The largest number of songs comes under the heading of laments (waiata tangi) and love songs (waiata aroha). The distinction between the two types of waiata is not clearly defined, either in the sentiments expressed by the words or in the kind of melodies to which the words are set. “Tangi” means to weep, utter a plaintive cry; “aroha” means love, yearning, pity. In the dirge-like wailing of these songs, the Maori people give expression to their deepest feelings and, even today, when tribal gatherings take place, the upsurge of racial feeling which is characteristic of those occasions is intimately connected with the singing of their ancient love songs and laments.
The melodies move within a small range, varying from a second to a fourth. The most archaic type consists of a chanting note, the pitch of which is decided by the leader of the group or individual singer. The intoning note is decorated with auxiliary notes both above and below which are often intervals smaller than a semitone. These microtonal intervals and the practice of sliding from one sound to another give Maori waiata their plaintive, wailing character. The less archaic chants have a slightly wider range; movement is mostly stepwise with the occasional use of a minor or diminished third, but the intervals are non-European in character and the ability to sing them is fast disappearing. Even in a Westernised form this type of melody and the style of singing remain characteristically Maori.
Other types of song which use the same chant-like melodies but vary in content and purpose are:
Oriori: Lullaby used for the dual purpose of lulling a child to sleep and imparting knowledge.
Pao: A derisive song and dance used for entertainment.
Apakura: A lament for the dead sung during mourning ceremonies.
Tuki waka: A canoe song sung to give the time to the paddlers.
Whakaaraara pa: A watchman's song sung by the watch on duty in the pa at night to give warning of danger.
This list is by no means complete; many others come under the heading of the “poi” and “haka” which are action songs and posture dances rather than waiata.