Story: Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro

Page 1. Māori musical concepts

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Governing principles

The principles governing taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) are basic to Māori thought.

Life is seen as a balance of spiritual and physical life forces. A kōauau (flute) could be used to summon the spirits to aid in childbirth or in healing. It could also be used to charm a sweetheart or make people laugh. Because of their spiritual functions, taonga puoro are treated with great respect.

The primal parents of all earth’s creations are Ranginui (Rangi), the Sky Father, and Papatūānuku (Papa), the Earth Mother. In Māori terms, all things, even inanimate objects, can become personified, so taonga puoro are given personal names. The instrument maker aims to make each instrument subtly different so that, like individual people, each has its own voice.

Taonga puoro are grouped in whānau (extended families), the central unit of Māori society. Some, like the kōauau, are clearly from the flute family of Raukatauri. Others are seen as belonging to more than one family – for instance, the poi a whiowhio has the body of a gourd, so it is from the family of Hinepūtehue, but it whirls in the air like the family of Tāwhirimātea, the god of the winds.

Taonga puoro and the gods

‘Rangi’ is the Māori word for tunes, and also the name of the Sky Father. Tunes are thought to drift up to Rangi’s realm after humans hear them. The heartbeats of Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, provide the basis for musical rhythms. Māori musical instruments are regarded as gifts from various gods, the descendants of Rangi and Papa.  

Traditional music

For earlier generations of Māori, music did not really exist without words. Tunes are combined with rhythm, then words are added so that emotions and experiences can be expressed more precisely. The voices of traditional instruments and the movements of dance support and embellish the songs.

Music was seen as vital to the welfare of the community, and required a reason and an occasion to be played. Taonga puoro were, and still are, used for healing, sending messages, marking the stages of life and for other ceremonies. Locked within all the instruments are many mysteries. Some playing techniques are so complex that they are, for now, lost.

All forms of traditional Māori music are based on the emotions displayed by the gods of Māori mythology. There are songs of sorrow, anger, lament, loneliness and desire, and of joy, peace and love.

Music, the food of love

As in Western musical traditions, attracting a partner was an important purpose of musical performance among Māori. The ethnologist Elsdon Best recorded, ‘When a man manufactured a whio (whistle) it was for the purpose of attracting some woman that he desired.’ If the hopeful lover lacked skill at playing, he would seat himself in a dimly lit house near an expert performer and pretend that he was the one producing the music. If successful, ‘he would reward the true player with a present, such as a garment, or weapon, or a present of food.’1

Types and names of instruments

Māori had a wide range of instrument types, but there was no skin drum, and the single-stringed kū was the only stringed instrument. Many taonga puoro are known by various names, depending on tribal dialects and other differences.

Instrumental voices

As taonga puoro are personified as individuals, it is rare to find two that are identical. Traditionally, finger holes are spaced according to the distance between the owner’s knuckles, or the pattern of a group of stars. The cross-blown method of playing the flutes allows the player to vary the pitch of notes, as singers do with their voice. Some taonga puoro instruments have soft, private voices, suitable for playing in the confines of the small whare. Others have louder voices, for use in a large meeting house or even for outdoor messaging.


Early Māori musicians did not use the set scales known in Western music. Instead, the intervals between the notes of their tunes were in microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone). The range between the highest and lowest note of a tune was only a few notes in the modern scale. Taonga puoro are perfectly designed to produce microtones.

  1. Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Māori: an account of various exercises, games and pastimes of the natives of New Zealand, as practised in former times: including some information concerning their vocal and instrumental music. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976 (originally published 1925), p. 253. Back
How to cite this page:

Brian Flintoff, 'Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro - Māori musical concepts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Brian Flintoff, published 22 Oct 2014