Music of New Zealand

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

New Zealand music is a vibrant expression of the culture of New Zealand. As the largest nation in Polynesia, New Zealand's music is influenced by the indigenous Māori and immigrants from the Pacific region. The origins of New Zealand's musical culture lie in its British colonial history, with contributions from Europe and America. As the nation has grown and established its own culture, local artists have mixed these styles with local influences to create music that is uniquely New Zealand in style.

Music of New Zealand [  ]
Indigenous Māori music
Other main cultures Britain, Europe, Polynesia
Genres Classical · Hip hop · Jazz · Country · Rock · Indie · Reggae · Blues
Organisations RIANZ · SOUNZ · CMNZ · CANZ
Awards "Tui" NZ Music Awards; SOUNZ Contemporary Award
Charts RIANZ offical chart
Festivals Big Day Out · Sweetwaters · Parachute · Nambassa · Tahora · Rhythm & Vines, NZ International Arts Festival
Media Radio with Pictures · C4 (music channel) · Radio Hauraki · Concert FM
Notable songs Po Kare Kare Ana · Slice of Heaven · Ka Mate · Not Given Lightly · Six Months in a Leaky Boat
National anthem God Defend New Zealand

(also  God Save the Queen)

Traditional Forms

Māori music

Main article: Māori music
Māori music consists of waiata, (literally songs), as well as haka, ("war" dances). Interestingly, the first white colonisers of New Zealand reported that the Māori had no singing/vocal music at all; they had chants and a peculiarly intoned vocalisation at the end of lines of poetry (perhaps related to the imene tuki of the Cook Islands), especially dirges honouring the dead, but did not 'sing' as such. For this reason the chord harmonies and tune structures of the Māori song repertoire as it evolved are derived from western music, in particular church music. As the Māori have an oral history, it was only when Sir Apirana Ngata wrote down and recorded waiata and traditional poetry early in the twentieth century that any of this music was preserved or became widely known.

Māori culture group at 1981 Nambassa festival.
Māori culture group at 1981 Nambassa festival.

The overall traditional musical performance is now known as kapahaka, which often involves actions performed with sticks that are thumped or the poi - a small ball on the end of a string - that are twirled in the hands and slapped to provide rhythmic accompaniment. While the guitar has become an almost universal instrument to accompany kapahaka performances today, traditional instruments, which are primarily woodwind, can give hauntingly eerie sounds. Some modern artists have revived the use of these traditional instruments and are writing and performing original instrumental Māori music that has a unique sound.

A list of folk music genres includes the Māori styles: Haka, Oro, Patere, Waiata. See also: http://waiata.mā

Folk music

Performers in 1906
Performers in 1906
Pioneer Folk Music

The early European ( Pākehā) settlers had folk music similar to, and shared with Australia's. The tradition is invigorated with several festivals, especially the annual Tahora gathering.

Twilight bagpipe band practice, Napier.
Twilight bagpipe band practice, Napier.
Brass Bands

New Zealand has a proud history of Brass Bands, which hold regular provincial contests, and often celebrate cultural events. The NZ National Band has earned international accolades.

Highland Pipe Bands

New Zealand is said to have more pipebands than Scotland; historical links are maintained by Caledonian Societies throughout the country. The nation is often reminded of its colonial heritage by the stirring sounds of bagpipes at military commemorations and parades.

Classical music


Isolated geographically from the rest of the world, the formal traditions of European classical music took a long time to develop in New Zealand. Composers such as Alfred Hill were educated in Europe and brought those late Romantic Music traditions to New Zealand and attempted to fuse the two. Douglas Lilburn, working predominantly in the third quarter of the 20th century, is often credited with being the first composer to 'speak' with a truly New Zealand voice and gain international recognition for it. He has had some influence on the direction of New Zealand music since then. Diverse musical currents in the world such as the European avant-garde to American minimalism have influenced particular New Zealand composers to varying degrees. With significant acceleration New Zealanders have found their own style and place with people such as Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, David Farquhar, Dorothy Buchanan, Anthony Ritchie, Ivan Zagni, Martin Lodge, Nigel Keay, and Ross Harris leading the way. Increasingly, there are more cross-over composers fusing Pacific, Asian and European influences along with electronic instruments and techniques into a new sound: Gareth Farr, Phil Dadson and composer co-operative Plan9 among them. The latter provided much of the ambient music used in the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

In 2004, Wellington composer John Psathas achieved the largest audience for New Zealand composed music when his fanfares and other music were heard by billions at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympiad. In the same year, he took the Tui Award for Best Classical Recording at the Vodafone NZ Music Awards and the SOUNZ Contemporary Award at the APRA Silver Scrolls.

