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No. 36 (September 1961)
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A finely carved Maori flute (kauauau) Photo Dominion Museum


Maori music today is very different in spirit and purpose from the art that was practiced for many generations by the vigorous high-primitive people who inhabited New Zealand before the coming of the white settlers about 150 years ago. The difference is not so much a matter of the actual sound of the music as it is of the function or part that music plays in a primitive society. Music is more closely associated with the everyday life of the people in a primitive society than it is in more highly civilised ones. For the Maori people of pre-European times, music was indispensable in almost every activity of life. This is very different from the use of music in the Western world where its chief purpose is for pleasure, relaxation and aesthetic delight. The Maori of today can choose to be interested in the music of his ancestors but he is free also to get along without it. This means, in general terms, that for primitive man, music is a vital necessity whereas, with people in higher stages of cultural development, its use is a matter of choice.

Dr Charles Burney, the 18th century music historian, defines the function of music in the Western world in the following way:

“Music is an innocent luxury, unnecessary to our existence but a great improvement and gratification of sense and bearing.”

Compare Burney's definition with one given in William's Dictionary of the Maori Language for an important word connected with music. The word “karakia” is defined thus:

“Charm spell, incentation: particularly the ancient rites proper to every important matter in the life of the Maori.”

The words “every important matter” indicate the very close association that music had in Maori community life in former times. Every happening, whether connected with life, death, marriage, initiation, love, mourning, work, play or ceremonial rites had its appropriate musical ritual. The watchman on duty in the pa at night sang a “whakaaraara pa” to keep the watch awake or to give warning of danger.

The operator sang a “tanga moko” or tattooing-beguiling song to divert the patient's mind during the painful operation of tattooing. In hauling a canoe the boatmen sang a “to waka” to synchronise their movements and the rowers of a canoe kept strict time with their paddles to the rhythm of a “tuki waka.” When kites were flown for the purpose of divining the future the tohunga chanted a charm called a “turu” or “karakia pakaukau”. Special “oriori” were composed for the birth of a child of rank, “waiata tangi” were used for mourning ceremonies, “waiata aroha” to express love or yearning, and visitors were welcomed with a “tau marae”. Even the children spun their tops to an “oriori potaka” throwing them down all together at a particular point in the song. Chants were also used for the important purpose of committing to memory tribal history, legends, genealogies and the occult lore of the race which was passed from one generation to the next by specially chosen people. In that way music helped to supply a deficiency due to the lack of a written language.


The old Maori music is often called ‘primitive,’ in the sense of one being “in an early stage of development,” that is, belonging to undeveloped peoples. However, the word “primitive” does not

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mean that the music is “simple”; there is nothing simple about the microtonal intervals (intervals smaller than a semitone) which give a distinctive flavour to Maori chant.

Primitive music, then, is the art of peoples, people who have no written language and therefore no formulated theoretical system. It is aurally passed on from one generation to the next.

The most important difference between primitive music and art music is to be found in the purpose which music serves in relation to the life of the community. In the Western world, music is a thing apart, something that affects the lives of some people seriously and others, hardly at all. But in a primitive society the case is very different; it concerns the everyday life of each person in the tribe in an intimate way that is quite unknown in more highly developed communities. Reference has already been made to the important role of music in pre-European Maori life.

Primitive music is primarily vocal, and instrumental music, where it exists at all, is used to accompany singing. An instrumental song has words associated with it. The words are of prime importance and the tune serves the purpose of the words. A “song without words” is a Western concept of music as is also the idea of listening to music as an end in itself.

Elsdon Best explains that when a Maori flute player played a “rangi koauau” he would try to suggest the words associated with that tune by his manner of playing the flute.

“It would sometimes happen,” he wrote, “that an adept would so play his flute as to make the sounds resemble the wording of a song; in such a case his playing was much admired by women.”

The second point of difference between primitive and art music is, then, that in primitive music the words are of primary importance and in art music, music need not and often does not serve the purpose of the words. In other words, the music can be an end in itself.


