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No. 47 (June 1964)
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The article printed below is to be published as a preface to the Third Part of ‘Nga Moteatea’, edited by Mr Pei te Hurunui Jones, which will be published by the Maori Purposes Fund Board later this year. ‘Te Ao Hou’ is grateful to the Maori Purposes Fund Board for permission to publish the article here.

The Music of Maori Chant


Most readers of ‘Te Ao Hou’ will know that there are two kinds of Maori music. The kind with which most people are familiar, known as action song, dates only from about the first decades of the present century. In its present form it is little more than a Maorified form of Western popular music.

The other kind of Maori music has a long tradition dating back to the beginnings of the Maori people. Even today it remains associated with the old values and institutions of Maoridom. It exhibits, in consequence, great tenacity of style.

It is with the older form of music that this article is concerned.

Since, so far as the writer is aware, there is no generally accepted name which incorporates the whole of the older song tradition, it will be called here ‘Maori chant’. This term is used as inclusive of waiata, patere, pao, and all the other forms discussed. It is used in preference to the term ‘Maori song’ which could also include action song.

Until now, scholarly attention to Maori chant has mostly been directed towards the words. Sir Apirana Ngata for example, in the Prefaces to both parts 1 and 2 of ‘Nga Moteatea’, deals with the chants exclusively from a literary point of view.

This did not mean that the importance of the

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music had been overlooked. In the Preface to part 1, Ngata expressly pointed out that ‘there can be no proper rendering of Maori songs without capturing the air’. Only since the advent of the tape recorder, however, has it been possible either to record a sufficient number of melodies for study or to undertake the much more difficult task of devising a notation that could handle the material.


Before going on to discuss the style of Maori chant it may be worthwhile to say a word or two about the aesthetic value of the songs.

That the songs have great merit from a literary point of view is well attested by Sir Apirana Ngata and others. That they have equal value musically is not so widely recognised.

From the start it ought to be made clear that judgements of musically untrained persons about the so-called ‘monotony’ of Maori chant should be disregarded. Such judgements are made in terms of Western culture whose values are quite different from those of Maori chant. They form no more valid a means of comparison than would (say) Chinese music or Japanese music, both highly developed forms in their own right but virtually incomprehensible to most untrained Western listeners.

As the conclusions which follow will demonstrate, Maori music was, and in its traditional form is, an advanced form of music with its own rules and its own values.


The classification traditionally adopted for the chants is one of function, with most of the finer points literary rather than musical in nature. The tangi (or lament) for example, can be sub-classified as a song of grief, sorrow, longing, self-pity, regret, etc., depending on context. This is quite fully treated by Sir Apirana Ngata in the Prefaces to parts 1 and 2 of ‘Nga Moteatea’.

Musically, it is possible to put each type of chant into one of two broad groups according to whether it is sung or recited. Amongst the sung types of chant are the waiata of all kinds including the Tangi, Waiata aroha (love long), and Waiata whaiaipo (sweetheart song); the Oriori (lullaby) and the Pao (entertainment song). The recited songs include the Patere (historical or genealogical tour), Whakaaraara pa (watch song), Kaioraora (abusive song), Tauparapara (recitation before speaking) and Karakia (incantation).

In addition to these there exist a few others perhaps best described as semi-sung. Notable amongst these is the Karanga which is the generic name for the calls of all kinds performed by women on the marae. It includes Powhiri (greeting calls) and Poroporoaki (farewell calls).

The sung type of chant differs from the recited in the following ways—


It is melodically organised. That is to say, it has a recognisable air made up of notes definite enough in pitch to be capable of arrangement in the form of a scale. Rises and falls of pitch may become established in some recited songs but they cannot be arranged in scale form.


The melody of sung items can be melismatic, i.e. more than one note can be sung per syllable. Recited songs by contrast are always syllabic and melisma cannot occur.


