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Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro

by Brian Flintoff

Traditional Māori instruments experienced a revival in the late 20th century, with the haunting sounds of kōauau (flutes) and pūrerehua (spinning discs) now familiar to many New Zealanders.

Māori musical concepts

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.

    • 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

Melodic instruments – the family of Rangi

The flute family of Raukatauri

Raukatauri, the goddess of flute music, loved her flute so much that she changed herself into a case moth so she would never be parted from it. She is said to live inside her flute.

The family of flutes, which vary from 7 to more than 700 millimetres in length, is the largest group of taonga puoro.

An ability to play the flute was highly regarded in traditional Māori society. Many stories confirm that skilled flute-playing made the performer sexually irresistible. The exquisite music produced by the young Te Arawa chief Tūtānekai is said to have lured Hinemoa to swim across Lake Rotorua to join him on Mokoia Island. However, Arawa elders say that in fact Tūtānekai could barely play the flute and someone else – perhaps his slave, Tiki – was the real virtuoso, crouching in the bushes behind him.

Flute expert

One of the last traditional authorities on playing the kōauau and pūtōrino was Paeroa Wineera (of Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toa). In about 1895, at the age of 12, she was taught to play by her uncle, who was the last person in the district able to play traditional instruments. In the 1960s, aged over 80, Wineera was recorded playing her kōauau. She recalled that music was not specially composed for this instrument, but that it was used mainly to accompany waiata singing, and played the tune in unison with the singers. 


The pūtōrino is a flute unique to New Zealand. It is torpedo-shaped (tapering at each end), like the cocoon of the case moth into which Raukatauri changed herself. It has a mouthpiece at one end, and a larger hole in the middle. Played as a cross-blown flute, the pūtōrino has Raukatauri’s voice, but played as a trumpet it has a male voice. A third voice, played through the central opening, is thought to be that of Raukatauri’s mysterious daughter Wheke, who, though she is never seen, is responsible for the inarticulate sounds heard in the forest.


Kōauau are the most common type of Māori flute, and traditionally were made from various woods, kelp, albatross wing bones, human bones and probably moa bones. They range in length from about 100 millimetres to 385 millimetres and most commonly have three finger-holes, known as wenewene. The sounds are further manipulated with slight movements of tongue and lips. Kōauau are used in entertainment, but also for healing and grieving and to ease pain. The music of kōauau always had words and an expert player could make these heard through the instrument.

Pōrutu, whio and rehu

Pōrutu and whio are longer than kōauau, with finger-holes toward the far end. They were possibly more common among South Island Māori and are noted for the sound jumping between low and high overtones.

Rehu are similar to pōrutu but less common. Their playing end is stopped up and a side-blown aperture is used, as with a European flute.


Nguru (which are unique to New Zealand) are short semi-enclosed flutes with an upturned end, made from stone, wood or a whale tooth. Some can be played with the nose, which gives extra prestige, because that breath is more sacred.


No examples of the pūmotomoto appear to have survived, and it is known only from collected traditions. This flute had the special function of being played over infants in the womb, then after birth until the fontanelle closed over, implanting traditions and knowledge. In the 2000s some contemporary practitioners have made pūmotomoto, based on oral traditions.

The family of Hinepūtehue – gourd instruments

The first recorded use of musical instruments in Māori mythology occurs in the creation myth concerning separation of the primal parents Rangi and Papa. Their descendants argued furiously about this separation. One of them, Hinepūtehue, a daughter of Tāne Mahuta, the god of the forests, took their anger inside herself and sang soothing songs which calmed the situation. She became the goddess of the hue (gourd) instruments.

Small hue are made into kōauau ponga ihu, delicate nose flutes with three finger holes which produce delicate, almost magical, sounds.

Medium-sized hue can be made into poi a whiowhio, used for bird calling and other purposes. With a string attached and two holes in the side, they are twirled to create a twittering song. Other hue, with their seeds loosened or replaced with pebbles, become rhythmic shakers known as hue puruwai or hue rarā.