There are several 12 month Composer-in-Residence positions available in New Zealand, notably with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and at the University of Otago ( Mozart Fellowship).

For more information, links and resources about NZ Composers and compositions, the SOUNZ Centre for New Zealand Music at has comprehensive services.

Orchestras, Choirs & Other Performing Ensembles

New Zealand has a number of world-class orchestras, ensembles and choirs, notably the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO), the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO), the New Zealand String Quartet, the Tower New Zealand Youth Choir and Tower Voices New Zealand.

There are also a number of semi-professional regional orchestras presenting their own concert series each year. These include the Southern Sinfonia in Dunedin and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

Chamber Music New Zeland is an organisation that promotes concerts throughout New Zealand providing a performing platform for local and international artists.


Prominent New Zealand musicians performing at home and abroad include Michael Houstoun, David Guerin & Jeffrey Grice.

Popular music

The most popular styles of the late 20th century were rock and hip hop, both genres garnished with New Zealand's unique Pacific influences. By the 21st century, roots, reggae, dub and electronica were all popular with local artists. New Zealand has maintained a thriving alternative scene for several decades.

Māori have also developed a popular music scene, and incorporated reggae, rock and roll and other influences, most popularly including Te Vaka, who have Māori, white and other Polynesian members. New Zealand reggae bands like Herbs, Katchafire and Fat Freddy's Drop are highly popular. The 1990s saw the rise of hip hop groups like Moana & the Moahunters and the Upper Hutt Posse, primarily based out of South Auckland (see below).


Distanced from overseas cultural centers, the New Zealand rock scene began in earnest during the 1960s, when the British Invasion reached the country's musicians. A number of garage bands were formed, all with a high-energy performing style. Though few became internationally (or even nationally) famous, they stirred into life a number of fertile local scenes, full of musicians and fans. Much of their material has been collected by John Baker for his Wild Things collections.

Perhaps the most well-known contribution by a New Zealander to the world of popular music is the enduring Rocky Horror Show musical, written by Richard O'Brien, and first performed on stage in London, mid-1973.

Back home, a more mainstream hard rock sound had developed in New Zealand by the early 1970s, exemplified by bands like Human Instinct with Billy T.K., Space Farm, Living Force, Dragon, and Hello Sailor.

New Zealand's size meant that many of the country's more prominent mainstream bands found their largest audiences in Australia. Of these, perhaps the most successful has been Split Enz, founded by Tim Finn and Phil Judd in the early 1970s. The addition of Tim's younger brother Neil after Judd's departure led to a more accessible style and several big hits. After the demise of Split Enz, Neil Finn went on to found the highly successful Crowded House.

In the mid-1990s, the Otara, Auckland group OMC, led by Pauly Fuemana, scored a worldwide hit with the song "How Bizarre," which to this day is noted for its beats-and-acoustic-guitar production. Locally, the single sold over 35,000 copies (3½ times platinum), a figure not exceeded in New Zealand as of 2005.

Other mainstream rock acts from New Zealand to have achieved success include Th'Dudes, Shona Laing, The Exponents and Dave Dobbyn. More recent mainstream bands include The Mutton Birds, Strawpeople, Bic Runga, Shihad, The Feelers, Zed, Goodshirt, The Hybrid and The Datsuns.

Following international trends, New Zealand's own hard rock scene became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Among the most active cities in modern New Zealand rock and punk are Christchurch, Palmerston North, Wellington, and Auckland. Important bands include Elemeno P, The Mint Chicks, The Rock and Roll Machine, Deja Voodoo, The Gladeyes and The Checks.

Alternative and independent music

New Zealand's alternative and independent music scene has been favourably regarded abroad despite frequent marginalization locally. As well as gaining international critical acclaim, many of New Zealand's alternative artists have been cited as influences by American groups such as Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth. A willingness to experiment, a keen sense of melody, and a DIY attitude are characteristic of New Zealand's independent artists. Geographical isolation and the reliance on inexpensive equipment are also frequently cited as influential factors.

Independent music in New Zealand began in the latter half of the 1970s, with the development of a local punk rock scene. This scene spawned several bands of note, including The Scavengers, the Suburban Reptiles and Nocturnal Projections. The most important New Zealand punk band was The Enemy, formed by lo-fi pioneer Chris Knox. After a reshuffle of personnel, many of the band's songs were recorded over 1979-1980 as Toy Love. The same musicians formed the basis for later groups such as The Bats and Tall Dwarfs.

