Story: Traditional Māori songs – waiata tawhito

Page 3. Types of waiata

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Classes of waiata

Waiata can be grouped into classes and subclasses according to both form and function. Apirana Ngata gives the three main types of waiata mōteatea (traditional chants) as pōpō or oriori (lullabies), waiata tangi (laments) and waiata aroha (songs of love). He names seven subclasses of waiata tangi. Other forms include ruri (amorous songs), mata (prophetic songs), haka (war dances and rhythmically shouted words) and karakia (chants).

Waiata tangi

Subclasses of waiata tangi include:

  • laments by invalids because of some affliction
  • laments for warriors, for chiefs or for a tribe defeated in battle fought in the light of day
  • laments for men killed by treachery or murder
  • laments for chiefs who die a natural death
  • laments for deaths by misadventure or by accident
  • laments for a child, for a husband dead or gone away, for a husband who has been taken by another, or for a lover
  • laments for land deserted, for the loss of a tribe, for a canoe wrecked or stranded, for seed lost through rot, for a diseased neck or for a plantation with a rotted crop.

Variations of main types

Other types of waiata can be added to this list either as subclasses or as types in their own right, as defined by their form, function or subject matter.

Waiata whaiāipo, for example, were a particularly bold, witty and flirtatious type of love song, while pātere (songs composed by women in reply to jealousies or slander) and kaioraora (cursing songs) constitute an individual class of abusive and defiant songs. Apakura are a form of waiata tangi composed by women in the wharemate (resting place for a body) during the tangihanga as part of the grieving process.

Other classes of traditional waiata include:

  • pao – short chanting songs
  • ruri – songs of an amorous nature
  • matakite – songs pertaining to or communicating visions
  • mata – prophetic songs
  • waiata whakaaraara – sentinels’ songs
  • waiata karakia – ritualistic songs
  • waiata whakautu tono pākūwhā – songs to answer marriage proposals
  • waiata mō te moe punarua – songs for marriage to two wives
  • waiata nā te tūrehu – songs from the ‘fairy folk’
  • waiata whakautu whakapae – songs replying to statements made about a person
  • waiata wawata – songs expressing a desire for another.

Waiata aroha and waiata tangi

The differences between each type are not always clear-cut, and may depend on the emphasis placed on particular aspects of the waiata. Waiata tangi, for example, have a lot in common with waiata aroha. Both lament experiences of separation through death and in life. Waiata tangi and waiata aroha both take the form of rhetorical complaints – they were sung to express or relieve feelings, and to appeal to others’ emotions or for help.

Rather than celebrating the joyous and happy phases of love, waiata aroha typically complain of the distress and worry that accompany love. Waiata aroha record concerns as diverse as anxiety over a husband away at war, love for a husband, longing for a lover and desertion by a lover. Waiata aroha were also composed for a daughter married into another tribe, for a daughter mistreated by her husband, for traditional lands and for guns. The number of possible subjects for composition appear to have been limitless, as evidenced by this broad range of topics.


A waiata oriori was traditionally composed for a child of rank, and is often translated as ‘lullaby’. However, the waiata oriori was not intended simply to pacify or entertain a young child. It was an important tool for informing children about their origins and history. The famous East Coast oriori ‘Pō! Pō!’, for example, recounts the transmission of the kūmara from the Polynesian islands to the north of New Zealand.

These songs were chanted to children from infancy as part of their early education. Oriori often urged children to take on the responsibilities of their elders in later life.

Waiata poi

Poi (light balls on strings) were traditionally swung and hit to the tune of a chant, such as the famous ‘Poia atu taku poi’ by Erenora Taratoa of Ngāti Raukawa. Often a journey would be taken in these waiata, and the poi was symbolic of leading the listeners on this journey.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader, 'Traditional Māori songs – waiata tawhito - Types of waiata', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader, published 22 Oct 2014