The largest gourds, hue puruhau, had the tops cut off and seeds removed. By blowing over the opening, deep resonant booming sounds, like the mating call of a kākāpō, are created.

The family of Tangaroa – shell and other instruments

The next recorded use of musical instruments was when two pūtātara (conch-shell trumpets) were sounded to announce the successful return from the heavens of the god Tāne with ngā kete mātauranga, the baskets of knowledge given by the Supreme God. The materials of the pūtātara combine the conch shell of Tangaroa, the sea god, with a mouthpiece of wood from the forest god Tāne.


To create a signalling trumpet called a pūtātara or pūmoana, the narrow end of a conch shell was cut off and a wooden mouthpiece added. The pūtātara produced a loud, clear note that carried a great distance. The materials of the pūtātara combine the conch shell of Tangaroa, the sea god, with a mouthpiece of wood from the forest god Tāne Mahuta, joining the families of these gods in peace. Some examples in museums have a poi added to muffle the sound, like the mute used with a modern trumpet. Sometimes, pūtātara are cross-blown like flutes to create the crying sound of Hinemokemoke, giving them both male and female voices.


Several different materials have been used to make trumpet-like instruments. The tetere was made by splitting a blade of flax in half and winding it into a cone shape. It was a temporary instrument, used only while the leaf remained green. Tetere were used to announce the arrival of important visitors, to warn of an attack and to signal warriors in the manner of a military bugle.


The pūkāea was a wooden trumpet, up to 2.5 metres long. It was made by splitting a length of mataī, hollowing out each half, then binding them together, often with the aerial roots of the kiekie vine. The narrow end had a carved wooden mouthpiece and the other was flared out. Sometimes the flared end had wooden pegs added to make it resemble the human throat. The pūkāea was traditionally a war trumpet, sounded by watchmen to signal the approach of an enemy or to show that the troops were on alert. It was also used for making announcements or opening events, and this use continues in modern times.

The family of Papa – rhythmic instruments

Tumutumu family

Tumutumu are made from stone, wood or bone and struck with stone or wooden strikers to create rhythms. Flakes of argillite held in the cupped palm produce varying pitches. Tōkere are small pieces of hard wood or shells held in the palm by dancers and played like castanets. Some small versions of the pahū (log drum) suggest their use in music.

The gourd instruments hue puruwai and hue rarā are variations of rhythmic shakers with loose seeds or pebbles inside. They have mixed parentage – as gourds they belong to the family of Hinepūtehue, while as rhythmic instruments they are part of the family of Papa.


The pākuru is a slender rod, sometimes elaborately carved, held over the mouth cavity to use its resonance and tapped with another rod while the performers also sang and danced. In the late 19th century Gilbert Mair described ‘a number of skilled performers, standing in a row, their swaying bodies and little tapping mallets keeping perfect unison … The effect is remarkably melodious and pleasing.’1  The pākuru and the poi were the only instruments used in large groups.


The rōria is a form of jew’s harp, and was often a length of split kareao (supplejack vine) about 8–10 centimetres long. One end was held in the mouth or against the teeth, and the vine was plucked with a finger of the free hand. A skilled player could manipulate the rōria to produce speech-like sounds.

The kū is a single-stringed instrument, which is tapped with a slender rod and played using the mouth cavity for resonance in the same way as the pākuru and rōria.

The family of Hineteiwaiwa

Hineteiwaiwa is the goddess of women’s arts, including the poi. She and her daughters were part of the first recorded travelling music troupe, which included a number of instrumental musicians, singers and dancers.


The most common rhythmic Māori instrument is the poi – a ball of dried flax on a string, swung and tapped by hand to make rhythmic patterns and sounds. Used by groups of women during dances, it can be the most spectacular of instruments.


