Story: Creative life

Page 7. Music

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Popular music

Blues, jazz and country music arrived from America in the 1920s and 1930s, while rock and roll made its entrance in 1955 and hip hop in 1985. New Zealand musicians and songwriters, including artists such as jazz pianist Mike Nock and popular singer Bic Runga, and groups such as Split Enz, The Muttonbirds and The Datsuns, have contributed to these global movements. The national importance of popular music was recognised by the establishment in 2000 of the government-funded New Zealand Music Industry Commission, which promotes New Zealand music.

The recording industry

A 2002 survey found that over a 12-month period, three-quarters of the adult population listened to popular music on the radio, and over a third attended live performances. Imported music is widely available through commercial radio, CDs, DVDs and videos and increasingly the internet. In addition, a New Zealand music recording industry has developed since the late 1940s. Its heyday was in the 1980s when energetic local recording company Flying Nun pushed bands from Dunedin such as The Clean and The Chills to achieve success in Britain and the United States.

Māori and Pacific music

Māori singers and songwriters such as Howard Morrison, Prince Tui Teka, Dalvanius Prime, Moana Maniapoto and Hinewehi Mohi have developed a distinctive Māori-influenced style, and popular music has helped in the revival of the Māori language. The Māori Music Industry Coalition was launched to support this goal. Pacific rhythms and melodies have influenced new sounds such as poly-funk and Pacific blues, heard in the music of Ardijah, Che Fu, and Nesian Mystik. In 2004 the hip hop artist Scribe, of Samoan heritage, dominated the New Zealand Music Awards.

Reckless rockers

Cultural trends – even the notorious excesses of rock bands – usually wash up in some form on New Zealand’s shores. While staying at a less than salubrious Hamilton motel, members of Wellington rock group Shihad lamented that they had not yet thrown a television out of a window. Drummer Tom Larkin made it clear that televisions were not in the tour budget. It was decided after some discussion that a toaster was affordable. Guitarist Phil Knight threw it and it reached the road – narrowly missing a passing Mercedes.

Cultural traditions

Folk music has always had an audience, and folk music clubs are widespread. World music is also gaining ground. One of the earliest types of ethnic music introduced to New Zealand was the Scottish pipe band, and there are many around the country. New ethnic groups are bringing their music to New Zealand. Some, like the group Many Hands, fuse their different cultural traditions to produce a unique sound.

Awards and festivals

There are regular jazz, folk, ethnic and country music awards and festivals, some of which have been in existence for decades. Large music festivals, for example Sweetwaters, Nambassa and The Big Day Out, have been staged periodically since the 1970s. The promotional New Zealand Music Month takes place annually. The New Zealand Music Awards provide recognition for excellence in all aspects of the recorded music industry.

Classical music

Classical music has a smaller but significant audience – in a 2002 survey, 11% of New Zealanders attended live performances of classical music, and 26% listened to it on the radio over a 12-month period. Leading classical artists visited New Zealand more frequently after the Second World War, and a few local musicians, such as pianists Maurice Till and later Michael Houstoun, began to establish professional careers. Before then, much classical music was produced by amateurs: for instance, there is a strong tradition of amateur choral singing, and brass bands were once found in every small town.


New Zealand has produced many internationally acclaimed singers, notably Donald McIntyre, Malvina Major, Kiri Te Kanawa and more recently Jonathan Lemalu. Many started on the path to success by winning the Mobil Song Quest (now the Lexus Song Quest). In New Zealand professional opera productions are staged by the NBR New Zealand Opera and regional opera companies. The New Zealand Choral Federation, established in 1985, links community, youth and church choirs around New Zealand.

Instrumental music

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) was founded in 1946, and the NZSO Chamber Orchestra in 1987. There are also professional orchestras in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Chamber Music New Zealand, established in Wellington in 1945, brings world-renowned chamber groups to the country, and showcases local ensembles such as the New Zealand String Quartet, founded in 1987. Early European music also has a following. Contemporary music groups such as From Scratch and Strike perform works for percussion and other instruments. Traditional Māori music has also been performed by musicians such as Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns.


New Zealand composition has developed since the 1940s, when composer Douglas Lilburn rose to prominence. It has been influenced by Asian and Pacific music. Since 1991 the work of composers such as Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, Gareth Farr and John Psathas has been promoted by the Centre for New Zealand Music (SOUNZ).

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative life - Music', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005