Sung items nearly always have a much slower tempo than recited ones. This results both from melisma and the greater tendency to dwell upon certain notes. The latter is particularly in evidence in the ‘drags’ which are discussed later under the heading to performance. Recited songs on the other hand, particularly karakia, sometimes rattle along at tempos in excess of 300 syllables per minute.


The characteristics of sung items which make for slower tempo, have their effect also on metre and rhythm. For example the durational values of the notes employed in recited song tend to be fewer than those of the sung items. Often, indeed, there are only two—long and short.


Breathing. With most songs it is customary for the performer to sing without any breaks for breathing such as occur at the cadence points in European songs. When two or more people are singing this is easy to achieve since the singers concerned can take breath at different moments during the song. In the case of the solo singer however, to sing without break is impossible. It is for this reason that solo singing—except for a few song types such as the tauparapara—is not greatly favoured. A solo singer makes the best of things by singing for as long a time as possible on one breath. When he does take a breath, it may or may not be at the end of a line. It is more likely to be in the middle of a line and may even be in the middle of a word.

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Meaningless syllabifying and leader solos. Part of the technique for getting on to the right note at the beginning of a musical phrase involves the extension of the previous line by the addition of meaningless syllables. This excursion takes the singer above the note to which he is going. These often highly melismatic sections of meaningless syllabifying usually occur at the end of each repetition of the basic melody (see later under Form) bridging the end of one repetition and the beginning of the next. The device is commonly known as the ‘drag’. In group performance, the ‘drag’ is usually performed solo by the leader while the rest of the group take opportunity to catch a breath. Frequently these leader solos are highly ornamented and are often responsible for much of the beauty of the song.

‘Riding in.’ When a singer, who for some reason has temporarily dropped out, wishes to sing again with the rest, he often ‘rides in’ to the note which the rest are singing by beginning a 3rd or 4th higher and filling in to the unison. This ‘riding in’ to a note seems always to take place from above a melody note rather than from below. The added notes—since they are incidental to the performance—are not generally thought of as forming part of the melody.

Ambiguity of song beginnings. Very often, singers require a phrase or two to establish the melody. In both solo and group performances the beginning of a song may seem rhythmically vague and uncertain in comparison with the remainder. The tendency is, in fact, common enough to be considered a part of the style. Not infrequently the beginning differs from the basic melody, as later established, melodically as well as rhythmically. In such a case the tendency is usually for the beginning to be of narrower range.

Singing faults. There is a highly developed terminology of singing faults associated with the traditional chant. Faults may be melodic, rhythmic, or textual in their nature.


Melodic. ‘Rangi-rua’ (literally two melodies) or parallelism. Here, one singer gets on to a note a 4th or 5th apart from the rest and sings throughout in parallel intervals.


Rhythmic. ‘Taupatupatu’ (literally, up and down) out of beat.


Textual. ‘Haua whakahua’, faulty pronunciation, ‘Haua kama’, faulty enunciation or articulation and ‘kunanunanu’, uncertainty as to words.


Scale. The melodic organisation of Maori waiata centres as a rule around a fixed intoning note or ‘oro’ as it has been called. If the notes used in a chant are written out consecutively in the form of a scale, the ‘oro’ will be found somewhere close to the middle. Since each departure from the ‘oro’ is ordinarily followed by a return to it, the ‘oro’ is invariably the most frequently occurring note of a melody. In most cases it is also the final and often it starts the song as well. In musical terms, the ‘oro’ can thus be thought of as the tonic, and the melody as a whole can be described as centric.

Usually there are fewer notes in the scale than is generally the case with European song. It is not uncommon for songs to have only 3 or 4 notes.

Range. In keeping with the small number of notes commonly employed in the scale of the traditional chant, the melodic range is correspondingly small. From the lowest note to the highest, the range of the Maori chant seldom exceeds the musical interval of a 4th.

Melodic intervals. Maori melody for the most part employs melodic intervals no larger than a Minor 3rd and the bulk of the melodic movement is by Major and Minor 2nds.

