Traditional PNG Musical Instruments

I’ve always been fascinated by traditional PNG music and the manner in which our people express themsevles musically – it is an ancient and powerful medium. Religion, disease, modernisation and in some cases, private collectors, have all added to the diminutive role traditional PNG music now plays in certain areas around the country today. However, in most places, traditional music is still strong – a reflection of the inseperability of music and culture.

The music that has influenced me the most has been the delicate beats and the harmoninsing rythms of the sam-sam. There’s nothing more that stirs my blood than simply hearing the chorus of voices rising and falling in unison only to respond to the commanding pace of the beat of the kundu. Its an important part of who I am and I guess the title of my Blog boldy represents that: Tubuans & Dukduks: Listening to the Beat of the Blood. I think that is what makes traditional music so powerful – it has specific meanings and messages for the people it was meant for.

PNG traditional musical instruments have been classified scientifically according to the nature of their vibrating mediums. This ultimately divides them into four main groups:


These are instruments made of sonorous materials set in vibration directly by the player’s action – i.e. they produce sound through the material from which it is made, without needing strings or stretched skin. A percussion idiophone is struck with a smaller implement, usually a stick. The hollowed log and the slit-drum (garamut in Pidgin) are among instruments belonging to this group. Large slit-drums are played in alyeration with smaller drums producing notes of different pitch. Other kinds of idiophones are rattled ( seed pods ); scraped by a rasp or serrated-edged stick or bone, such as those inserted in gourd containers; rubbed , notably the launut of New Ireland; and stamped upon or vibrated by sticks or tubes simulating feet, eg. the stamped idiophones of the Baining people in East New Britian.

Bamboo mouth harps are sometimes classed as plucked idiophones. Included among the idiophones that come into contact with water are water gongs sounded while immersed during dance ceremonies of the nokoi society and wooden stamping tubes, the ends of which are plunged into a pool of water in the course of initiation ceremonies in the Sepik region.


KunduThese are instruments that produce sound by the vibration of a stretched skin. Drums in New Guinea which belong to this class have a lizard skin stretched across only one opening of the tubular resonating chamber. The skin or head is set in vibration by the striking hand. A handle may be carved as part of the body of the drum. The Pidgin English term kundu generally applies to all skin-drums.

Resonating chambers of PNG drums may be cylindrical, conical, or hour-glass shaped. Skins may be glued or fastened by a hoop of cane to the opening of the drum. In many areas small pellets of wax adhering to the centre of the head assist in maintaining the tension and consequently the skin-drum’s pitch.


These are instruments with stretched strings set in vibration by plucking or striking. Strings may be added to the material from which the instrument has been constructed or may actually form part of it. A type found among groups living in the Sepik River area consists of a strand from the mid rib of a sago frond, elevated and tightened at each end by wedges or by a central support. Two notes of different pitch may be sounded, one on each side of the bridge.


These are instruments consisting of tubes or vessels, the enclosed air being set in vibration by different methods of blowing. Tubular aerophones may be stopped or open pipes; end-blown or side-blown. Examples of which are as follows:Iviliko

  • Paired flutes, stopped and side-blown are longest in the Sepik region.
  • End-blown Ari flutes are used in rites in the Trans-Fly region.
  • Gourd horns (kanggur ) are used by the Siane people in the Eastern Highlands.
  • Wooden trumpets (kurudu) are played near Sohano on Bougainville.
  • Twelve-foot bamboo trumpets (dige ) are used during initiations in the Madang area.

Vessel aerophones or Ocarinas are made from small coconuts or clay. Free aerophones cover whirling devices, including bullroarers, leaf-whizzers and spinning tops made from coconut shells.

~ by Tavurvur on January 16, 2009.

4 Responses to “Traditional PNG Musical Instruments”

  1. Tru tru, interesting post! Wow! were these actually PNG stamps used during the pre-independence era?

    Musical instruments crafted during those days had a unique quality of sound as they were delicately and meticulously carved and tied together by some of our most skillful musical craftsmen. I can image the historical, cultural and monetary value they now have.

    Also the skills of our traditional musicians were unique. Some sounds convey certain significant cryptical messages that can only be interpreted by those who can decipher them. I remember in my village each rhythm of the garamut beat sends a particular message i.e. the notification of someone’s passing, a meeting, danger or just a happy occasion.

    yes, we can truly say that some of our indigenous talents and skills are irreplaceable and sadly we are rapidly losing most of these traditional musical instruments and skills…

  2. Brings back memories, those postage stamps. I only wish I had known about most of these instruments a lot earlier – when I was doing secondary school in Australia, PNG was hardly covered in the ethnomusicology books I devoured instead of doing my homework.

    That said, are there any recordings made by expat anthropologists of PNG music that we need to hear? That should be liberated from the dusty shelves of academia and released to the broader public? I would be very interested to know.

  3. credits to you sir!

  4. A round of applause to you Sir. Indeed PNG is a very unique and diverse culture in the globe.

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