Music of New Zealand


New Zealand has a strong cultural focus on music, with many musicians and composers finding success nationally and internationally.

Pre-colonial Ma-ori music was based around a form of micro-tonal chanting, and instruments called taonga pu-oro: a variety of blown, struck and twirled instruments made out of hollowed-out wood, stone, whale ivory, albatross bone, and human bone. In the nineteenth century European settlers brought musical forms to New Zealand including brass bands and choral music, and musicians began touring New Zealand in the 1860s. Pipe bands became widespread during the early 20th century.

The New Zealand recording industry began to develop from 1940 onwards. The Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ) publishes New Zealand's official weekly record charts. The Association also holds the annual New Zealand Music Awards which were first held in 1965 as the Loxene Golden Disc awards.

New Zealand has a national orchestra and many regional orchestras. A number of New Zealand composers have developed international reputations. The most well-known include Douglas Lilburn, John Psathas, Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, Jenny McLeod, Gareth Farr, Ross Harris and Martin Lodge.

Despite the country's young history on the global stage, New Zealand has managed to develop a diverse musical scene. Pop, Rock, Rap, and Reggae are all extremely popular in New Zealand, with artists in these musical genres gathering massive success. New Zealand has also maintained a strong indie music scene and has a rapidly growing Heavy Metal scene.

Maori music

Traditional Ma-ori music, or Te Pu-oro Ma-ori is composed or performed by Ma-ori, the native people of New Zealand, and includes a wide variety of folk music styles, often integrated with poetry and dance.

In addition to these traditions and musical heritage, since the 19th century European colonisation of New Zealand Ma-ori musicians and performers have adopted and interpreted many of the imported Western musical styles. Contemporary rock and roll, soul, reggae and hip hop all feature a variety of notable Ma-ori performers.


Songs (waiata) were sung solo, in unison or at the octave. Types of song included lullabies (oriori), love songs (waitata aroha) and laments (waiata tangi). Traditionally all speeches usually follow with a song and the group of supporters would usually join in. Some of the smaller wind instruments were also sung into, and the sound of the poi (raupo ball swung on the end of a flax cord) provided a rhythmic accompaniment to waiata poi.

Captain Cook reported that the Ma-ori sang in "semitones" and others reported that the Ma-ori had no singing/vocal music at all or sang discordantly, but this is incorrect. Many Europeans at that time may not have been able to distinguish, or appreciate as musical the microtones the Ma-ori were singing. A pre-European song could have a range of as little as a minor third but with several more than the four notes of European music within that range. A song would repeat a single melodic line, generally centred on one note, falling away at the end of the last line. It was a bad omen for a song to be interrupted, so singers in groups would cover for each other while individuals took breaths.

An important collection of traditional song lyrics is Nga- Mo-teatea by Sir Apirana Ngata but it was Mervyn McLean, in "Traditional Songs of the Maori", who first notated the microtones of a significant number of them.

It was missionary influence that led to the harmonisation of modern Ma-ori music. Through the 19th and 20th centuries the compass of new songs in traditional style gradually increased, so that it is possible to date a song approximately by its range.

Although pre-European Ma-ori music was predominantly sung, a rich tradition of wind, percussion and whirled instruments known by the collective term Taonga pu-oro were used, mainly by tohunga.

Revival of traditional music

As part of a deliberate campaign to revive Ma-ori music and culture in the early 20th century, Apirana Ngata virtually invented the "action song" (waiata-a-ringa) in which stylised body movements, many with standardised meanings, synchronise with the singing. He, Tuini Ngawai and the tourist concert parties of Rotorua developed the familiar performance of today, with sung entrance, poi, haka ("war dance"), stick game, hymn, ancient song and/or action song, and sung exit. The group that performs it is known as a kapa haka, and in the last few decades, competitions within iwi (tribes) and religious denominations regionally and nationally, have raised their performances to a high standard.

In 1964, The Polynesian Festival ( which became the Aotearoa Traditional Ma-ori Performing Arts Festival and is now known as Te Matatini), was founded, though the board did not actually schedule its first concert until 1972, with the express purpose of encouraging the development of Ma-ori music.