It might be expected that with so few notes, such limited range and such small melodic steps there might after all be something to the criticisms of ‘monotony’ which is often levelled at Maori chant. Such a view however would be altogether too facile and quite unjustified since it fails to take account of the frequently non-diatonic nature of the melodic intervals employed in waiata. Another way of saying this, is that the melodies of Maori chant need not conform to the major and minor modalities of the European scale system.

Since at each step in a Maori melody the next note may be a Minor 2nd, Major 2nd, or Minor 3rd, either upward or downward, there are clearly more possibilities than would exist if the melody were limited by the demands of the major or minor modes.

Melodic diversity is thus obtainable without need of increasing either melodic range or the size of the melodic interval.

At this stage something might be said about the vexed question of quarter tones. Several early writers expressed the opinion that Maori music employed quarter tones and others today have uncritically followed suit.

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A good deal of the apparent strangeness of some Maori melodies can be explained by the non-diatonicism described above. For the rest, whatever may have been the case in the past, intervals of less than a half tone are not prevalent today. Most waiata as at present sung, conform fairly closely to Western tempered intervals. In some 400 items analysed to date the writer has found only a few instances of genuine microtones and most of these were used incidentally rather than structurally.

Form. Most waiata use as a formal principle, the varied repetition of a basic melody. The end of each repetition is marked by the ornamented leader solos and meaningless syllabifying referred to earlier. The end of a structural division—such as the end of a verse where there are several—the end of the song itself, and drop-outs by individuals in group performance are all marked by a device which the writer has called the ‘terminal glissando’. This takes the form of a characteristic expulsion of breath accompanied by a glissando drop of the voice over an interval of a 3rd or 4th.

Recited items are through-composed and cannot be said to exhibit form in the usual sense.

Polyphony. Maori chant is monophonic. This means that in a group performance everybody sings the same part. There is rhythmic unison in the case of the recited songs and both rhythmic and melodic unison in the sung items. Any appearance of added parts is either fortuitous (e.g. ‘riding in’) or is bad singing (rangi rua).

Accompanying instruments are not used and with the exception of the koauau (open tube flute) appear not to have been used in the past. Informants are agreed that the koauau always played in unison with the voice part. Thus even with instrumental accompaniment, performance was still monophonic.

Tempo, Metre and Rhythm. With few exceptions, tempo is invariable in Maori chant. Once a tempo is established it is kept up right to the end of a song. That this should be so is fairly clearly a consequence of the need in group performance for all the singers to be together.

Much of the musical interest of Maori chant, in both its sung and recited forms, derives from the rhythms. Typically highly complex, the rhythms give to the Western ear the impression of constant syncopation over an unchanging beat.

This impression arises from the fact that although the metre of Maori chant can be divisive, it is often modified in such a way as to become additive. Once this is realised, it becomes possible to notate the seeming syncopations as a series of time changes rather than by tying across from one rhythmic group to another.

This also greatly simplifies the problem of reading the notation. It must be clearly understood however that the time changes, as notated, must be thought of in terms of the smallest metrical unit.

To give an example, the rhythmic group is five units long and no attempt should be made to force it into the confines of the divisive system by lengthening the first two quavers as or–

In other words, when the metre changes, the duration of the beat changes also. If the metre changes from 2/4 to 6/8, the beat changes from two units of length to three. Istesso tempo, whereby the dotted crochet of 6/8 becomes equal in duration to the crotchet of 2/4 does not apply.


The study of Maori chant from its musical point of view, is as yet still in its infancy. At the time of writing little more than a start has been made.

It is hoped that when further material has been collected and analysed, it will be possible not only to find out something about the ways in which the music of one tribe may differ from that of another, but also to go some way further towards discovering principles which may be true of all Maori chant.

Ed.—Mr McLean will be publishing in ‘Te Ao Hou’ a series of transcriptions of chants in musical notation. Most of the songs published will be ones which have already spread beyond their tribal boundaries, and all of them will have been fully released for publication by the performers.

It is hoped to begin the series of transcriptions in the next issue, which appears in September.