Music of New Zealand

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Music of New Zealand
General topics
Specific forms
Ethnic music
Other influences
Media and performance
Music awards
Music charts
Music festivals
Music media
Nationalistic and patriotic songs
National anthem

The music of New Zealand has been influenced by blues, jazz, country, rock and roll and hip hop, with many of these genres given a unique New Zealand interpretation. [1] [2] A number of popular artists have gone on to achieve international success including Lorde, [3] Split Enz, Crowded House, OMC, Bic Runga, Kimbra, Ladyhawke, The Naked and Famous, Fat Freddy's Drop, Savage, Gin Wigmore, Flight of the Conchords, and Brooke Fraser.

Blues is a music genre and musical form which was originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1870s by African Americans from roots in African musical traditions, African-American work songs, and spirituals. Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. Blue notes, usually thirds, fifths or sevenths flattened in pitch are also an essential part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove.

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as "America's classical music". Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as "one of America's original art forms".

Country music, also known as country and western, and hillbilly music, is a genre of popular music that originated in the southern United States in the early 1920s. It takes its roots from genres such as American folk music and blues.


Pre-colonial Māori music consisted mainly of a form of microtonal chanting and performances on instruments called taonga pūoro: 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. [4] [5] Pipe bands became widespread during the early 20th century. [6]

Microtonal music use in music of microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone)

Microtonal music or microtonality is the use in music of microtones—intervals smaller than a semitone, also called "microintervals". It may also be extended to include any music using intervals not found in the customary Western tuning of twelve equal intervals per octave. In other words, a microtone may be thought of as a note that falls between the keys of a piano tuned in equal temperament.

Taonga pūoro Māori traditional musical instruments

Taonga pūoro are the traditional musical instruments of the Māori people of New Zealand.

Brass band musical ensemble generally consisting entirely of brass instruments

A brass band is a musical ensemble generally consisting entirely of brass instruments, most often with a percussion section. Ensembles that include brass and woodwind instruments can in certain traditions also be termed brass bands, but may more correctly termed military bands, concert bands, or "brass and reed" bands.

New Zealand has a national orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and many regional orchestras. A number of New Zealand composers have developed international reputations. The most well-known include Douglas Lilburn, [7] John Psathas, [8] Jack Body, [9] Gillian Whitehead, [10] Jenny McLeod, [11] Gareth Farr, [12] and Ross Harris. [13]

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra national orchestra of New Zealand

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) is a symphony orchestra based in Wellington, New Zealand. The national orchestra of New Zealand, the NZSO is an autonomous Crown entity owned by the Government of New Zealand, per the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Act 2004. It is currently based in the Michael Fowler Centre and frequently performs also in the adjacent Wellington Town Hall. It also performs in Auckland and Christchurch.

Douglas Gordon Lilburn was a New Zealand composer.

John Psathas, ONZM is a New Zealand composer.

Māori music

Maori culture group at 1981 Nambassa festival. 1981 Maori Culture group. Photographer Paul Gilbert.jpg
Māori culture group at 1981 Nambassa festival.

Pre-Colonial Māori music was microtonal, with a repeated melodic line that did not move far from a central pitch. Group singing was in unison or doubled in octaves. With origins in ancient South-East Asian cultures, the sound of these chants was described by early European settlers as "monotonous", and Captain Cook, who surveyed the islands in 1769, found the music "harmonious enough but very dolefull to a European Ear." [14]

Taonga pūoro

Pre-Colonial instrumental music was played on taonga pūoro, a variety of blown, struck and twirled instruments made out of hollowed-out wood, stone, whale ivory, albatross bone, and human bone. [15] The pūkāea (wooden trumpet), hue (gourd), and pūtātara (conch shell trumpet) fulfilled many functions within pre-colonial Māori society, including a call to arms, dawning of the new day, communications with the gods and the planting of crops. [16] Taonga pūoro have been revived over the past thirty years by Dr Richard Nunns, Hirini Melbourne, and Brian Flintoff. [17]

Richard Nunns New Zealand musician

Richard Nunns QSM is a Māori traditional instrumentalist of Pākehā heritage. He is particularly known for playing taonga pūoro and his collaboration with fellow Māori instrumentalist Hirini Melbourne. Since Melbourne's death, he is regarded as the world's foremost authority on Māori instruments.