Outside influences

While the guitar has become an almost universal instrument to accompany Maori performances today, this only dates from the mid 20th century. Earlier performers used the piano or violin. Some modern artists such as Hinewehi Mohi, Tiki Taane, Maisey Rika and Taisha Tari have revived the use of traditional instruments.

Ngata and Tuini Ngawai composed many songs using European tunes, to encourage Ma-ori pride and, from 1939, to raise morale among Ma-ori at home and at the war. Many, such as "Hoki mai e tama ma-" and "E te Hokowhiti-a-Tu-" (to the tune of "In the Mood") are still sung today. More recently, other styles originating overseas, including jazz, swing and rock have been incorporated. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hirini Melbourne composed prolifically in an adapted form of traditional style (His Ti-hore mai te rangi seldom ranges outside a major third, and Nga- iwi e outside a fourth) and groups like Herbs created a Ma-ori style of reggae.


This is a formal call, ceremonial call - a ceremonial call of welcome to visitors onto a Marae (traditional Maori pa or tribal grounds), or equivalent venue, at the start of a po-whiri (welcome ceremony). The Karanga is given by women (or kaikaranga) only as the Maori people believe that a woman's voice is a powerful thing because she is the giver of life. Her karanga calls us from the darkness of Te Po (the night) and takes us into Te Ao Marama (the world of light). Her energy unlocks the pulse of life.

The Karanga is also used for the responses from the visiting party/group to the ceremonial call from the tangata whenua (people of the land). It follows a format which includes a series of discussions (such as whaikorero, mihi and whakawhanaungatanga) and addressing and greeting each other and the people they are representing and paying tribute to the dead, especially those who have died recently. The purpose of the occasion is also addressed during this time. Traditionally, this was a time where the tangata whenua could determine whether the visiting party were visiting in peace or for purposes of war. Skilled kaikaranga are able to use eloquent language and metaphor and to encapsulate important information about the group and the purpose of the visit.

Traditional Maori musical instruments

The work of researchers and enthusiasts such as Dr. Richard Nunns, Hirini Melbourne and Brian Flintoff have done provided a wealth of knowledge and information around the sounds, history and stories of these instruments, which included various types of flutes, wooden trumpets, percussion instruments and bull-roarers.

Taonga pu-oro

Pre-European instrumental music was played on taonga pu-oro, a variety of blown, struck and twirled instruments made out of hollowed-out wood, stone, whale ivory, albatross bone, and human bone. The pu-ka-ea (wooden trumpet), hue (gourd), and pu-ta-tara (conch shell trumpet) fulfilled many functions within pre-colonial Ma-ori society, including a call to arms, dawning of the new day, communications with the gods and the planting of crops. Taonga pu-oro have been revived over the past thirty years by Dr Richard Nunns, Hirini Melbourne, and Brian Flintoff.

European settlers brought new harmonies and instruments which were gradually adopted by Ma-ori composers. The action song (waiata-a--ringa) was largely developed in the early 20th century.

In the mid to late 20th century, Ma-ori singers and songwriters like Howard Morrison, Prince Tui Teka, Dalvanius Prime, Moana Maniapoto and Hinewehi Mohi developed a distinctive Ma-ori-influenced style. Some artists have released Ma-ori language songs, and the Ma-ori traditional art of kapa haka (song and dance) has made a resurgence.

Popular music

Popular New Zealand music has been influenced by blues, jazz, country, rock and roll and hip hop, with many of these genres given a unique New Zealand interpretation. A number of popular artists have gone on to achieve international success including Split Enz, Crowded House, OMC, Bic Runga, Ladyhawke, The Naked and Famous, Fat Freddy's Drop and Flight of the Conchords.

New Zealand's first pop song was Blue Smoke, written in the 1940s by Ruru Karatiana. Pixie Williams recorded the song in 1949 and, although it went triple platinum in New Zealand, the award for selling 50,000 copies of the song was only presented to Pixie Williams on 13 July 2011.

