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No. 68 (1970)
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The Study of Maori Chant

University of Auckland

In this short article I review briefly the research which has been undertaken to date on Maori chant and indicate the areas which require either new research or further investigation. Such a review is justified by the fact that Maori chant is becoming popular not only with the general public of New Zealand but also as a subject of study among scholars.

Now that there are three published volumes of Nga Moteatea1 the range of data available for the study of Maori chant is greatly increased. The term ‘Maori chant’ is used here in the same way that McLean2 defined it, that is, it refers to the traditional music of the Maori. Furthermore, it refers to both the musical and linguistic aspects of chants. The 271 song texts published in the three volumes, together with texts in other collections, such as in Grey3 and in McGregor4, provide a total corpus of many hundreds of songs. By some accounts, it is doubtful that the published texts at present available are, by any means, representative of the total corpus. McLean has compiled an index of about 4,000 texts from published sources and Simmons has indexed at least 2,000 titles from manuscript sources. Allowing for duplications, McLean, estimates that there must be at least 5,000 texts in the literature and in tape-recorded collections5 Of these, only a handful are published in Nga Moteatea. However, the relatively low number of chants in Nga Moteatea is balanced by the high content of explanatory material associated with each song and are further enhanced by the fact that the texts are translated. Thanks to the industry and foresight of Sir Apirana Ngata modern scholars have the kind of data which they can use immediately for testing hypotheses and for gaining a richer understanding of the motivations, purposes, conventions and satisfactions connected with Maori chant as a cultural activity.

Maori chant may be studied from a number of different standpoints. For example, a musicologist may study the musical aspect, a linguist the linguistic aspect, a psychologist the psychological aspect, and an anthropologist the cultural aspect. Alternatively, different aspects may be studied by the same investigator, for example, an othno-musicologist studies both the musicological and cultural aspects of Maori chant. However, whatever the central interest of the investigator might be, the cultural aspect will impinge upon it, because, in the final analysis, the activities of composing and performing chants are expressions of cultural behaviour in a specific social, spatial and temporal context. Thus, a study of Maori chant from any particular viewpoint is bound to yield information of anthropological interest.

Detailed studies of Maori chant have barely begun. Maunsell6 was the first and only student of Maori chant to take an

1. Part I, 1959: Part II, 1961; Part III, in press, but a prepublication issue not translated into English is available at the time of writing.

2. McLean, 1964: 36.

3. There are 533 song texts in Grey, 1853, and a few more in his 1857 book.

4. In McGregor, 1893, there are 421 texts. See Ngata, 1959: XIV, XXV, for other sources of Maori chant.

5. Personal communications from Dr McLean.

6. In Grey, 1853, in the preface.

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interest in the linguistic aspect. Though his treatment of the subject was cursory he did write sufficient to indicate that an acceptable grammar for the use of language in musical contexts was different from the acceptable grammar of speech. Moreover, because so many archaisms are imbedded in the texts of Maori chant the lexicon tends to be slightly different from that used in spoken language. Many words appear only in Maori chant and nowhere else. All this goes to show that language is subject to certain rules of lexical selection and grammatical arrangement according to the ethnographic situation in which it is used. The study of the language used in Maori chant is still awaiting the attention of some scholar.

With the recent work of Dr Mervyn McLean7 the musical aspect of Maori chant is beginning to receive due consideration. He has written a doctoral thesis on Maori chant from the standpoint of an ethno-musicologist and he has published numerous articles on his work. The articles he published in Te Ao Hou have helped to gain popular support for the work of the scholar. McLean8 has distributed copies of his tape collection to tribal authorities together with typed copies of the song texts. Some of this material is already being used in ‘waiata schools’ so that McLean has made a contribution towards the maintenance and continuity of traditional Maori chant. Gaining the support and sympathy of the people is necessary since there are signs that the New Zealand Maori is beginning to develop a resistance towards field workers9.

More has been written on the cultural aspect of Maori chant but much of the work cannot be considered as constituting an adequate study of the subject. The early essays by Colenso10 and Best11 are merely exploratory but they indicate some of the sociological and cultural facts which are worth further investigation. Andersen's monograph, entitled Maori Music with its Polynesian Background, published in 1934, is an attempt to place Maori chant and music in the wider context of Polynesia as a whole, but the book is valuable mainly as a collection of excerpts from other sources. A historical survey of Maori music was written in 1929 and submitted as a MA thesis, at the University of Auckland. This work comprises mainly a collection of material published by Best and others and introduces little new and original research. It is, therefore, rarely consulted by more recent students of Maori chant. More recently, Dr T. Barrow12 has published a popular book which deals not only with Maori chant but also with modern Maori music.

Barrow's book points up the fact that the study of modern Maori music is also a neglected field. A reason for this neglect is the fact that scholars have held a certain contempt for the subject and they held the mistaken belief that there was nothing culturally significant in modern Maori music. The attitudes of earlier writers are exemplified in the title of Eric Ramsden's 1949 essay which goes as follows: ‘Modern Maoris and their music: Neglect of cultural sources of musical inspiration: cheap and tawdry borrowed tunes’. A popular book on the subject of action songs was written by Armstrong and Ngata and the emphasis here is on how-to-do-it. In some of the articles in Te Ao Hou there is evidence of an almost pathological interest in how-to-do-it properly, that is, in the technical aspects of action song performance. One writer goes so far as to chastise Maori groups for not practising Carnegie Hall techniques in their performances of Maori action songs13. Despite these articles, no serious

7. Some of his publications are listed in the bibliography.

8. Personal communication from Dr McLean.

9. In the Southwest of U.S.A., which I visited in 1966 (see Te Ao Hou 65: 10–22) resistance among the Pueblo Indians to academics and journalists is so strong that fieldwork is difficult to carry out. Maori reaction is only just beginning to be felt.

