting in peace or for purposes of war. Skilled kaikaranga are able to use eloquent language and metaphor and to encapsulate important information about the group and the purpose of the visit.

Taonga Pūoro (Traditional Māori Musical Instruments)

The use of these instruments, as part of the toolkit of the Tohunga (Maori priests) seemed to be exclusively used as a “cell phone” or an oral flux between Ira Tangata (man) to Ira Atua (the Divine/Gods) or the temporal and the spiritual, which is why the Maori held them with awe and respect because they were profoundly regarded in the tapu (sacred/taboo) domain as items of use from the Tohunga. When used for entertainment and for recreation, it was a hidden and private practice.

Music later on, in a western sense, had veered away from the spiritual sense although largely hymn singing had become very important to the Maori people in the 19th Century but it veered away from the spiritual and Taonga Puoro became a pastime of recreation, something you do when you had nothing more important to do.

Much of these musical traditions had been lost over time but sensitive researchers and enthusiasts such as Dr. Richard Nunns, Hirini Melbourne and Brian Flintoff have done considerable restorative work and provided a wealth of knowledge and information around the sounds, history and stories of these taonga, ensuring their preservation for future generations.

See videos of these beautiful taonga puoro (musical instruments) and waiata (song) - Video of Te Hekenga-a-Rangi (Excerpt 1) and (Excerpt 2)



The kōauau is a small flute, ductless and notchless, 10cm to 20cm (4 to 8 inches) long, open at both ends and having from three to six fingerholes placed along the pipe. Kōauau resemble flutes the world over in tone quality and in the range of sounds that can be produced by directing the breath across the sharp edge of the upper aperture. Māori kōauau players were renowned for the power it gave them over the affections of women (notably illustrated by the story of Tūtānekai, who, by playing his kōauau to cause Hinemoa to swim to him across Lake Rotorua). Kōauau are made of wood or bone. Formerly the bone was of bird bone such as albatross or moa; some instruments were also of human bone and were associated with chiefly status and with the traditional practice of utu.

Nguru made from wood with pāua shell inserts.

The nguru is a small vessel flute in the Helmholtz oscillator class, like an ocarina or xun. It is made of wood, soapstone or bone and shaped like a whale's tooth. Sometimes it is made from a whale's tooth. It is from 5cm to 15cm (2 to 6 inches) in length, wide at the blowing end and tapering to the lower where it is slightly turned up. It has two or three fingerholes and an extra hole bored on the underside, near the curved end, through which a cord could be passed so that it could hang round the owner's neck. It is played in the same way as a kōauau and produces a similar pure flute-like sound. The nguru is sometimes classified as a nose flute perhaps because the word nguru means to sigh, moan, or snore. This is unlikely because the large end is too wide for a nostril and, if the curved end were placed in that same position, the flute would lie at an impossible angle for the player to reach the fingerholes.


A long flute with a closed top and a transverse blowing hole and finger holes like a pōrutu.


A long flute with a notched open top which is the blowing edge and a single finger hole near the end - the instrument was chanted through and was traditionally played over the fontanelle of an infant to implant songs and tribal information into the child's subconscious.


Some of the following instruments can be blown as a trumpet as well as a flute, as you would play a kōauau.

One example of a large Pūtōrino (555mm long and 50mm wide in the middle), a traditional Māori musical instrument that is played as both a flute and a horn. Note the shape resembles the native bag-moth (Psychidae: Liothula omnivora). Constructed in the 21st century using stone tools, this pūtōrino was made from one piece of mataī wood that was split, shaped and hollowed, and then bound back together, in this instance with a modern nylon line. This particular instrument is free of external, carved adornment of any sort.

The pūtōrino is known for its wide range of voices including a male voice (trumpet) and a female voice (flute). The pūtōrino varies in length from 20cm to 50cm (9 to 20 inches) and has an uneven bore, swelling out to the centre and diminishing evenly towards the lower end, where the pipe is narrow, and has either a very small opening or none at all. The outer shape is carved from a solid piece of wood, split in half lengthwise, hollowed out like two small waka and then lashed together again with flax cord or similar subtitute for binding. At the widest part of the pipe there is an opening shaped like a grotesque mouth. The finest specimens are decorated at both ends with carved figures, and the open mouth is part of a head which is outlined on the flat surface of the pipe. It can be played with bugle technique, with closed lips which are set in vibration by the rapid withdrawal of the tongue. Small variations of pitch can be produced by moving the forefinger over the centre opening.

Example of the Pūtōrino


The pōrutu is a long version of the kōauau, usually measuring from 38cm to 57cm long (14 to 22 inches). The playing quality differs depending on the material it is made from. New Zealand native hardwoods such as mānuka, mataī, or black maire are suitable for a clean resonating effects. Like the pūtorino, it has 2 voices, the male (trumpet) and female (flute). The female voice can produce up to 5 harmonics depending on the bore.



The Pūkaea is a traditional Maori trumpet made of wood. There are several differing designs and lengths within the Pūkaea genre. Pūkaea were used to announce relay signals at times of conflict and were also used to announce the rituals associated with the planting of kumara (sweet potato) and other crops. The function of this instrument is to herald spiritual pathways. As a war trumpet they were used in announcing an oncoming war-party and were dedicated to Tumatauenga (god of war). In the announcement of harvest they were dedicated to Rongomatane (God of agriculture, arts and peace). Today they can be heard heralding the visitors onto the marae or at the opening and closing of important ceremonies.

Example of a large Pūkaea


A traditional Maori conch shell trumpet which had a variety of roles from signaling to ceremonial and ritual use.

Example of the Pūtātara (second instrument only)

Other musical instruments

Percussion Instruments

Pahū Pounamu

This Maori musical instrument is made of wood and a jade/greenstone gong and was used in the whare purakau (house of learning). Part of it is made of the jaw bone of the upokohue (pilot whale) and the striker is made from akeake, a native hardwood.

Whirled Instruments


The Purerehua can be made of bone, wood or stone, they are blade-like and swing on a long cord producing a loud, deep whirling that can be heard from a distance. A rapid spinning motion will start the music of the Purerehua'a song as it rotates and flutters. Uses vary from luring lizards, summoning rain, communicating and attracting a soul mate.

Example of a non-traditional Pūrerehua


This Maori musical instrument was used as a bird lure. It was made by hollowing a gourd, drilling holes on either side and attaching a cord by which it could be swung around the head creating a whistling, chattering voice that attracted birds.

See also

External links

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