In 1962 a television station in Auckland started screening New Zealand’s first TV music show called In the Groove, which subsequently screened on other regional channels as well. Other shows followed including On the Beat, and C'mon, all of which were hosted by television personality Peter Sinclair. The advent of music television shows lead to the rise of Sandy Edmonds, one of New Zealand's first pop stars.

Formed in the early 1970s and variously featuring Phil Judd and brothers Tim Finn and Neil Finn, the Split Enz achieved chart success in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada - most notably with their 1980 single I Got You - and build a cult following elsewhere. The videos for some of the band's 1980s songs were among the first played on MTV.

In 1985, Neil Finn formed pop rock band Crowded House in Melbourne, Australia. The other founding members were Australians Paul Hester and Nick Seymour. Later band members included Neil's brother Tim Finn and Americans Mark Hart and Matt Sherrod. Originally active from 1985 to 1996, the band have had consistent commercial and critical success in Australia and New Zealand and international chart success in two phases, beginning with their self-titled debut album, Crowded House, which reached number twelve on the US Album Chart in 1987 and provided the Top Ten hits, Don't Dream It's Over and Something So Strong. Further international success came in the UK and Europe with their third and fourth albums, Woodface and Together Alone and the compilation album Recurring Dream, which included the hits Fall at Your Feet, Weather with You, Distant Sun, Locked Out, Instinct and Not the Girl You Think You Are. Queen Elizabeth II bestowed an OBE on both Neil and Tim Finn, in June 1993, for their contribution to the music of New Zealand.

New Zealand's top-selling pop song of all time was How Bizarre by OMC. The song went to number one in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland, South Africa and Austria. It spent 36 weeks on the United States Billboard's Hot 100 airplay charts, peaking at number 4. It reached number five in the United Kingdom, and it made the Top 10 in Portugal and Israel.

In 2008, folk parody duo Flight of the Conchords found international success with their eponymous album. The album debuted at number three on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling about 52,000 copies in its first week. In New Zealand, the album debuted at number two and rose to the number one spot the next week. The album was certified 2x Platinum in New Zealand on 23 August 2009, selling over 30,000 copies.

Radio Airplay

Despite the vitality of New Zealand bands in the pub scene, for many years commercial radio was reluctant to play locally produced material. By 1995 only 1.6% of all songs played on commercial radio stations were of New Zealand origin. Many New Zealanders felt that a quota system was needed to compel radio stations to play more New Zealand music and in 1997 a government Kiwi Music Action Group was formed to promote this goal. The group initiated New Zealand Music Week to encourage radio to play more New Zealand music. In 2000, this morphed into New Zealand Music Month. Since then, local music content on commercial radio has slowly increased.

Progress was slow, however, and the government threatened to impose a compulsory New Zealand music quota on radio stations. In order to avoid being forced to play a certain percentage, the radio industry voluntarily adopted a 10 percent target which was achieved in 2000. By 2005 New Zealand content averaged between 19 and 20 percent.


The history of blues in New Zealand dates from the 1960s. The earliest blues influences on New Zealand musicians originated with white British blues musicians like The Animals and The Rolling Stones, and later the blues-tinged rock of groups such as Led Zeppelin. The first American blues artist to make a big impact in New Zealand was Stevie Ray Vaughan in the early 1980s. Other blues-related genres such as soul and gospel almost completely by-passed New Zealand audiences, except for a handful of hits from cross-over artists such as Ray Charles. While New Zealand does not have its own blues style, it does have some fine blues musicians.


Kiwi rock is a term used informally to describe New Zealand rock music and the culture surrounding rock music in New Zealand.

A strong rock scene developed in New Zealand in the 1960s. The more famous bands included The La De Das, Ray Columbus & The Invaders, and The Fourmyula. The first rock'n'roll hit by a New Zealander was Johnny Devlin's hit Lawdy Miss Clawdy, which sold 100,000 copies in 1959-60.

Some of the more influential bands in the 1970s were Th'Dudes (whose guitarist Dave Dobbyn formed DD Smash in the 1980s), Dragon, Hello Sailor and Split Enz, fronted by Tim Finn, and later, his brother Neil Finn, who went on to form Crowded House.

