Instruments Used in Polynesian Music

Polynesian music can be traced back to many centuries that witnessed the creation of many civilizations and cultures. Early Polynesian music consisted of vocal- music made of simple to elaborate melodies and chant songs. The chant songs were an integral part of ancient Polynesian culture. Many traditional Polynesian songs are a portrayal of the region’s folklore and culture. Hawaiian Hula, developed by Polynesians of Hawaii islands, is a dance accompanied by chants.

Polynesian music was greatly influenced by the European and American missionaries, who migrated to Polynesia during the 1790s. They brought along with them a distinct type of music called hymns. Hymns consisted of melodies sung in several voice parts. Soon the traditional polyphonic singing merged with Christian church style singing, becoming an integral part of the Polynesian culture across Pacific.

Polynesian music is a vivacious musical style. The most important part of this style is lyrics. Melody, dance, rhythm and harmony are accompaniments to words. Polynesians believe that harmony and rhythm serve as decorations to the words. The instruments behind these words are simple, yet the sounds emanating from them are beautiful. These instruments are often accompanied by clapping and knee-slapping to keep the rhythm flowing.

Some of the most important musical instruments used in Polynesian music are:

Bamboo Nose Flute – 'Ohe hano ihu', also known as the Bamboo Nose Flute, is an ancient Hawaiian musical instrument. As the name suggests, this instruments is played with the nose instead of the mouth.

Bamboo Rattle – The bamboo rattle, known as ‘Pu’ili’ by the natives, is a long, hollow and narrow bamboo stick used as an accompaniment in Hula dance.

Coconut Shells – Coconut shells are used for making various Polynesian items relating to music such as knee drums commonly known as ‘puniu’. Puniu is a percussion instrument native to Hawaii throughout Polynesia.

Ukulele (Guitar) – Ukulele is the chordophone belonging to the family of guitars. This small guitar-like instrument is associated with the Polynesian music of Hawaiian Islands.

Gourd drums – Gourd drums are also known as ‘ipu’. ‘Ipu’ can come two ways, as the ‘ipu heke ole’ and ‘ipu heke’. Ipu heke is two gourds fitted together and ‘ipu heke ole’ is a single gourd drum.

Jew’s Harp – Jew’s harp is a subtle musical instrument, widely used with Polynesian music. This small instrument is held against the lips or teeth and plucked with fingers.

Shell Trumpet – Shell trumpet is a traditional Polynesian instrument mainly used for signaling and summoning people.

Slit Drums – Slit drums are Polynesian percussion instruments made from hollowed out logs that produce a loud and distinctive noise.

Tapping Sticks – Tapping sticks aka Käla`au are dancing sticks made of hard wood mostly used in traditional Polynesian dance forms.

Pebbles – Water-worn pebbles are called ili’ili by the natives. Dancers hold two stones with each hand and strike them against each other to make a clicking sound.

For more information on Polynesian music, sounds, and instruments, check out these resources: