Styles & Forms | Oceania | World of Music | Classical

The Oceania region includes three principal areas – Melanesia (from the Bismarcks to Fiji), Polynesia (Hawaii, Tonga, Tahiti and Samoa) and Micronesia (north of the equator and west of the International Date Line).

The music of the Pacific islands (some 7,000 to 10,000) has been shaped by the alternating forces of isolation, migration and contact within their vast ocean setting. Our understanding of Pacific music dates from accounts of early explorers and missionaries, including Captain James Cook, whose ships’ logs (1768–79) tell of a unified musical style throughout the islands.


Most instruments of the Pacific islands serve many roles: for signalling (using the conch-shell trumpet), as lures, as toys to imitate the voices of supernatural beings and in rituals. Instruments are fairly simple, for example, bamboo mouth flutes and nose flutes. Single-headed hourglass drums are common and the open end is often carved to form the mouth of a bird or crocodile. ‘Slit drums’ (hollowed-out tree trunks beaten with sticks) are also widespread. A few local instruments are unique to the Pacific. One such is the friction blocks of New Ireland – three or four wooden plaques rubbed with the hands. The Solomon Islands are distinguished by a complex polyphonic panpipe repertory. The composers of these panpipe pieces have documented their theoretical system for this music.

Styles and Influences

Music and dance throughout the Pacific are linked with poetry. Vocal music predominates and many of the smaller remote atolls have no local instruments. The most common style of singing is monophonic, a single line in unison or octaves, with call-and-response forms. Melodies are often limited to the range of a third. Music and dance accompany long ceremonial cycles, some even lasting more than a year. In New Zealand and Hawaii, a concerted attempt has been mounted to preserve local music; and on more remote islands older forms still survive.

Introduction | World of Music | Classical


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