Independent music in New Zealand began in the latter half of the 1970s, with the development of a local punk rock scene. Bands of note included The Scavengers, the Suburban Reptiles, Proud Scum and Nocturnal Projections. One of the most important New Zealand punk bands was The Enemy, formed by lo-fi pioneer Chris Knox. After a reshuffle of personnel, many of the band's songs were recorded over 1979–1980 as Toy Love. The same musicians formed the basis for later groups such as The Bats and Tall Dwarfs.

The 1980s saw the emergence of independent labels like Propeller Records in Auckland and the Flying Nun record label in Christchurch which were highly influential in the development of modern New Zealand rock music. The Clean, hailing from Dunedin, was the first major band to emerge from the Flying Nun roster. The South Island cities of Dunedin and Christchurch provided most of the first wave of Flying Nun's artists which championed the Dunedin Sound. During the early 1980s the label's distinctive jangle-pop sound was established by bands such as The Chills, The Verlaines, The Dead C, Sneaky Feelings, The Bats and The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience.

Formed in Dunedin in 1986, The Dead C had an experimental, lo-fi guitar and soundscape-oriented take on rock music. The band became known internationally through their releases on the Philadelphia record label Siltbreeze, especially the 1992 double LP Harsh 70s Reality.

Rock band Shihad was formed by vocalist/guitarist Jon Toogood and drummer Tom Larkin in 1988. The band's musical style was originally indebted to San Francisco Bay Area thrash metal bands such as Metallica and Megadeth, although the band found wider popularity over the following decade playing a mixture of modern rock, post-grunge and pop-rock. With the release of their seventh studio album Beautiful Machine, Shihad ranked first equal for most Top 40 charting singles for a New Zealand artist in the New Zealand charts, with 19.

New independent labels developed in the 1990s, including IMD and Arclife in Dunedin, Failsafe Records and She'll Be Right Records in Christchurch, Capital Recordings, Stink Magnetic and Loop in Wellington, and Arch Hill Recordings, Lil' Chief Records and Powertool Records in Auckland.

A new alternative pop sound is typified by the likes of The Brunettes, Goldenhorse, The Phoenix Foundation, and Lawrence Arabia. A Low Hum has had a big influence bringing new artists to the attention of alternative music fans in New Zealand by putting on nationwide tours and a music festival, Camp A Low Hum, selling fanzine style booklets with free CDs, and releasing artists like The Enright House and Disasteradio on its label.

Independent music in New Zealand has mainly been supported by student radio stations such as bFM, and RDU, and fanzines like Opprobium and Clinton.

Heavy metal

New Zealand has several well-known heavy metal bands including Blindspott, 8 Foot Sativa, In Dread Response, Dawn of Azazel, Sinate, Beastwars, Ulcerate and The Datsuns, with most metal bands playing death metal. Wellington Black Metal band Demoniac was among the first to receive international recognition, releasing three albums on the French Evil Omen and Osmose labels. The band eventually relocated to the United Kingdom where guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman went on to form the popular power metal band DragonForce.

More recently Ulcerate, who are signed to high profile US label Relapse Records have received wide international recognition for their blending of brutal death metal with post-rock influences.

In recent years, a distinct trend has emerged amongst New Zealand's death metal scene of a deliberately old-school, raw "war metal" sound coupled with aggressive, militaristic lyrics and images, typified by bands such as Dawn of Azazel, Vassafor and Diocletian, all of whom have received attention within the international underground.


New Zealand has maintained a small dark music scene which dates back to the 1970s and 1980s via iconoclastic bands such as Nocturnal Projections, Children's Hour, Fetus Productions, The Skeptics, Hieronymus Bosch and Winterland. New Zealand darkwave bands such as N.U.T.E, Dr Kevorkian & the Suicide Machine and The Mercy Cage enjoy international acclaim.

The dark scene in New Zealand supported itself via various self-funded groups such as Circadian Rhythms and Club Bizarre, both of which are now defunct. They organised events to promote dark arts, music and fashion. Most New Zealand dark releases are independent, self-funded or funded by the various support networks of artists and musicians, and following the closing of the last of the darkwave/gothic/industrial clubs in 2008, there are no longer regularly-scheduled scene nights in any city in the country. Although in recent years Creative New Zealand (New Zealand's Arts Council) has shown support of some darkwave-experimental artists such as Jordan Reyne, the genre remains largely unacknowledged by the local music industry and many of the bands and musicians survive on overseas sales via internet and wider-reaching darkwave fan networks.


