Music of New Zealand

From Academic Kids

Performers in 1906
Performers in 1906

New Zealand music is a significant component of the culture of New Zealand. As the largest nation in Polynesia, New Zealand's music is influenced by the indigenous Maori 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. Local artists have mixed these styles with local influences to create music that is uniquely New Zealand in style.


Traditional Styles


Polynesian music
Easter Island
French Polynesia: Marquesas and Tahiti
New Zealand: Cook Islands - Maori - Niue - Tokelau
Wallis and Futuna

Main article: Maori music

Maori music consists of waiata, (literally songs), as well as haka, ("war" dances). As the Maori 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. 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 rythmic 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 insrumental maori music that has a unique sound.

A list of folk music genres includes the Maori styles: Haka, Oro, Patere, Waiata.

The Maori have also developed a popular music scene, and incorporated reggae, rock and roll and other influences, most popularly including Te Vaka, who have Maori, white and other Polynesian members. Reggae bands like Herbs and Dread Beat & Blood are also popular, while 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). In 2004 another rising Maori star was Brooke Fraser.

New Zealand composers

Isolated geographically from the rest of the world, the formal traditions of European Art 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 predominately in the third quarter of the 1900's, is often credited with being the first composer to 'speak' with a truly New Zealand voice and gain international recognition for it. He had a profound influence on the direction of New Zealand music since then. With significant acceleration New Zealanders have found their own style and place with people such as Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, David Farquhar, Dorothy Buchanan, John and Anthony Ritchie 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 an exciting new sound: Gareth Farr, Phil Dadson and composer co-operative Plan9 among them. The latter provided much of the ambient music used in the phenomenal Lord of the Rings 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.

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

Pioneer folk music

The early European (Pakeha) settlers had folk music similar to, and shared with Australia's. The tradition is invigorated with a major yearly festival at Tahora; (ext. links 2001/02 (, 2002/03 (

More Recent Styles

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 also maintained a thriving alternative scene for several decades.


Distanced from overseas cultural epicenters, 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.

Other mainstream rock acts from New Zealand to have achieved success include Th'Dudes, Shona Laing 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 The Mint Chicks, The Rock and Roll Machine, Deja Voodoo, and The Checks.

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

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, 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, Birchville Cat Motel and Rosy Parlane are successful proponents of this new dynamic.

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 and Little Chief in Auckland. The new alternative pop sound is typified by the likes of Cloudboy, The Brunettes and Phoenix Foundation.

Independent music in New Zealand has mainly been supported by student radio stations such as bFM and RDU, and fanzines like Opprobium. 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 Maori. "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 Maori 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 Maori 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 Maori 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.

Press Coverage

In the past local artists have struggled for airtime and recognition, and were relegated to student radio and campus newspapers. But as New Zealand culture has grown in self-confidence and independence, interest in local music has also grown. The contemporary music scene is now well represented in all media. For 25 years Rip It Up magazine was the voice of New Zealand popular music.


  • Churton, Wade Ronald (1999, 2001). Have You Checked The Children? Punk and Postpunk Music in New Zealand, 1977-1981 Christchurch, New Zealand: Put Your Foot Down Publishing. ISBN 0-47306-196-1
  • Eggleton, David (2003). Ready to fly: The story of New Zealand rock music. Nelson, NZ: Craig Potton Publishing. ISBN 1-877333-06-9.
  • Linkels, Ad (2000). "The real music of paradise". In Broughton, S., & Ellingham, M. (eds.), World music, vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 218-229. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0.

See also

External links


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