Traditional Maori Instruments

Alongside the vocal tradition of song and chant, Maori music encompasses a wide range of drum percussion and wind instruments.

In traditional Maori society the voice, chant and instrumental sounds played a significant role in the social and ritual activity of the community.

In the absence of a written literature in traditional Maori society, the musical tradition forms a large part of Maori oral literature.

Nowadays the music is mainly vocal. The use of instruments became neglected under influence of christianity, but today there is a strong revival movement.

Originally Maori people only used aerophones and idiophones. Of course recently in contemporary commercial music the guitar and ukelele made their appearance, too.

The vocal music can be divided in two categories: the recitatives and the songs. The recitatives have no fixed pitch organisation and the tempo is much higher than the songís tempo.

Haka are shouted speeches by men, combined with a fierce dance. Haka Taparahi are performed without weapons and they can give expression to different emotions depending on the situation for which they are performed. Haka Peruperu are performed with weapons and associated with war dances. For example the New Zealand Rugby team performs the Haka before every match to frighten the opponents and to achieve power.

Waiata is the most frequent category of Maori songs. They are laments about different topics. Traditionally waiata are sung in group and in unisono.

Waiata tangi are laments for the dead. The word tangi means weeping. This form is mainly composed by women. During burial ceremonies women were expected to show signs of deep grief, for example by wounding their faces with sharp stones. Sometimes these waiata were very personal, telling about the composerís emotions and feelings towards the dead. When composed by men the waiata tangi can also instruct us about the warrior qualities of the dead person.

But laments can also have broader topics. It can make for example allusion to most of the calamities that can befall mankind.

Waiata ahore are love songs and waiata whaiaapo are songs for the beloved one. They tell us about the misery that a love affair can provoke.

Maori instruments

Koauau: Of all Maori flutes the koauau is the most appreciated. It can be made out of different materials: wood, albatross wing bones or even a human bone. It is a straight blown flute, blown under an angle, 12 to 15 cm long and with a bore of 1 to 2 cm. When the instrument is not played, it is worn around the neck. It has 3 fingerholes. They are flutes with haunting melody that vibrates, sometimes with vocalisation.


Nguru: This small instrument (8 to 10 cm) is curved at the one end because originally this flute was made out of a whale tooth. It can be also made out of wood, stone or clay. It has one open end like the Koauau and one small opening at the curved end. It has 2 to 4 fingerholes.

The difference between Nguru and Koauau is that the Nguru is often refered to as a nose flute.


Pukaea: It is a wooden war trumpet made out of two pieces of wood cut lengthwise and hollowed out. Both pieces are again assembled and kept in place by fibres or ropes. The length varies between 1 m and 2,5 m. On one side there is a sculptured wooden mouthpiece and the other side of the instrument is broader and ressembles an open mouth. The Pukaea could be used during the war as a megaphone or as an alarm instrument.



To music tasks