Hirini (Sid) Melbourne was a Māori composer, singer, university lecturer, poet and author. He was from Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu Maori tribes.

Contemporary Māori music

European settlers brought new harmonies and instruments which were gradually adopted by Māori composers. The action song (waiata-ā-ringa) was largely developed in the early 20th century. [18]

In the mid- to late-20th century, Māori singers and songwriters like Howard Morrison, Prince Tui Teka, Dalvanius Prime, Moana Maniapoto and Hinewehi Mohi developed a distinctive Māori-influenced style. [19] Some artists have released Māori language songs, and the Māori traditional art of kapa haka (song and dance) has had a resurgence. [20]

Māori show bands

Māori show bands formed in New Zealand and Australia from the 1950s. The groups performed in a wide variety of musical genres, dance styles, and with cabaret skills, infusing their acts with comedy drawn straight from Māori culture. Some Māori show bands would begin their performances in traditional Māori costume before changing into suits and sequinned gowns. Billy T. James spent many years overseas in show bands, beginning in the Maori Volcanics. [21]

Radio airplay

The New Zealand recording industry began to develop from 1940 onwards. [1] The Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ) publishes New Zealand's official weekly record charts. [22] The Association also holds the annual New Zealand Music Awards which were first held in 1965 as the Loxene Golden Disc awards. [23]

Despite the vitality of New Zealand bands in the pub scene, for many years commercial radio was reluctant to play locally produced material and by 1995 only 1.6% of all songs played on commercial radio stations were of New Zealand origin. [24] In 1997 a government Kiwi Music Action Group was formed to compel radio stations to broadcast New Zealand music. The group initiated New Zealand Music Week and in 2000 this grew into New Zealand Music Month. By 2005 New Zealand content averaged between 19 and 20 percent. [25]


New Zealand's first pop song was "Blue Smoke", written in the 1940s by Ruru Karaitiana. [26] 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. [27] The advent of music television shows in the 1960s [28] led to the rise of Sandy Edmonds, one of New Zealand's first pop stars. [29]

Split Enz and Crowded House

Split Enz performing in June 2006 Split Enz.jpg
Split Enz performing in June 2006

Formed in the early 1970s and variously featuring Phil Judd and brothers Tim Finn and Neil Finn, Split Enz achieved chart success in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada ‒ most notably with their 1980 single I Got You – and built a cult following elsewhere. The music videos for some of the band's 1980s songs were among the first played on MTV. [30] 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 had consistent commercial and critical success in Australia and New Zealand [31] [32] [33] 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 . [34] [35] 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". [36] [37] Queen Elizabeth II bestowed an OBE on both Neil and Tim Finn in June 1993 for their contribution to the music of New Zealand. [38]

Dave Dobbyn

After the dissolution of his band DD Smash, singer-songwriter Dave Dobbyn began a successful solo career, writing the soundtrack music for the animated feature film Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale in 1986. The film yielded two hit singles: "You Oughta Be In Love" (1986) and the chart-topping "Slice of Heaven" (1986), recorded with the band Herbs. After the release of the film, "Slice of Heaven" became one of Dobbyn's best-known songs, frequently used in tourism advertisements aired on Australian television that encouraged people to visit New Zealand. With the success of the song in Australia, Dobbyn settled in Australia.

Dobbyn's hit song "Loyal" (1988) from his debut solo album Loyal (1988) was used as an anthem for Team New Zealand's unsuccessful 2003 America's Cup defence.