A third difference lies in the restricted range of melody which is a feature of many primitive styles. No attempt is made to use the full range of sounds the human voice is capable of producing. The average, untrained voice has a range of about a tenth but primitive melodies are often based on patterns consisting of two, three or four notes. And, not only are the patterns limited in range, but they are repeated over and over again, with only slight variations of the pattern. To Western ears, this endless repetition goes beyond the limits of endurance but, for the initiated, there is no feeling of monotony because both those who sing and those who listen are concentrating on the words and the purpose of the song.

I have noticed that when a group of Maoris are together and one sings a song or chant the others listen intently to the words and show amusement, indignation or sadness according to the character of the words. They even carry on an animated conversation during and after the performance. The Pakeha who listens judges it solely from the Western idea of music for pleasure and hears only a primitive type of melody which soon becomes tedious.

In the matter of tone, primitive singers produce nasal, thin, harsh, fierce or indistinct sounds which seldom conform to Western ideas of beautiful particular type of tone can often be found in the tone. Some clues on the reason for the use of a purpose of the song. The hunter luring the game into his traps will use a different type of tone from the witch doctor who is trying to scare away the demon of sickness from his patient.

It will be noticed that each characteristic feature of primitive music refers back to the purpose of the song and its relation to some activity of everyday life in the community.


Another very important aspect of primitive music, which can only be touched on here, is the association of music and magic. This is an age-old partnership which must have come about through the extraordinary psychological effect which music has on the mind of man. It is a common expression to describe a fine performance of music as “sheer magic'. The medical profession today sometimes prescribes listening to music as a cure for certain types of nervous and mental disorders. This hidden power of music has been felt by men in all ages and in varying stages of cultural development, as the following examples, drawn from widely different sources, will show.

When David sang before Saul, the sweet sounds of his singing had the effect of turning aside the king's anger and of making him repent of his evil intention of killing David.

Krishna, one of the ancient gods of India, played his flute with such ravishing effect that the normal course of nature was altered.

“The rivers stopped flowing, the birds halted in their flight and all inanimate things under the sun grew brighter.”

In the old German legend of the “Pied Piper” all the children of the town of Hamelin were lured away from their homes by the magic of the piper's music.

“Out came the children running Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after the Wonderful music with skipping and laughter:”

The flute, with its extraordinary pure tone, has always been the instrument of magic, even more than the human voice.

The Maori of former times was not unaware of the magic that slept in the little carved koauau that hung round the chief's neck. When the young and beautiful chieftainess, Hinemoa, heard the love call played by Tutanekai on his flute:

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“She felt as if an earthquake shook her to make her go to the beloved of her heart.”

There is an old Maori proverb that says:

“Ka tangi te koauau, te kanakana te hae.”

(When the koauau is heard the jealous eye is on the watch.)


In their desire to control forces they did not fully understand primitive peoples the world over have invented various forms of magic to bring about all kinds of desired effects. The magic rites of the priest, the tohunga, the witch doctor or the medicine-man have taken the form of incantations, charms, spells or ritual songs by the aid of which those tribal leaders claimed to control the weather, the growth of crops, to cure the sick, to foretell the future, to bring success in war, hunting or fishing and to break the spell of evil spirits. Very rigid rules had to be observed in the performance of magic rites to make sure that the charm or spell would work. This secret power was not entirely “phoney”, to use a popular expression. Behind the “hocus pocus” of many magic rites there existed a fund of good psychology, intuition, acquired and even occult knowledge.

[The effect of such binding rites on the musical culture of a tribe or race was to hold it static for long periods at a time. The only possibility of change would lie in a major revolution in ways of living and thinking such as overtook the ancient Maori culture at the coming of the white settlers to New Zealand, 150 years ago.]

It will be seen from this brief discussion that a primitive musical culture can only be judged by its power to express the racial character and way of life of the people who have created it. One of the early Pacific explorers who accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage to the South Seas saw the intimate relationship between the racial character and temperament of the Maori people and its expression in the emotional language of their music.

“The taste of the New Zealanders for Music,” wrote Forster, “and their superiority in this respect to other nations of the South Seas, are to me stronger proof in favour of their hearts than all the idle eloquence of philosophers can invalidate.”