Hawaiian Music: Artists & Instruments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Music is an important part of Hawaiian life. In this lesson, we'll explore the traditional instruments and artists who helped create this unique sound and see where they fall in Hawaiian history.

Hawaiian Music

When you ask someone to describe Hawaiian culture, three things almost always come up: hula dancing, the food, and of course, the music.

Music has been an integral part of Hawaiian life for as long as we can tell, so there may be no better reflection of how Hawaiian lives and culture changed than their musical tastes. Think you know the sounds of the islands? Let's find out.

Traditional Music

Hawaiian music has been expressed in countless styles, which for the sake of this lesson we're going to loosely categorize into three genres/periods of history. We'll start with traditional music, that which was used prior to the arrival of non-Polynesian peoples to the islands.

Traditional Hawaiian music was based around two primary components: rhythm and lyrics. The rhythm came from a variety of percussion instruments, most of which were essentially hollowed gourds covered in sharkskin. Coconuts, shells, and reeds could also serve as percussion instruments, and conch shells were also used as a ceremonial horn.


Most important, however, was the singer or singers. Hawaiian music was based around the mele, a form of chant-singing Hawaiians used to share histories, mythologies, and other musical stories. These same stories were captured in the dancing patterns we call hula, and it's important to remember that the concepts of dance and music were inseparable in Hawaiian tradition.

Transitional Music

Of course, Hawaii wasn't isolated from the non-Polynesian world for long. From the late-18th through 19th centuries, more and more outside cultures found their way to the islands. This became especially true with the invention of steamships, which let people cross the oceans much more efficiently.

All of the newcomers brought their own forms of music, which Hawaiian people co-opted and adapted to fit with their dances, rhythms, and chants.

A few foreign influences had larger impacts than others. Hymns from Christian missionaries were called himeni by the Hawaiians, and used to adapt their chants to Western-style harmonies and chord progressions.

Mexican cowboys, called paniolos by the Hawaiians, worked cattle ranches in Hawaii and introduced guitars. The Hawaiians learned to loosen, or slacken, the strings of the guitar, making it fit more comfortably with their own musical tastes.

In fact, this led to so much experimentation that many families developed unique tunings used only by them. For a while, you could tell what family someone was from by the tuning of their slack-key guitar.

Perhaps the largest influence, however, came from the introduction of the Portuguese stringed instrument called the braguinha, which, according to tradition, arrived with a Portuguese immigrant in 1879. The Hawaiians found the high-pitched instrument perfect for their music, tweaked it, and eventually created the ukulele.

Hawaiian girl with ukulele, early 20th century
Hawaiian girl

Modern Hawaiian Music

By the end of the 19th century, a new Hawaiian sound had emerged, utilizing Euro-American ideas (as well as some from Asia) to adapt native Hawaiian music to a changing island culture. That brings us to the modern period of Hawaiian music, characterized by efforts to both standardize and spread this new sound.

This begins in the 1880s with none other than the last sovereign monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili'uokalani herself. Apart from attempting to protect the power of the Hawaiian monarchy and traditions from imperialist pineapple magnates, Lili'uokalani was a prolific poet and composer.

Perhaps her most famous contribution to Hawaiian music was the piece Aloha 'Oe (Farewell to Thee). This song remains a symbol of Hawaiian identity and island pride to this day.

1895 songbook of compositions by Queen Liliuokalani

As Hawaii codified its sound, it began to find its way to the mainland. In 1915, Hawaiian ukulele and slack-key guitar music was performed in the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and Americans couldn't get enough. In fact, in 1916 Hawaiian music outsold every other genre in the USA.

By the 1920s, Hawaiian music was being standardized more by traveling performers. One of the first nationally known artists was Tau Moe, who traveled the country with his wife and kids, using Hawaiian music to teach Americans about Hawaiian culture.

Tau Moe and his family made their way across the USA and into Europe, Africa, India, and Asia as well. From that point on, music was the de facto way to introduce people to Hawaiian culture.

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