In 2005, Dobbyn released his sixth solo album, Available Light . It received popular and critical acclaim. In the same year Dobbyn performed the lead single from Available Light, "Welcome Home" (2005) at the New Zealand Music Awards awards ceremony. During the performance, Ahmed Zaoui, who was appealing a security certificate issued due to alleged links to terrorist groups, appeared on stage with Dobbyn. [39]

Don McGlashan

Composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist Don McGlashan won fame with bands Blam Blam Blam, The Front Lawn, and The Mutton Birds, before pursuing a solo career. McGlashan's first hits were with band Blam Blam Blam in the early 1980s. He later released four albums as lead singer and writer for The Mutton Birds. McGlashan's first solo album Warm Hand , was released in May 2006. It was nominated for an NZ Music Award for album of the year, and debut single Miracle Sun was a nominee for New Zealand's supreme songwriting award, the APRA Silver Scroll. He has composed extensively for cinema and television.

Bic Runga

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist pop artist Bic Runga released her first solo album Drive in 1997. It debuted at number one on the New Zealand Top 40 Album charts. Runga has since become one of the highest-selling New Zealand artists in recent history. She has also found success internationally in Australia, Ireland, and, to some extent, in the UK. In the 2006 New Year Honours Runga was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music. [40]


Lorde is one of the most internationally successful New Zealand artists Lorde Constanza.jpg
Lorde is one of the most internationally successful New Zealand artists

In September 2013, 16-year-old singer Lorde (Ella Yelich-O'Connor) became the youngest solo artist to ever reach number one on the US singles chart with Royals . The song from her album Pure Heroine went on to win Best Pop Performance and Song of the Year at the 2014 Grammy Awards. [41]

Top-selling singles and albums

The top-selling New Zealand pop song of all time is 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 Hot 100 Airplay (Radio Songs) charts, peaking at number 4. It reached number five in the United Kingdom, and it made the Top 10 in Portugal and Israel. [42]

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. [43]

In 2011, New Zealand singer Kimbra collaborated with Belgian-Australian singer Gotye on his song Somebody That I Used To Know . The song topped the US, UK, Australian and 23 other national charts, and reached the top 10 in more than 30 countries around the world. The song has sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling digital singles of all time. [44]

Rock, alternative rock and indie rock

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. Rock developed in New Zealand in the 1960s. Prominent bands included The La De Das, Ray Columbus & The Invaders, and The Fourmyula. [45]

By the late 1970s, some New Zealand rock bands were finding national success, including 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. [46]

In the 1980s several independent labels like Propeller Records in Auckland and the Flying Nun record label in Christchurch were established and became influential in the development of modern New Zealand rock music. The Clean from Dunedin was the first major band to emerge from the Flying Nun roster. Most of the first wave of the musicians and bands signed to Flying Nun originated from Dunedin and Christchurch, and helped to develop 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. [47]

Rock band Shihad was formed by vocalist/guitarist Jon Toogood and drummer Tom Larkin in 1988. The band found wide popularity in New Zealand over the following decade, playing a mixture of modern rock, post-grunge and pop-rock. Shihad has had three number one albums in New Zealand. [48]

Other notable rock bands popular in the 1990s include the Headless Chickens, The Mutton Birds, The Exponents, The Feelers, Supergroove and Push Push. [49]

Hip hop

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 early 1994. [50] Many of New Zealand's first hip hop performers, such as Dalvanius Prime, whose "Poi E" was a number one hit, were Māori. Released in 1984, "Poi E" was sung entirely in the Māori language and featured a blend of Māori cultural practices in the song and accompanying music video, including Māori chanting, poi dancing, and the wearing of traditional Māori garments. [51]