Formed in 1979, Herbs are a New Zealand reggae vocal group and the 11th inductee into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. In 1986, the song Slice of Heaven with Dave Dobbyn reached number one on both the New Zealand and Australian charts. In 1989, Tim Finn joined them for the Parihaka festival and, in 1992, Annie Crummer fronted the hit single See What Love Can Do. Herbs are considered pioneers of the Pacific reggae sound, having paved the way for contemporary New Zealand reggae groups such as Breaks Co-op, Fat Freddy's Drop, Katchafire, Kora, The Black Seeds, and Trinity Roots.

Hip hop

The genesis of New Zealand hip hop began with the rise of the hip hop culture in the United States.

Many of New Zealand's first hip hop performers, such as Dalvanius Prime, whose Poi E was a major hit, were Ma-ori. Poi E had no rapping, but marked a shift from reggae and funk favoured by Ma-ori musicians.

The first entire album of locally produced hip hop was Upper Hutt Posse's E Tu EP, from 1988. E Tu was partially in Ma-ori and partially in English, and its lyrics were politically charged.

The first major New Zealand hip hop hit was Hip Hop Holiday by 3 The Hard Way. Sampling the song Dreadlock Holiday by 10CC, it went to number one for several weeks in 1993 and was also an Australian hit.

In the 1990s, the New Zealand hip hop scene grew with the added input of Pacific Island musicians, creating a local variant style known as Urban Pasifika, a term first coined by producer Alan Jansson for the influential Proud collection in 1994. That compilation, featuring Sisters Underground and OMC, helped set the stage for the next decade of New Zealand hip hop. 'Protest' content was still present, but lyrical and musical emphasis had largely evolved into a more chart-friendly sound.

In 2005, Savage, a New Zealand Samoan hip hop artist, had back-to-back number one hits with Swing and Moonshine, the latter featuring US artist Akon. Swing was used in the 2007 film Knocked Up and sold more than 1.8 million copies in the United States, making it almost double platinum. The song also appeared on the US compilation Now That's What I Call Music! 29.


The earliest electronica in New Zealand came out of Auckland and Wellington in the early 1980s. Wellington's The Body Electric produced a hit called Pulsing which spent four months in the national Top 50.

The explosion of the club scene in Auckland in the era led to a surge in the recording related recording activity, and in 1988 Propeller Records released New Zealand's first House record, Jam This Record. Much of the activity during this era centred around Reaction Records and Pagan Records. The compilation, We'll Do Our Best, on Propeller Records was an early sampler of this. The most prominent act during this period was The Car Crash Set, which released several singles and an album in the mid-1980s.

There were sporadic recordings over the next few years: notably the work of Joost Langeveld, Angus McNaughton, and DLT. The Future Jazz scene (the term was first coined in Auckland in the early 1990s) developed in Auckland around the Cause Celebre nightclub and the work of Nathan Haines, with two notable early releases including Freebass Live At Cause Celebre and Haines' Shift Left.

Drum and bass

Drum and bass became popular in New Zealand during the 1980s. With support from British acts and local pioneers like Riddle, Geoff Presha, and Jay Bulletproof, drum and bass clubs like Herzog, The Box, and Fu in Auckland soon attracted a dedicated following.

The drum and bass scene in New Zealand was supported by the now defunct Real Groove magazine, and grew in popularity with outdoor New Year's Eve festivals such as Alpine Unity and Phat.

In the late nineties a number of independent labels began releasing electronica, including Chris Chetland's Kog Transmissions, Simon Flower's Nurture Records, Loop Recordings, and, importantly, Joost Langeveld's Reliable Records. Other artists, like Roger Perry, Soane, Greg Churchill, Stephen Hill, and Rob Salmon have found success with offshore labels.

Salmonella Dub, Concord Dawn, Tiki Taane, Shapeshifter, Pitch Black, Bulletproof, and Optimus Gryme have all had international success.

