Musical instruments and musical expression take an almost infinite variety of forms throughout the world. This is especially true in Oceania, whose more than 1,800 different peoples create an astonishing variety of musical instruments. Made and used throughout the Pacific, musical instruments play integral roles in contexts ranging from religious rites to secular entertainment. Oceanic musical instruments include many of the broad categories familiar in the West, such as percussion, wind, and string instruments, as well as forms that are distinctive to the region. These vary from familiar types such as drums, flutes, and the Hawaiian ‘ukulele to unusual forms such as slit gongs and bullroarers.
From the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, to the arid Australian outback, to remote coral atolls, musical instruments in Oceania accompany all aspects of life, from the most sacred religious rituals to dances, feasts, celebrations, courtship, and casual entertainment. Created almost exclusively from locally available materials such as wood, bamboo, or coconut shell, their forms and designs often display remarkable inventiveness. Musical instruments play, or played, many different roles in Pacific cultures, from announcing the onset of war to embodying the voices of supernatural beings or softly enticing a lover. Often ornately decorated, they were frequently important visual as well as aural symbols for phenomena ranging from supernatural beings to social authority.
The most familiar and widespread Oceanic percussion instruments are drums. Drums with heads made from a variety of materials are used in at least portions of every major region of Oceania. Throughout the Pacific, drums provide a rhythmical accompaniment for singing and dance in contexts ranging from the most important religious rites to secular entertainment. With rare exceptions, drums in Oceania are played directly with the hands and drum beaters are almost never used.
The form of drums varies by region. In New Guinea and the islands off its shores and in eastern Micronesia, drums are typically handheld and have an hourglass-shaped or tubular body. In many parts of New Guinea, drums have integrally carved handles that are ornately adorned (1978.412.962). When playing, the musician holds the drum in one hand and strikes the head with the other. These handheld drums are usually individually owned. Predominantly a male instrument, in some areas drums can be used by women and, in rare cases, are, or were, almost exclusively women’s instruments. In Eastern Polynesia, by contrast, drums are stationary objects, which are intended to stand vertically on the ground (1978.412.720). In this region, the musician sits, or, for taller examples, stands, and strikes the drum head with one or both hands. Here, in the past, drums were frequently religious instruments, which formed part of the ritual paraphernalia of sacred sites.
In addition to drums with heads, Pacific peoples create a variety of other drumlike percussion instruments, such as the water drums of the Sepik region of New Guinea (1979.206.1627) and the gourd drums of Hawai’i (89.4.754), to provide rhythmical accompaniment in a diversity of contexts.
Another important and widely distributed percussion instrument in the Pacific is the slit gong. Found in island Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and parts of Island Melanesia and Polynesia, slit gongs are typically made from large logs, painstakingly hollowed out to create a resonating chamber with a narrow slitlike aperture, the edges of which are struck with wood beaters to produce a deep, sonorous tone. In some areas, smaller types of slit gongs are made from the naturally hollow stems of bamboo. The role of slit gongs varies from region to region. In New Guinea and Vanuatu, they are almost universally sacred instruments, the sound of which is often identified as the voice of an ancestor or spirit, which are played to accompany religious ceremonies and, in some areas, also secular dances (1978.412.1536; 1975.93). Because their sound carries for long distances, often for miles, slit gongs are, or were, used in many parts of Vanuatu and some other places as a means of sending and receiving messages between villages, often using specialized “gong languages” consisting of a complex series of different rhythms whose meaning was known to both the sender and the recipient. In island Southeast Asia, slit gongs serve primarily as signaling devices kept in the village to call the community together or announce the occurrence of an important event (2009.430a, b).
Oceanic peoples create many varieties of wind instruments, including flutes, panpipes, trumpets, and ocarinas. Flutes are made in all regions of Oceania except Australia. Predominantly fashioned from bamboo, Oceanic flutes are diverse in their forms and functions. Both side-blown varieties, played, like a Western flute, by holding the instrument transversely and blowing across a hole in the side, and end-blown types, generally played by holding the flute vertically and blowing across a hole or notch at one end, occur depending on local flute-making traditions. Nose flutes, sounded by blowing the flute with nasal breath rather than with the mouth, are also produced in some areas (89.4.795). The role of flutes, to a large extent, varies with their size. Smaller types, often with finger holes that allow the musician to vary the pitch, are almost universally secular instruments, played singly for personal entertainment or courtship or, in some places, as part of musical ensembles. By contrast, large side-blown bamboo flutes, which lack finger holes and are often over six feet long and several inches in diameter, occur primarily in central and northeastern New Guinea, where they are sacred instruments, played exclusively by men as part of religious ceremonies. In parts of New Guinea, the upper ends of sacred side-blown flutes were sealed with decorative stoppers (1978.412.1545).
Panpipes, which consist of groups of small end-blown bamboo flutes, each with a different pitch, bound together to form a single instrument, occur predominantly in the southwest Pacific, particularly in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Western Polynesia. Panpipes are made in two basic forms: raft panpipes, in which the canes are arranged side by side in a single or, more rarely, double row like the logs on a raft, and bundle panpipes, in which the canes are bound together in a circular cluster. In most areas, panpipes are solo instruments used in casual contexts. Producing a soft, subtle sound, they are primarily informal instruments used for personal entertainment.
In contrast to other areas of the Pacific, panpipe music in the Solomon Islands, particularly on the island of Malaita, is public and highly developed. Here, ensembles of panpipes of various sizes, some up to three feet long, are among the most important musical instruments. In this region, groups of men, each with a set of panpipes, gather to perform elaborate polyphonic compositions for certain ceremonies, dances, and other occasions. Still widely played in customary settings, panpipes in the Solomons have also been adopted by contemporary bands, who use them to play Western-style popular music.
