Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Related Images

Musical Instruments

The Maoris had no drums but kept time by foot stamping and slapping the chest and thighs with the hands. Their musical instruments were all of the flute and trumpet variety, hollowed out of wood, stone, whale ivory, albatross bone, or human bone (usually the bone of an enemy). The surfaces of their instruments were often elaborately carved and were the prized possessions of their owners.

Koauau: A small native flute from 4 to 8 in. long, open at both ends and having from three to six fingerholes placed along the pipe with no apparent system. They resemble primitive flutes the world over both in tone quality and in the range of sounds that can be produced by directing the breath across the sharp edge of the upper aperture. Maori flute players were envied and feared because of the power it gave them over the affections of women.

Nguru: A small wooden, stone or bone flute shaped like a whale's tooth and sometimes made from an actual tooth. It is from 2 to 6 in. in length, wide at the blowing end and tapering to the lower where it is slightly turned up. It has two or three fingerholes and an extra hole bored on the underside, near the curved end, through which a cord could be passed so that it could hang round the owner's neck. It is played in the same way as a koauau and produces a similar pure flute-like sound. The nguru is sometimes classified as a nose flute perhaps because the word “nguru” means to sigh, moan, or snore. This is unlikely because the large end is too wide even for a stout Polynesian nostril and, if the curved end were placed in that same position, the flute would lie at an impossible angle for the player to manipulate the fingerholes.

By using the three fingerholes of a koauau or nguru, a European player can produce, quite naturally, the four notes of a tetrachord; but wind instruments are of no exact pitch and the sequence of sounds can be varied according to the pressure of the breath and the actual intervals the player has in mind. There is evidence to show that Maori flute and trumpet songs were in no way different from their chants and waiata and consisted of decorations round a pivot note. An old gramophone recording of flute playing in the possession of the Dominion Museum, Wellington, proves this point and displays a three-note tune which remains within the compass of less than a minor third.

Putorino: The putorino is a purely Maori invention, occurring nowhere else in Polynesia or in any other part of the world. It is a wooden trumpet varying in length from 9 to 20 in. and has an uneven bore, swelling out to the centre and diminishing evenly towards the lower end, where the pipe is quite narrow and either completely closed or has a very small opening. The outer shape was carved from a solid piece of wood, split in half lengthwise, hollowed out like two small canoes and then lashed together again with flax cord. At the widest part of the pipe there is an opening shaped like a grotesque mouth. The finest specimens are decorated at both ends with carved figures, and the open mouth is part of a head which is outlined on the flat surface of the pipe. It can be played with bugle technique, with closed lips which are set in vibration by the rapid withdrawal of the tongue. Small variations of pitch can be produced by moving the forefinger over the centre opening. An expert horn or trumpet player can produce scale passages covering two octaves or more but it is unlikely that the Maori explored its full range. A song for a putorino would be similar in range to a sung chant and would be associated with a particular set of words. The fundamental sound is reedy, penetrating, and alto in quality and pitch. Peter Buck said he was told that it was used as a speaking trumpet, like a megaphone; but, if the legend of Tutanekai and Hinemoa can be accepted as evidence, Tutanekai played a love song on the putorino which was wafted across the water from Mokoia Island and heard by Hinemoa on the mainland at Rotorua.