The first entire album of locally produced hip hop was Upper Hutt Posse's E Tu EP, from 1988. E Tu was partially in Māori and partially in English, and its lyrics were politically charged. The song "E Tu" combined African-American revolutionary rhetoric with an explicitly Māori frame of reference. It paid homage to the rebel Māori warrior chiefs of New Zealand's colonial history: Hone Heke, Te Kooti, and Te Rauparaha. [52]

In the 1990s, the New Zealand hip hop scene grew with the evolution of Pacific Island-influenced hip hop. Phil Fuemana, Kosmo, Brother D and Pacific Underground played an important role in the growth of "Pasifika" hip hop. OMC's 1996 single "How Bizarre" combined Pauly Fuemana's Nieuean background, a Pacific Island guitar style and hop hop bears to create a uniquely New Zealand-Polynesian sound. This was followed by Che Fu's album 2 B s-Pacific in 1998 and Urban Pacifica in 1999, a compilation of Pasifika hip hop. [53] Artists including Scribe, Tiki Taane, P-Money and Ladi6 localised rap. [49]

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. [54] The song also appeared on the US compilation Now That's What I Call Music! 29.

Roots, reggae, and dub

Formed in 1979, Herbs are a New Zealand reggae vocal group and the 11th inductee into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. [55] In 1986, the song "Slice of Heaven" with Dave Dobbyn reached number one on both the New Zealand and Australian charts. [56] In 1989, Tim Finn joined them for the Parihaka festival and, in 1992, Annie Crummer fronted the hit single "See What Love Can Do". [57] 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, Salmonella Dub, 1814, Tahuna Breaks, Six60 and Trinity Roots.[ citation needed ]


Electronic music in New Zealand constitutes a relatively small but growing trend in the country's musical culture especially with the rise of acts such as Concord Dawn, Minuit and Shapeshifter in the last 15 years. [58]

An early example of New Zealand electronica is a track called Pulsing released in 1982 by The Body Electric. [59] In 1988 Propeller Records released New Zealand's first House record, Jam This Record. [60] Other New Zealand house DJs who rose to prominence include DLT. The Future Jazz scene (the term was first coined in Auckland in the early 1990s) developed in Auckland, most notably in the Cause Celebre nightclub and the work of Nathan Haines. [61] Two popular early releases were Freebass Live at Cause Celebre and Haines' Shift Left .

Heavy metal

New Zealand heavy metal bands include Devilskin, the extreme metal bands Ulcerate, Dawn of Azazel and 8 Foot Sativa and the alternative metal band Blindspott, currently known as Blacklistt. In 2016 thrash metal band Alien Weaponry, several of whose songs are in the Māori language, won Smokefreerockquest and Smokefree Pacifica beats. Other bands include Antagonist A.D., Legacy of Disorder, Human, Black Boned Angel, Beastwars, Demoniac, Diocletian, In Dread Response, Saving Grace, Sinate, Push Push, Razorwyre, HLAH, and Knightshade.

The 2015 New Zealand comedy horror film Deathgasm soundtrack gave rise to various metal groups.


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. New Zealand does not have its own distinctive blues style.[ citation needed ]

European folk music

Brass bands

The City of Auckland Pipe Band playing Amazing Grace during the festival interceltique de Lorient in 2016.

New Zealand has a proud history of brass bands, with regular provincial contests. [62]

Highland pipe bands

Pipe bands became widespread during the early 20th century. [6] New Zealand is said to have more pipebands per person than Scotland; [63] historical links are maintained by Caledonian Societies throughout the country.

Classical and art music

The formal traditions of European classical music took a long time to develop in New Zealand due to the country's 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-criticise home-produced goods". [64]

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. 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." [65] He went on to pioneer electronic music in New Zealand.

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 during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics.

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

NZSO playing at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. NZSO playing at Te Papa.jpg
NZSO playing at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) 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 Orchestra Wellington, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra (DSO) (formerly the Southern Sinfonia).

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. [66] 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. Frances Alda and Joan Hammond were both well-known New Zealand-born opera singers.

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. [67]

See also

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