In the 1920s Ngāti Porou elder Tuta Nihoniho explained how the turorohu (bullroarer) was used to bring rain. An expert practitioner would throw a handful of ashes to the south (the rainy quarter) and swing his instrument around to make a dull roaring sound. At the same time he would expose his buttocks to the south and recite an insulting karakia. ‘This curious performance … would certainly produce a rainstorm from the south.’2

The family of Tāwhirimātea

The children of the god of winds, Tāwhirimātea, have no bodies. They are considered to be spirit children, and the instruments that copy their sounds have spiritual purposes. The taonga puoro of this family are said to take the player’s hopes and distribute them on ngā hau e whā, the four winds.

Pūrerehua or turorohu create eerie sounds as they spin on the ends of their cords. Stories are told of them calling rain, summoning tears and even enticing food from hiding places.

Porotiti are small discs with a looped cord, which are spun and create special rhythms as they wind and unwind. Sometimes they are known as kōrorohū when spun, but kōrerohua when the spinning vanes are blown on. They are also used as healing aids. Their ultrasonic sounds and vibrations are said to clear infants’ sinuses and aid with arthritis.

    • Quoted in Mervyn McLean, Māori music. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996, p. 172. Back
    • 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. 294. Back

Decline and revival of Māori instruments

Loss of musical traditions

After European settlement, a number of factors led to the near-demise of use of taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments). Many of the ceremonies at which they were played disappeared with the introduction of Christianity. Māori themselves put aside their traditional instruments in favour of introduced versions such as the jew’s harp, which replaced its equivalent, the rōria. Māori musicians were swift and adept at adopting a wide range of new instruments including banjos, pianos, bagpipes, brass-band instruments and, perhaps most popular of all, the guitar.

As traditional instruments became rare, they were acquired by museums and private collectors, and later generations of Māori did not learn the art of playing them.

Loud and soft

In 1994 Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns, leaders of the revival of traditional Māori instruments, were invited to record the first ever CD devoted entirely to these instruments. Te kū te whe (loud and soft) was recorded at Rattle Records’ Auckland studios in a day and a half. It featured some 19 instruments, and extracts later reappeared in other sound recordings and numerous radio and TV programmes, documentaries and advertisements. Te te whe became ‘the soundtrack to just about all media allusions to the Māori side of national life.’1


In 1991 Nga Pua Waihanga, the Māori Artists and Writers Society, held a hui at Te Araroa on the East Coast to recall what was still known of taonga puoro. Among those taking part were Hirini Melbourne, a composer, musician and linguist of Ngāi Tūhoe; Richard Nunns, a teacher and jazz musician; and Brian Flintoff, a Nelson carver and instrument maker. Melbourne invited Nunns and Flintoff to join him in reviving taonga puoro traditions and practice. With support from various elders, Melbourne drew together others from around the country with different areas of expertise, but the common intention of creating a human resource that would foster the revival of making and playing the instruments. This movement grew under the name Haumanu, which means both ‘breath of birds’ and ‘revival’.

Stirring up memories

Richard Nunns has a collection of more than 80 taonga puoro, including two kōauau made out of human bone. He says, ‘I played one of them at one of the ana koiwi [burial caves] way up on the side of Maungapohatu’ (in the heart of the Urewera). Nunns and other taonga puoro experts have played these instruments in Māori communities nationwide. ‘Kuia [women elders] would come up to them after a performance, sometimes in tears, and share remembered snippets they themselves had forgotten until the sound of Richard and Hirini [Melbourne] playing restored them to consciousness.’2

Taonga puoro in the 2000s

In the 21st century the unique sounds of taonga puoro were heard on radio and television, in films, videos, concerts and everyday events. Recordings such as Te kū te whe and Te hekenga ā Rangi were widely available. Popular musicians such as Moana Maniapoto, jazz artists such as Jeff Henderson and Evan Parker, and modern classical composers such as Gillian Whitehead and John Psathas had all used traditional instruments in their live performances and recordings. Taonga puoro had become re-established as a living treasure.

    • Peter Beatson, ‘Richard Nunns: the renaissance of traditional Māori music.’ Music in the Air 16 (2003), p. 28. Back
    • ‘Richard Nunns: the renaissance of traditional Māori music,’ p. 25. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Brian Flintoff, 'Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Brian Flintoff, published 22 October 2014