New Zealand music is a vibrant expression of the culture of New Zealand. As the largest nation in Polynesia, New Zealand music is influenced by the indigenous Maori and immigrants from the Pacific region, though New Zealand’s musical origins lie predominantly in British colonial history, with contributions from Europe and America. As the nation has grown and established its own culture, local artists have mixed these styles with local influences to create music that is uniquely New Zealand in style.
The most popular styles of the late twentieth century were rock and hip hop, both genres garnished with New Zealand’s unique Pacific influences. By the twenty-first century, roots, reggae, dub and electronica were all popular with local artists. New Zealand has maintained a thriving alternative scene for several decades.
Maori have also developed a popular music scene, and incorporated reggae, rock and roll and other influences, most popularly including Te Vaka, who have Maori, white and other Polynesian members. New Zealand reggae bands like Herbs, Katchafire and Fat Freddy’s Drop are highly popular. The 1990s saw the rise of hip hop groups like Moana & the Moahunters and the Upper Hutt Posse, primarily based out of SouthAuckland.
In the traditional styles, New Zealand’s geographic isolation and cultural milieu perhaps contributed to the slow growth of formal traditions based on European classical music, however these styles have also gained broad recognition.
Distanced from overseas cultural centers, the New Zealand rock scene began in earnest during the 1960s, when the British Invasion reached the country’s musicians. A number of garage bands were formed, all with a high-energy performing style. Though few became internationally (or even nationally) famous, they stirred into life a number of fertile local scenes, full of musicians and fans. Much of their material has been collected by John Baker for his Wild Things collections.
Perhaps the most well-known contribution by a New Zealander to the world of popular music is the enduring Rocky Horror Show musical, written by Richard O’Brien, and first performed on stage in London during 1973.
In summary, pre-European Maori singing was micro-tonal, with a repeated melodic line that did not stray far from a central note. Group singing was in unison or at the octave. Instrumental music was played on a variety of blown, struck and twirled instruments. Missionaries brought harmony, a wider compass and their instruments which were gradually adopted in new compositions. The action song (waiata-a-ringa) was largely developed in the early twentieth century. Since colonization, Maori music has developed in parallel and in interaction with styles from overseas, generating a rich brew of new styles
Pioneer folk music
The early European (Pakeha) settlers had folk music similar to, and shared with Australia’s. The tradition is invigorated with several festivals, especially the annual Tahora gathering.
New Zealand has a proud history of Brass Bands, which hold regular provincial contests, and often celebrate cultural events. The NZ National Band has earned international accolades.
Highland pipe bands
New Zealand is said to have more pipebands than Scotland; historical links are maintained by Caledonian Societies throughout the country. The nation is often reminded of its colonial heritage by the stirring sounds of bagpipes at military commemorations and parades.
Isolated geographically from the rest of the world, the formal traditions of European classical music took a long time to develop in New Zealand. 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.
Douglas Lilburn, working predominantly in the third quarter of the 20th century, is often credited with being the first composer to ‘speak’ with a truly New Zealand voice and gain international recognition for it. He has had some influence on the direction of New Zealand music since then.
With significant acceleration New Zealanders have found their own style and place, with people such as Larry Pruden, David Farquhar, Jenny McLeod, Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, Dorothy Buchanan, Anthony Ritchie, Ivan Zagni, Martin Lodge, Nigel Keay, 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, Phil Dadson and composer co-operative Plan9 among them. The latter provided much of the ambient music used in the 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 Olympiad. 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).