The Truth about Music

Music is a temporal or time based art – existing only in the moment the vibration is in motion.


25 years

25 years ago I had the one of the most transformative learning experiences of my life. I travelled to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and on to Mauke, Atiu and Mitiaro – collectively known as Nga Pu Toru or “the three together”. I carried out research for a M.Mus degree. I lived there for 6 months and gathered recordings, conducted interviews, learned the language, the dances, and I sang. At times I was the only papa’a (pakeha) – experiencing life as a minority was eye opening and changed the way I viewed both my world and myself. Total immersion into a musical culture outside of the one I was born into was a life changer and this is what I learned…. with hindsight – I realise much of this music no longer exists – my timing was perfect.

There is more than one musical system in the world

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My early musical diet was limited to the canon of Western European musical traditions – or to put it bluntly – I played and studied music composed by dead white men. I won’t ever forget the first exposure to music from outside my small world. I realised that there were diverse universes of musical expression and aesthetic values.

Everyone is musical and music is for everyone


Everyone took part in music making, there was no concept of not being able to sing which is a Western concept! There were few restrictions on who could dance, play or sing. Young children could competently play complex rhythmic parts in drum dance ensembles and sing complex independent vocal harmonies. I am proud that a visiting American group mistook me for an albino Cook Islander because I could sing and dance just like the locals.

Music is identity and community


Music is our identity. The badges we wear outwardly signal our musical taste & help us locate our cultural ‘kin’. Music is an outlet of self-expression. It builds self-esteem and well being, and it provides a pathway to self-empowerment. Music creates community. Singing together is one of the most pleasurable human experiences in my opinion – our voice is the one instrument that we all have. We sing at pre school, primary and intermediate school, and if we are lucky, at secondary school. Then for most – it stops. We seldom make music or sing together. When we gather at a funeral and try to sing together from an archaic hymnbooks we often come away unhappy or unsatisfied with the experience. My theory is that these arrangements were created during a time when most people went to church regularly and sang together. Society has changed and we no longer sing together or even regularly, we can’t easily reach the same notes and thus the experience becomes one of awkwardness and unease.

Good music is an authentic expression of an idea or emotion

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The music that has the strongest impact is music that has been created directly as a result of an emotion or a belief. It is written because the writer had something to say and express. Music created in response to commercial or financial stimuli is seldom effective. Authentic music elicits a powerful emotional response no matter where it derives from.

Music is feelings


Music is a repository of feelings. We associate certain music with a particular mood, person, place, and time. By hearing music we can create or recreate that place and time, and the feelings we experienced in that moment. Music mix tapes or playlists are emotional scrapbooks diaries. Music can speak for you when you have no words. Music can say what we cannot find the words to say but need to express. Some music is functional and ‘everyday’, but some music is specifically for rituals and special occasions.

Music is alchemy


Music creates an intangible magic space – either as an actual physical performance or heard within the minds ear. Where there was nothing, music creates something of value. Music can provide a space both comforting and discomforting. Music triggers emotion and can alter mood. We use music to entertain, to sooth, to motivate, to support our walk through grief and lift us in times of darkness – music creates unity.

Music is not a commodity


In non-western cultures music is not a buyable sellable object. Music is an experience you participate in as a performer or that you absorb as an observer. Western society has commercialised music – you buy tickets and recordings to hear it, or subscriptions to listen it. Music lessons are paid for; printed sheet music has a cost. Music exists outside of commercial constraints.


My name is Jeni Little and I’m a teacher. I perform, compose, direct and write books about contemporary NZ music, composers, and Cook Island music.



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