Story: Popular music

Page 1. Origins of New Zealand popular music

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Emerging from a nation of immigrants, New Zealand’s popular music has developed from outside influences. Music respects no borders, and popular music is rarely pure. Due to the creativity of New Zealand musicians, what was once imported, borrowed or imitative has become a distinctively New Zealand sound.

What is popular music?

The term ‘popular music’ has come to refer to a commodity: music which is mass-produced, marketed and sold. It has been a cornerstone of the entertainment industry since the late 19th century. How people heard it has evolved from live performance to sheet music, player pianos, records, tapes, compact discs and digital files. It has been performed in theatres, opera houses, music halls, town halls, parlours, pubs and parks.

Earlier, ‘popular music’ described music genres that appealed to the masses but required no marketing to be widely heard. These included bagpipe music, brass bands, light opera, choirs, dance bands and music performed at informal gatherings. This popular music resembled folk music in being passed on orally, although, unlike folk songs, the songs were usually composed by identifiable writers. In public settings, the familiar music performs a social function: it is the soundtrack to a community’s shared experiences.

Māori music

Māori songs serve purposes beyond entertainment. Karakia are used for social or religious occasions; traditional waiata describe past events or lament lost loved ones. In haka, warriors challenge rivals, using aggressive movements. Pātere are rhythmic recitations in which the performers might defend a reputation.

Musical meetings

When European explorers first arrived in New Zealand, they found that the indigenous people already had a rich musical tradition. The first musical encounter between Māori and European was on 18 December 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed into Golden Bay. Māori paddling waka greeted his two ships by blowing on a shell ‘which gave sound like the moors’ Trumpets’.1 The Dutch sailors responded with notes from the ships’ baroque trumpets.

Music to his ear?

British explorer James Cook considered Māori songs ‘harmonious enough but very dolefull to a European Ear’2, an opinion later explorers shared.

It was the opening fanfare in a long musical conversation between Māori and Pākehā. The combination of the two influences can often be heard in popular music that is distinctive or important to New Zealand. Whether by Māori alone, or Māori composers writing lyrics to borrowed European melodies or working with non-Māori songwriters, the fusion of the cultures has created some of New Zealand’s most cherished songs.

Māori and European instruments and songs

Soon, thanks to traders, whalers, sealers and sailors, Māori played European instruments such as music boxes, Jew’s harps, violins, flutes and pianos.

Missionaries brought a repertoire of hymns for spiritual comfort and conversion. Four hundred copies of a book containing hymns and other biblical writings translated into te reo Māori were printed in Sydney in 1827. It was through psalms and hymns that Māori became familiar with more formal Western music.

  1. Quoted in John Mansfield Thomson, The Oxford history of New Zealand music. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 9. Back
  2. Quoted in The Oxford history of New Zealand music, p. 10. Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music - Origins of New Zealand popular music', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014