European folk music

Brass bands

New Zealand has a proud history of brass bands, with regular provincial contests. The New Zealand National Band has earned international accolades.

The Band Of The Royal Regiment Of New Zealand Artillery is a military brass band based in Auckland. It is a Territorial (part-time) Sub Unit of the New Zealand Army and its members are all New Zealand Defence Force personnel. It represents the New Zealand Army at military functions and celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2014.

Highland pipe bands

New Zealand is said to have more pipebands per person than Scotland; historical links are maintained by Caledonian Societies throughout the country.

Classical/Art music

The formal traditions of European classical music took a long time to develop in New Zealand, due to its geographical isolation. Composers such as Alfred Hill were educated in Europe and brought late Romantic Music traditions to New Zealand. He attempted to graft them on to New Zealand themes with one notable success, the popular "Waiata Poi". However, before 1960 New Zealand did not have a distinct classical style of its own, having "a tendency to over-criticize home-produced goods".

Douglas Lilburn, working predominantly in the third quarter of the 20th century, is often credited with being the first composer to compose with a truly New Zealand voice and gain international recognition for it. Lilburn's Second Piano Sonatina was described as "a work which seems to draw on the best of Lilburn's past...specially suited to New Zealand." He also pioneered electronic music. Lilburn and other composers working during the late 1950s and 60s, including Edwin Carr, developed a new direction in New Zealand music that was distinctly separate from its influences.

With significant acceleration New Zealanders have found their own style and place, with composers such as John Cousins, David Farquhar, Jenny McLeod, Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, Anthony Ritchie, Martin Lodge, and Ross Harris leading the way.

Diverse musical currents in the world from the European avant-garde to American minimalism have influenced particular New Zealand composers to varying degrees. Increasingly, there are more cross-over composers fusing Pacific, Asian and European influences along with electronic instruments and techniques into a new sound, Gareth Farr, Philip Dadson and composer co-operative Plan9 among them. The latter provided much of the ambient music used in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

In 2004, Wellington composer John Psathas achieved the largest audience for New Zealand-composed music when his fanfares and other music were heard by billions at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics. In the same year, he took the Tui Award for Best Classical Recording at the Vodafone NZ Music Awards and the SOUNZ Contemporary Award at the APRA Silver Scrolls.

There are several twelve-month Composer-in-Residence positions available in New Zealand, notably with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and at the University of Otago (Mozart Fellowship).

Orchestras and chamber music

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is New Zealand's national orchestra and is funded by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is New Zealand's second professional orchestra. There are also a number of semi-professional regional orchestras presenting their own concert series each year. These include the Opus Chamber Orchestra in Hamilton, the Vector Wellington Orchestra, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the Southern Sinfonia in Dunedin.

The New Zealand String Quartet and the NZTrio both perform locally and internationally. The NZTrio specialises in contemporary art music.


New Zealand has a strong choral tradition. The Anglican cathedrals in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have choirs of a high standard and there are also a number of secular New Zealand choirs including the New Zealand Youth Choir, Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, City of Dunedin Choir, Auckland Choral Society and Christchurch City Choir. Many of these choirs perform around New Zealand and compete against other choirs internationally.


New Zealand has produced a number of internationally famous opera singers, including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sir Donald McIntyre, Simon O'Neill, Jonathan Lemalu, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Anna Leese, and Dame Malvina Major.

New Zealand Opera is the country's sole professional opera company. The company stages up to three operas a year in Auckland and Wellington and features international as well as New Zealand soloists.


Prominent New Zealand musicians performing internationally include pianists Michael Houstoun, Jeffrey Grice, John Chen, and singer Hayley Westenra.

Musical theatre

The most well-known musical theatre production written by a New Zealander is the Rocky Horror Show musical, written by Richard O'Brien, and first performed on stage in London during 1973.

(from the articles Music of New Zeland and Māori music of Wikipedia)

Selected examples

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Comments on how to improve the content of this page, to report omissions of artists connected to the regional music of New Zealand or mistakes in search results (spelling, alternative names, etc) are welcome below.


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