Don't tell award-winning composer and author Dr Philip Norman that music is a universal language; he'll share the story of first contact between Maori and Dutch explorer Abel Tasman to show that's not always the way.

"The Dutch heard the sounds of drumming and trumpets [pukaea or putatara] coming from the shore and thought the locals [Ngati Tumatakokiri] were putting on a concert for them, that they were being entertained. They got out their instruments and started to play ..."

But the Dutch also fired a cannon which was interpreted as a sign of hostility. The following morning, waka sailed out and, in the ensuing melee, four sailors were killed and Tasman sailed away.

"It's a perfect illustration of why music might not be a universal language," says Christchurch-based Dr Norman.

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Chances are this anecdote won't make it into his history of New Zealand composers but it illustrates the role music has played in our history. It's a history Dr Norman intends to bring into the spotlight.

When he started his PhD at the University of Canterbury in 1978, he wanted to write a history of New Zealand composers but quickly discovered there were far too many for one thesis. Instead he focused on composer Douglas Lilburn, later turning that research into the biography Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music, which won a Montana Book Award in 2007.

Now, nearly 40 years after his PhD and a decade after his award-winning Lilburn biography, Dr Norman has received a $100,000 boost toward writing the history he's always dreamed of. He's the 2017 recipient of the Michael King Fellowship and has two years to finish what he tentatively started in the 1970s.

He intends to identify influential composers, works and performances, and tracing key developments through the decades since the start of European settlement to the present day. He hopes the book will provide a greater understanding of our composers and their sounds, achievements, preoccupations and the challenges they faced.

"In the 1890s, when composer Alfred Hill was influential, concert goers would queue for hours to hear his latest work performed. Music was the primary form of entertainment so people were hugely interested in anything new and there was a great depth of activity and performance."

He says the type of music composed changed during the decades and points to the 1946 formation of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as a turning point in inspiring more orchestral and instrumental composition.

"Prior to that people mostly composed for choirs, individual singers or pianists because that's who the performers were."

Still deciding who to include, Dr Norman says he'll likely look at those who can be called New Zealanders who have written music that's had an impact here. It means as well as composers of orchestral music, singer-songwriters such as Tim and Neil Finn and even Lorde could find their way into the book.

Having already compiled three editions of the Bibliography of New Zealand Compositions, including biographies of some 120 New Zealand composers and descriptions of 4000 of their works, and co-authored, edited or contributed to numerous other books and publications on New Zealand music, much research has already been done.

Dr Norman's biggest challenge will be how to structure the book and keep up-to-date with the many living composers. He says this grows "exponentially" every year as more New Zealanders compose music.

He believes New Zealanders will be surprised to learn how many composers we have.

"Rather than being surprised about who's included, people might be surprised by who I leave out but if I put everyone in, it would be a telephone-book sized list of names. There wouldn't be room for anything else."

He says "the liberation of technology" means anyone can experiment and write their own music while orchestras increasingly encourage young composers through training schemes and competitions.

In addition to being a writer, Dr Norman has composed more than 250 works, from orchestral, chamber music and opera through to choral works, musicals and ballet. He composed music for Footrot Flats, New Zealand's best-selling musical, and for the Royal New Zealand Ballet's successful Peter Pan, which is soon to receive a repeat season in Perth.

The Michael King Fellowship was started by Creative New Zealand in 2003 in recognition of historian the late Michael King's contribution to literature and role in advocating for a major fellowship for New Zealand writers. Martin Edmond, Fiona Farrell, Owen Marshall, Vincent O'Sullivan, CK Stead, Rachel Barrowman, Neville Peat, Dame Fiona Kidman, Philip Simpson, Kate De Goldi, Peter Wells, Dr Peter Simpson and Elizabeth Knox are previous recipients.