Traditional Māori Music


As is characteristic of indigenous societies, music played an integral role in traditional Māori life and was present in virtually all aspects of human activity.


Traditional waiata, or songs, were not just sung or composed by men and women for entertainment but for specific purposes. Waiata were sung in public to express a range of emotions and to convey messages and experiences. Even today waiata still holds an important role in bringing the past into the present.

Traditional waiata lyrics were a way of recording and passing down knowledge and stories to present generations; knowledge like the historical celebrations and laments of iwi, ancestor and composer. These songs whether sung by individuals or groups were expressions of a shared history between singer(s) and audience.

Two Maori scholars who studied, gathered and published traditional waiata were Sir Āpirana Ngata and Dr Pei Te Hurinui Jones. Their landmark Ngā Mōteatea represents a substantial collection of traditional waiata and oriori.

Usually waiata were sung quite slowly, although the melodies consisted of a small number of notes these were often inventively rearranged. Melodically, traditional waiata encompassed a range of a minor third. However, within this range were shifts smaller than semitones. Melodic contours were often enhanced by the use of vocal ornamentations and embellishments, such as, glissandi (sliding) and bends (pitches that move slightly up and or down).

In this topic you will discover a range of Māori taonga, including photographs and clips of Māori music, some traditional, others demonstrating the influence of European music. Through this study you will also understand the influence of traditional Māori music in New Zealand music today, in both the popular and classical genres.

Transitional - The Impact of European Music

While most people think of traditional Māori music as the action songs (waiata kori) and hand songs (waiata-ā-ringa) performed regularly today, these were not part of the earliest Māori music.

Since colonisation, Māori borrowed from European music sources and often adapted the tunes for their own use. Through Victorian hymns Maori were exposed to a new range of tonal possibilities, for example the English hymn How Great Thou Art. Similarly in the song Taku Patu, you can hear harmonisation in parallel triads, illustrating a departure from traditional Māori harmony while revealing a European musical influence. Other examples include Karu Karu and Poi Waka, or canoe song.

Some of the more common types of traditional Māori music styles performed include;

Chanted Styles:


These are wailing calls of welcome performed by women to signal the start of a hui. Karanga can also be given to acknowledge koha placed on a marae, to salute a successful concert or theatre production. Generally karanga are brief poetic statements and callers need to have a fluency in the language. Farewell karanga to the dead are the most difficult to perform but they are a means of honouring the deceased and the bereaved family. Karanga are regarded as taonga.


Traditionally karakia are an invocation to atua or gods responsible for a particular area of knowledge, e.g. felling trees for building, waka, launching new fishing nets, welcoming a new dawn, a new-born child, or opening a new meeting-house. The term karakia now encompasses a range of Christian prayers conducted in formal or informal settings for example in Churches, Meeting houses, outside on the Marae or in private homes.


Haka is a posture-dance with shouted vocal chanting accompanied by hand actions, foot-stamping and facial expressions. Though many people associate haka with men and war there are many types of haka performed by women and children. Haka are used in a variety of situations to welcome visitors to Marae, meetings, weddings and on significant cultural occasions, like the America's Cup in downtown Auckland.
Haka can also be performed to honour the dead, either during a welcome or a final farewell. In that sense haka becomes a taonga to honour a person.

Sung Styles:


Although waiata is a generic term for all songs, it can mean a specific type of song when a descriptive noun is added. Waiata may also mean to sing. Waiata are associated with many types of activities and celebrations including:

There were also oriori, these were lullabies, though the term also encompasses songs sung and written especially for chiefs' children, to educate them about their whakapapa

Māori Musical Instruments

Generally traditional Māori instruments fall into two categories, those that are blown (for example flutes, trumpets and whistles) and those that were struck (for example war gongs). Stringed instruments and drums were not used by Māori until the arrival of Europeans.


The most widely known traditional Māori instrument was the flute. Flutes were carved from wood, bone, stone, and even sperm whale teeth. Some wooden flutes are particularly noteworthy for the rich detail of their carving. The most common type of flute was the kōauau. It was a relatively short hollow tube of wood or bone (usually albatross or human) with three holes drilled in it. A sound was made by blowing across its top opening. Other types of flutes included;

Flutes were especially valued by Maori. It was said that a particularly skilful musician could breathe words into a flute that would be then be carried to listeners on the notes of the tune.
Flutes feature in a number of traditional Māori tales, the most notable being the legend of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. It was the sound of Tūtānekai's flute that guided Hinemoa one night across Lake Rotorua from Ōwhata to Mokoia Island. New Zealand's longest place name also features the flute. Taumatawhakatangihangakōauauotamatea turipūkakapikimaungahoronukupōkaiwhenuakitanatahu is located in southern Hawke's Bay and translates as "The summit of the hill, where Tamatea, who is known as the land eater, slid down, climbed up and swallowed mountains, played on his nose flute to his loved one."

Historically one of the last traditional players of the koauau was Mrs Pairoa Wineera, (Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toa). She first learnt to play the kōauau in 1895 from her uncle, Hemi Hohaea. In this section you can hear a short recording of Pairoa Wineera playing a flute and also talking about the difference between traditional and modern Māori music.


Other traditional Māori instruments that were blown included trumpets or pū. These were made of flax, shell or wood. The teetere was made by coiling a split flax blade into a cone shape which was then blown through to produce a trumpet like sound. They were often made for and by children but were also used to announce the arrival of visiting parties to a Pā or village.

The pūtātara, or conch shell trumpet, was used for signalling. It was made from large Triton shells,(Charonia capax) by removing the shell's top and replacing it with a carved wooden mouthpiece.

The pūkāea was a wooden trumpet made from a split piece of wood, both halves being hollowed out then lashed together. It was around 2 metres in length, though some were longer. Pūkāea were used as war trumpets, to signal when enemy were sighted. They were also blown by Pā sentries to announce that they were on the alert for possible attack.


Maori musical instruments that were not blown but struck included gongs or pahū. Like the pūkāea or war trumpet, puhū were also used as a signalling device in times of warfare. There were constructed from wood slabs that were either partially hollowed or had a hole cut through the centre. Some pahū were very large -over 6 metres in length. They were mounted on watch towers and once struck with a mallet their sound could be heard over long distances - up to 20 kilometres in some cases.

For many years many of the above traditional Māori instruments were only found in museums rather than on the Marae, and the performance skills required to play them were considered lost. However over the last decades Māori musical instruments have enjoyed a revival. Two prominent musicians who have extensively promoted and performed these instruments are musicians Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns. Their skill and inspiration has brought to life the subtle and traditional sounds of Māori musical instruments to a wide audience through numerous tours and their recordings, notably the CD Te Kū Te Whē v (The Origin of sound). While both Musicians play these instruments in the traditional sense they also recognise the music plays a part in the modern world, often to great effect. For example the kōauau is featured on the Once Were Warriors soundtrack to great atmospheric effect, while the karanga weka (stone flute) can be heard on Moana and the Moahunters 1993 CD Tahi.

Buchanan, Dorothy and Keri Kaa. Traditional Maori music. Discover: Te Kohanga Taonga, updated June 29 2002. URL: