Music of Hawaii


Style Ranges

Hawaiian music plays a significant role in the culture and history of the country. The music ranges from a myriad of traditional music to more popular modern styles such as rock and hip hop (Donaghy 45). It is worth noting that the fairly diverse music both vocal and instrumentals involves a wide range of musical instruments.  However, outside the islands, the music is synonymous with one sound that of Hawaiian steel guitar. Notably, a Ukulele, which means jumping flea, is mostly associated with the music, which is a small four stringed version of a guitar. The music is a unique blend of several early influences stemming from ethnic Hawaiian chants, to the adaptation of the guitar and several distinct sounds such as the slack key and steel guitar. The blend has given rise to several brands the world class music talent of the Tau More family. 

Internationally renowned 

Following the innovation of the steel guitar, there was increased attention of the exponents of various types of music particularly country and western music. There are two distinct derivatives of the steel guitar taken in first by the blues in the bottle neck and slide guitar while the second contains the blue grass artists who utilize the Dobro which is a modification of the acoustic steel guitar. In this regard, the steel guitar became popular in other circles away from Hawaiian music. Subsequently, there were certain demands to modify its basic six string design such that more were added. Such modifications were influenced by music from other cultures and later became adapted in to the Hawaiian music culture.

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Contributions to Music

Throughout history, the music of Hawaii and the sounds of the islands have adapted over time which is among the major contributions to the other music genres. Notably, individuals in the past embraced foreign sounds and music styles that were introduced to the islands and from there on the progressive manner of the island’s music continued to make an impression on the musical history of the world (Donaghy 78). Other musical influences on Hawaiian music during the time it evolved were the gospel music, country, American pop, jazz and opera among others. In particular, the Hawaiian eclectic genius was to accommodate all other international influences with their own complex rhythms and guitar styling such that they would make the mix uniquely theirs. After the music was introduced in the US, it later found its way to Europe where there was a combination of slack-key and the steel guitar and the use of Ukulele together with traditional Hawaiian chants.


According to Merseberg (12), Hawaiian music is celebrated throughout the year and has had a significant influence on the unification of other Polynesian islands. The music and dance remains synonymous with Hawaiian festivals throughout the year. It is worth noting that the music and dance provide joy, entertainment while instilling cultural aspect into individuals. It is through the music that the world is exposed to the distinct Hawaiian culture.

Hawaiian Music throughout history

The music was a form of storytelling and oral history. The elder members of the community taught the young generation a combination of song and dance that represented and taught them about the ancestry, genealogy, emotion and even the existing myths. The natives would use drum instruments to maintain the beat. However, it is only after the string instruments were introduced that the music became exposed to the rest of the world. 

Mele and Hula

Mele is a rudimentary chant that contains or involves simple melodies and rhythms. Notably, the Hawaiian language lacks a single word that translates to music but all the music is based on Mele. Hula on the other hand is a traditional dance accompanied by Mele (Ruymar 4). Once combined, Mele and Hula become an effective story telling tool that is passed from one generation to the other.

Ipu or Gourd instruments 

It is a hand held large drum that is made from hollowed out gourds. The gourds are then beautifully decorated and establish rhythm through percussive movements. The instruments accompany Mele and Hula.


The Hawaiian music was influenced and developed by music from other cultures. For instance, The Paniolo music is the vocal songs accompanied by guitar or the Ukulele whose portability is in tandem with the cowboy lifestyle.  The Mexican Vaquero introduced the guitar while the Ukulele was later developed from the Portuguese branguiha that was by the 1879 immigrants. The slack key guitar on the other hand became popular after it was introduced by the Mexican and Spanish cowboys who had been hired to teach the locals how to handle the overpopulated cows. The instruments would be played in the evenings around campfires.

Transition to 20th century and modern music

Contemporary music slowly gained popularity in the late 1960’s as the Hawaiian and mainland singers would do unique styles of the music.  In the late 1980’s the Hawaiian version of Reggae music popularly known as Jawaiian started gaining precedence. It was simply a mixture of the local music and Reggae. At the time, the Jawaiian transitioned into the dominant scene of Hawaii as many locals could be seen wearing the Bob Marley memorabilia.  In the 1990’s, an upcoming artist brought a new sound to the Hawaiian music which featured a beautiful medley of “somewhere over the rainbow” and “what a wonderful world”. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole “Iz” started being featured in to films, television programs and commercials. The music started acquiring a modern sound and subsequently started being featured in the entertainment industry including the Hollywood films (Elbert, Samuel and Noelani 56). It is worth acknowledging that natives of Hawaii have lived many years on the island and have managed to preserve and maintain their traditional musical knowledge that many people can enjoy today. Despite the religious nature of the Hawaiian music which includes the dancing and chanting, new sounds continue to develop and are well adapted such as the Jawaiian which is featured in many movie sound tracks. 