By this time the Flying Nun label had risen to prominence in New Zealand. The Clean, hailing from Dunedin, was the first major band to emerge from the Flying Nun roster. The South Island cities of Dunedin and Christchurch provided most of the first wave of Flying Nun's artists. During the early 1980s the label's distinctive jangle-pop sound was established by leading lights such as The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, The Bats and The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. Other prominent bands to emerge later via Flying Nun included The Headless Chickens, Straitjacket Fits, The 3Ds, Bailter Space, the Able Tasmans and The D4.

Since the early 1980s, several small independent labels have been established in New Zealand, notably Bruce Russell's Xpressway label. Important Xpressway artists included This Kind Of Punishment, Alastair Galbraith, The Terminals, Peter Jefferies and The Dead C. All of these artists became part of an emerging international underground scene, and were typically more popular with foreign collectors than local enthusiasts.

Many more small independent labels were formed after Xpressway's demise in 1992, such as Bruce Russell's Corpus Hermeticum label, Campbell Kneale's Celebrate Psi Phenomenon label, and Crawlspace Records. These labels tended to focus on esoteric forms like free noise, psych-rock and improvisation. Artists such as Thela, Omit, Empirical, Dadamah, Flies Inside The Sun, Birchville Cat Motel and Rosy Parlane are successful proponents of this new dynamic. In the late 1980s, Peter King established King Worldwide, which specialised in lathe-cut polycarbonate records. This operation specialised in small-run editions, and thus attracted numerous underground bands such as The Dead C, Birchville Cat Motel, and Thela.

As a response to Flying Nun's increasing commercialism in the 1990s, New Zealand's alternative pop tradition found a new home with independent labels such as IMD and Arclife in Dunedin, and Arch Hill Recordings, Lil' Chief Records and Powertool Records in Auckland. The new alternative pop sound is typified by the likes of Cloudboy, The Brunettes, Phoenix Foundation and Absent Mute.

Independent music in New Zealand has mainly been supported by student radio stations such as bFM and RDU, and fanzines like Opprobium and Clinton. Internationally, New Zealand's alternative music has come to recognition via labels such as Homestead, Merge, Drunken Fish, and Father Yod.

Hip hop

The genesis of New Zealand hip hop began from such elements as the release of the 1979 US gangster movie The Warriors, and the rise of the breakdancing craze, both of which emanated from New York City. Breakdancing was one of the four elements of the original hip hop culture. The others were graffiti, rapping and DJing.

Considered by most to be the first hip-hop record, The Sugarhill Gang's " Rapper's Delight" had been a surprise American hit in 1979 and was released in New Zealand a year later, where it stayed on the charts for some time. Breakdancing and graffiti art had become relatively common in urban areas, like Wellington and Christchurch by 1983.

Most of the first hip hop performers from the country, such as Dalvanius Prime, whose "Poi E" was a major hit, were Māori. "Poi E" had no rapping and was not pure hip hop. It was basically a novelty record intended as a soundtrack for dancing. Even so, it marked a shift from reggae and funk as the previously most favoured genre of Māori musicians.

At first apolitical fun-rhyming, many hip-hop raps developed a social conscience in the second half of the 1980s. Inspired by the example of US outfit Public Enemy, Hip hop's new 'political' messages of persecution and racism resonated with many Māori musicians. The first entire album of locally-produced hip hop was Upper Hutt Posse's E Tu EP, from 1988. E Tu was partially in Māori and partially in English, and its lyrics were politically-charged.

In the 21st century, New Zealand hip hop went from strength to strength with the added input of Pacific Island musicians, creating a local variant style known as Urban Pasifika. 'Protest' content was still present, but lyrical and musical emphasis had largely evolved into a 'sweet', chart-friendly sound. Artists such as Che Fu and, more recently, Nesian Mystik and Scribe have carried the ideas and themes to new heights. In 2004, Scribe became the first New Zealand artist to achieve the double honour of simultaneously topping the New Zealand singles and album charts. In 2005 Savage, another NZ hip hop artist, had back to back number one hits with Swing and Moonshine, the latter featuring a USA artist called Akon. Both of the songs stayed in the number one spot for eight weeks each.

Hip hop went in a new direction in the 21st Century when it mixed with electronica, reggae and dub music to create a sound known as Roots. The Roots scene had strong roots in Wellington.


The club scene in New Zealand has led to an upswing in dance-based electronica, of which the leading exponents are probably Salmonella Dub. Drum and bass, expoused by Concord Dawn, Pitch Black, and Module and roots/reggae like Katchafire, are very popular. Many of New Zealand's electronic artists are attempting, often successfully, to bridge the gap between diverse genres by including musical influences such as rock, jazz, soul and hip hop.

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