10. Colenso, 1880, in T.N.Z.I.

11. Best, 1925, in his Games and Pastimes.

12. Barrow, 1965.

13. Armstrong in Te Ao Hou 40: 23–24.

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study has yet been undertaken, of the significance of action songs and posture dances in present day Maori society14.

So far as is known to the present writer, no psychological study of Maori chant has ever been undertaken. The sociological and aesthetic dimensions of Maori chant are also virtually untouched fields of study. However, although Maori chant has been neglected in the past, present indications show that this is changing. Articles published in Te Ao Hou and in the Journal of the Polynesian Society15 attest to an increased interest in Maori chant. The publication of the Nga Moteatea series by the Polynesian Society has contributed to the upsurge because now there are more data available for study. Coincident with the increase in scholarly interest of Maori chant is a corresponding upsurge in popular interest. Maori chant is becoming fashionable as a part of New Zealand culture and it is acquiring a new respectability. The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation which has one of the best archives of Maori music in the country, broadcasts several weekly programmes of Maori music and they employ one of the most successful modern exponents of Maori action songs16 to help with these programmes. This is one line of evidence for the popularity of Maori music. Another is the fact that the first two volumes of Nga Moteatea, which deal wholly with Maori chant, have sold out. University student numbers have not been large enough to account for the sale of all copies; thus, it must be assumed that the general public is responsible in part.

On the other hand, Maori chant has always been popular amongst the older members of Maori society. It has continued to be a vital part of Maori ceremonial life. Maori chants can be heard in proper context at numerous gatherings all over the country, for example, at tribal gatherings, during opening ceremonials for meeting houses and during mourning ceremonies (tangihanga). Though the full range of traditional chants has been reduced and though the occasions for its use are more restricted than previously, the fact remains that the Maori chant of today is a continuation of an ancient traditional which was brought to New Zealand by the original East Polynesian inhabitants of the country. The remarkable persistence of Maori chant through the centuries, suggests that this kind of music has some deep cultural significance for the New Zealand Maori. An objective of future studies is to discover what this significance is.


Anderson, Johannes, C., 1934: Maori music with its Polynesian Background. New Plymouth, Polynesian Society.

Armstrong, Alan, 1962: ‘Maoritanga in the Mire?’ Te Ao Hou 40: 23–24.

Armstrong, Alan & Rupena Ngata, 1960: Maori Action Songs. Wellington, A. H. & A. W. Reed.

Barrow, T., 1965: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maori. Wellington, Seven Seas Publishing Pty. Ltd.

Best, Elsdon, 1925: Games and Pastimes of the Maori. (Dominion Museum Bulletin, No. 8). Wellington, Whitcombe and Tombs.

Colenso, W., 1880: ‘Contributions toward a better knowledge of the Maori Race’. Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 13: 57–84.

Dodge, Ernest & Edwin T. Brewster, 1945: ‘The Acoustics of three Maori Flutes’. Journal of the Polynesian Society 54: 39–61.

Grey, Sir George, 1853: Ko Nga Moteatea me nga Hakirara o Nga Maori. Wellington, Robert Stokes — 1857. Ko Nga Waiata Maori. London, George Willis.

Hill, A. Mihi, 1964: ‘Some thoughts on the future of the Maori chant’. Te Ao Hou 48: 38–40.

Jones, Pei Te Hurinui, 1959: ‘Puhiwahine, Maori Poetess’. Te Ao Hou 28: 11–15, 29: 17–21.

Martin, Mary, 1961: ‘Primitive Music in New Zealand’. Te Ao Hou 36: 22–24.

14. The articles referred to include Jones, 1959, Hill, 1964, Martin, 1961.

15. Dodge, 1945, McLean, 1968.

16. Mr W. Kerekere, who was leader of the Waihirere Group of the Gisborne district.

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McGregor, John, 1893: Popular Maori Songs as written by the Maoris of Wai-kato. Auckland, Field.

McLean, Mervyn Evan, 1961: ‘Oral Transmission in Maori Music’. Journal of International Folk Music 13: 59–62.

McLean, Mervyn Evan, 1964a: ‘Can Maori Chant Survive?’ Te Ao Hou 47: 34–36.

McLean, Mervyn Evan, 1964b: ‘The Music of Maori Chant’. Te Ao Hou 47: 36–39.

McLean, Mervyn Evan, 1964c: ‘A Preliminary Analysis of 87 Maori Chants’. Ethnomusicology 8, I: 41–48.

McLean, Mervyn Evan, 1965: Maori Chant: A study of Ethnomusicology. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Otago.

McLean, Mervyn Evan, 1968: ‘An investigation of the open tube Maori flute or koauau’. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 77: 3: 213–241.

McLean, Mervyn Evan, 1969: ‘Song Types of the New Zealand Maori’. Studies in Music 3. University of Western Australia Press.

Phillips, Irene M. C., 1929: Maori Music: A Historical Survey. Unpublished Thesis, University of Auckland.

Ramsden, Eric, 1949: ‘Modern Maoris and their Music: Neglect of cultural sources of musical inspiration; cheap and tawdry borrowed tunes’. New Zealand Magazine 28: 2: 17–19.