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Modern Hawaiian Music

Queen Liliuokalani is remembered for her significant contribution to the Hawaiian music industry. Many of her songs including the most popular “Aloha” or fare thee well were written when she was imprisoned after she abdicated her throne (Liliuokalani 23). The music expresses the deep love she had for the people and her land. Apart from her remarkable compositions, she played the piano, the guitar, the ukulele, the zither and organ and was an expert in sight-reading music. The queen began to hum the Aloha oe’s melody and it was complete by the time she reached the Washington place. The song is seen as a lament for a lost country.

The Royal Hawaiian band

The band was formed with the intent to promote music while preserving the rich Hawaiian musical culture. In addition, it was formed to inspire upcoming musicians and enrich the lives of the people. 

Global recognition of the Hawaiian music

The Hawaiian music continues to gain global recognition due to its distinctly unique sound. Bird of Paradise is a Broadway stage play with Hawaiian features and settings that became an important tool to popularize the Hawaiian music in the US, Canada and Europe. The stage play was imperative for the Hawaiian culture since the music and dance were exposed to the rest of the world where other people would appreciate the unique style of song and dance.

Other travelling bands have brought recognition and appreciation to the Hawaiian style of music and dance. In addition, such artists acquire certain characteristics from other cultures which are incorporated in to the Hawaiian music to further develop the genre. The tourists on the other hand contribute significantly to the recognition of the music and culture of the Hawaii people.

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Annotated Bibliography

Liliuokalani, . Hawaii’s Story. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co, 1964. Internet resource. 

Is a personal and compelling account of the final years of a monarchy that was inevitably and inexorably swept along the lines of a democracy. It contains facts and accounts to what represented a kingdom that did not have regard for the people but personal interests. In addition, there are lamentations that turned in to popular music that is recognized as unique to the Hawaiian story and culture.

Donaghy, Joseph Keola. “Hawaiian Music and Musicians (Ka Mele Hawai ‘i A Me Ka Po ‘e Mele): An Encyclopedic History, Edited by Dr. George S. Kanahele.” (2017).

The article represents the first comprehensive examination of Hawaiian music intended to address the paucity of reliable information about music. The article also contains the history, development and significant performers and contributors to the Hawaiian music and culture. The review also provides an overall view of the first edition summarizes and critiques text as well as documents revisions while highlighting the shortcomings.

Merseberg, Jasmine Pomaika’ikaikamahine. Kawaihuahua’iokewalo: building cultural identity through music. Diss. [Honolulu]:[University of Hawaii at Manoa],[December 2014], 2014.

The text gives a new approach to culture-based design by using Hawaiian music as a means of cultural identity.  The music of Hawaii plays a crucial role in the Hawaiian culture, as it is through music that the identity of place and people have been maintained and passed down through the generations. The author gives the elements applied and design principles in terms of music.

Elbert, Samuel H., and Noelani K. Mahoe. “Na Mele O Hawaii Nei: 101 Hawaiian Songs.” Pacific Science 71.4 (2017).

The text is a descriptive introduction which contains a classification and arrangement of songs, notes and composers as well as the meanings of the songs and their significance to the Hawaiian people and culture. The text represents the rich culture of Hawaiian music and its significance to the development of culture.

Ruymar, Lorene. The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians. Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Pub, 1996. Print.

The book is a collection of events surrounding the Hawaiian music and how it was influenced by outsiders as well as the contribution it has brought to the world of music across the globe. In addition, the author mentions the various genres and instruments, their development and how they have contributed to the Hawaiian culture. 

Did you like this sample?
  1. Liliuokalani,.Hawaii’s Story. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co, 2004. Internet resource. 
  2. Donaghy, Joseph Keola. “Hawaiian Music and Musicians (Ka Mele Hawai ‘i A Me Ka Po ‘e Mele): An Encyclopedic History, Edited by Dr. George S. Kanahele.” (2017).
  3. Merseberg, Jasmine Pomaika’ikaikamahine. Kawaihuahua’iokewalo: building cultural identity through music. Diss. [Honolulu]:[University of Hawaii at Manoa],[December 2014], 2014.
  4. Elbert, Samuel H., and Noelani K. Mahoe. “Na Mele O Hawaii Nei: 101 Hawaiian Songs.” Pacific Science 71.4 (2017).
  5. Ruymar, Lorene. The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians. Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Pub, 1996. Print.
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