Trumpets occur throughout the Pacific. United by a common playing technique rather than a specific form, trumpets are played by vibrating the lips while blowing into a hole in the end or side of the instrument. The hollow body determines the fundamental pitch and contributes toward amplifying the sound. Although capable of multiple tones, almost all Oceanic trumpets produce only a single note. The most widespread type is the conch-shell trumpet, made from the shells of large marine snails with a blowing hole created by removing the apex or making a hole in the side. Other forms are made from wood or bamboo (1978.412.1022; 1980.262).
While some varieties, notably the didjeridu of northern Australia, form part of musical ensembles, trumpets are employed primarily as signaling devices, often to mark the onset of important events, such as ceremonies or dances. In the past, they were also used in some cases to drive off malevolent influences, announce the deaths of prominent individuals, or keep canoes together when at sea. In many areas, trumpets were formerly associated with warfare, and were blown before or during combat or to proclaim a victory.
Like conch-shell trumpets, ocarinas, also called vessel flutes, are predominantly fashioned from natural objects such as the shells of coconuts or small gourds, although examples made from manufactured materials, such as ceramic, also occur. In contrast to flutes, which are tubular, ocarinas consist of hollow spherical or oblong vessels equipped with a single blow hole and often with one or more finger holes to allow the musician to change the pitch. Ocarinas are used in a variety of contexts. In some areas, as among the Abelam people of New Guinea, they are ritual instruments played as part of religious ceremonies, where their sounds are said to be the voices of spirits. In parts of the New Guinea Highlands, by contrast, they are played simply for entertainment, while in Hawai’i a small type of gourd ocarina was formerly used by courting lovers.
With the exception of island Southeast Asia, string instruments in the Pacific, although widely distributed, were comparatively rare prior to Western contact. Types in which the neck of the instrument is attached to a sound box or body (as in a Western violin) formerly occurred only in island Southeast Asia, to which they were originally introduced from the Asian mainland and subsequently adapted to suit indigenous musical traditions. Stringed instruments in this region include a diversity of plucked lutes (1999.47.44) as well as bowed instruments (89.4.2365).
Elsewhere in the Pacific, the only string instruments were the mouth bow and the tube zither. Often resembling the bows used to shoot arrows, mouth bows consist of a bent rod or narrow slat of wood typically strung with a single string. When playing, one end of the bow is held in the mouth, which serves as the resonator, and the string is plucked or beaten, producing a twanging sound, whose pitch is varied by changing the configuration of the mouth, tongue, and lips. Tube zithers are typically made from bamboo, often with integral strings made by cutting and raising narrow strips of the outer cortex, although some varieties have metal strings (89.4.1489). Played by plucking with the fingers or striking the strings with small sticks, tube zithers produce a lutelike sound. Oceania’s best-known string instrument, the Hawaiian ‘ukulele (89.4.727), is derived from the braguinha, a small variety of guitar introduced by Portuguese settlers that was subsequently modified to suit local musical tastes. Today, larger guitars of various forms are used by musicians throughout the Pacific.
Other Types of Instruments
Beyond the more familiar categories, Oceanic peoples also create a wide variety of more unusual forms of instruments (1978.412.821; 1979.206.1457). These include types, such as jaw harps and bullroarers, that are found in many other parts of the world, as well as some kinds that are unique to specific Pacific cultures.
Jaw harps occur in every major region of Oceania except Australia. In the western Pacific, they are predominantly manufactured from bamboo cut into a tapering form with two longitudinal slits made in the center to produce a narrow flexible section called a lamella. In some Pacific cultures, the lamella is plucked directly. However, western Pacific jaw harps generally have a hole in one end through which a string is tied. When playing, the string is plucked, causing the lamella to vibrate, producing a subtle, pulsing twanging tone, which is modified by changing the configuration of the mouth and lips. Because of its quiet sound, the jaw harp in Oceania is a personal instrument, generally played for entertainment but also used, in many places, for courting or love magic. Frequently a men’s instrument, in some cultures it can be played by members of either sex.
Another widespread instrument is the bullroarer (1979.206.1545). An ancient instrument found in many parts of the world, the bullroarer typically consists of an oblong slat of wood with a hole bored in one end through which a long string is tied. To play it, the slat is swung rapidly in a circular motion through the air by the string. This causes the slat to rotate rapidly on its long axis, producing a deep, undulating, whirring sound. In some areas of the Pacific, bullroarers are secular instruments, even children’s toys, but in many cultures they are ritual objects.
One of the instruments that is unique to Oceania is the friction drum (1979.206.1477), which is made only on the island New Ireland north of New Guinea. It consists of a horizontal block of wood, the upper portion of which is carved out to form a series of three or four sound-producing wedges (or “tongues”) on the top. The friction drum is played exclusively by men. To sound the instrument, the musician moistens his hand with plant sap and rubs the palm of his hand rapidly across the tongues, producing a series of rising tones that resemble the call of a bird.
In addition to the types discussed in this essay, Oceanic cultures produce a myriad of other musical instruments that exhibit a remarkable range of ingenuity and creativity. While many musical performances are secular, like the vast majority of Oceanic sculpture and painting, music in Oceania is often inextricably linked with the region’s diverse religions and ritual practices. Ceremonies, whether customary or Christian, seldom occur without a musical performance of some type and Oceania’s distinctive visual art forms rarely appear, or appeared, in ritual contexts without the accompaniment of singing and/or the sounding of one or more of the Pacific’s diverse musical instruments.