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Ancient Stone Instruments: Lithophones

We look at the origins of one of the world’s oldest percussion instruments, how it has evolved over the years, and its modern uses.

A lithophone is an ancient musical instrument that is made by combining pieces of rock together to produce musical sounds or notes. The stones can be used to create harmony or successive notes, which when played together make music. The lithophone has been the basis of many musical instruments like the xylophone, the glockenspiel, the marimba, and others struck externally without using your hands directly.

Lithophones are some of the oldest traces of music that we can find across the world. According to the Hornbostel-Sachs classification of musical instruments, lithophones are designated as directly – struck percussion plaques. A lithophone, in its most basic sense, is like a rock gong. Many rock gongs in different countries over time were adapted in a way where they would produce musical tones and harmonize, making them useful as musical instruments.

Origins 

We’ve seen lithophones in China, Vietnam, and Korea since ancient times. It was only recently in the 1800s that Western civilization started using stones for instruments. 

However, there have been traces of these instruments in Africa, parts of Central America, and Europe, in countries such as England, Greece, and Sardinia. 

Vietnam

In 1949, Georges Condaminas discovered the oldest known lithophones in Vietnam. They have been preserved at the Musee de l’homme in Paris. It was observed that a certain type of flaking technique was used to tune these stones, so that it would yield a certain sonic output when played together.

Đàn Đá image from Vietnam courtesy Viet Vision Travel

Vietnam’s traditional music instruments or what locals would call a stone gong emerged in their central highlands around thousands of years ago. They are used in a percussion instrument that is made out of stone and is called Đàn Đá. The stones are picked from the Central and South Vietnamese areas, and a set of stone slabs are fabricated to produce certain sounds. The lithophones found in Vietnam are some of the oldest we know. Researchers found that the lithophones discovered in Song Be and Khanh Hoa are between 4000 to 10,000 years old according to Vietnam Discovery. 200 stone lithophones were discovered by the end of the 1980s in several provinces in Vietnam. The stones in Vietnam were also played by using wooden mallets, and could be the predecessor of the modern-day marimba.

In China, this same concept was seen a little differently through stone chimes. These slabs of stone were seen to hang from a large frame with sticks or wooden mallets on the sides to create a sound when wind would hit them. 

You may also like: Unusual Musical Instruments and How They Came to Be

Africa

In countries like Ethiopia, church bells would often be replaced by stone chimes. In regions like the northern Togo in Africa, most families had their own lithophones, and the instrument used to be played by young boys in the neighborhood. 

In his book The Music of Africa, author J.H. Kwabenia Nketia describes these in great detail along with their locations. Shapes and sizes of stones often varied considerably, and the instruments would consist of four or five flag stones arranged in a star formation on the ground. The musicians would hit the stone with striker stones which they held in their hands, and this would help pronounce and tap into the rhythm on the larger stones. The sound of these would vary depending on the size and the placement of the stone in the circle.

Image of a boy playing a lithophone in Kabiye, Togo via Reddit

In northern Nigeria, lithophones would be seen differently. They were groups of rocks that were composed only of stones with a certain sound found in natural formation. The stones would be used for religious ceremonies and even initiation or circumcision ceremonies. Northern Togo also saw a similar tradition with farming and lithophones, according to Nketia.

Over time, we have also discovered that many percussion instruments have been used when conducting ceremonies of reaching out to the spirit or metaphysical world. In Cameroon, the stones could be used to communicate with spirits whose voices could only be heard in rock caverns through echoes.

Here’s a video of some men playing a Calabash, which is a traditional percussion instrument from the family of idiophones:

The West

In places like Iceland, a similar method of picking the rocks is also maintained without any external chiseling for the rock to make a certain sound. Therefore, Icelandic lithophones also do not follow any standard musical system, and are their own instrument every time they are put together. Most of these lithophones are basaltic, and as a result of climate change, they are already split into thin slices or slabs. These lithophonic rocks need to rest on two nodal points, usually at the top and the bottom. You will see a similar style adapted to many modern day instruments that have evolved from lithophones.

The ringing, sonorous rocks in Pennsylvania are one of the examples of naturally forming musical rocks. There were lithophones made of phonolite also found in Germany. Phonolite rocks are rare and were also known to the ancient Greeks as sounding stones, which is where their name came from. The English also used to call them clinkstone. These rocks are only found in some parts of northern America and Western Europe.

In Architecture

G. Prasad and B. Rajavel noted in their work Musical Pillars and Singing Rocks that India could possibly have been the first to use man-made lithophones as architectural elements. 

The Vijaya Vitthala temple, which was built in the 15th century in Hampi, has such musical pillars in an area called the Sabha Mantapa. The pillars, carved from one single stone, have actually been hollowed out enough to produce the required note or frequency. Musical pillars can also be seen in the Nellaiyappar temple, an eighth century construction in Tirunelveli, and the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, built in the 16th century.

The Musical Pillars of the Vijayanagara Empire in Hampi, India from Mysterious India.

Modern uses

A Keswick stonemason in Britain named Joseph Richardson spotted some rocks in Britain’s Lake District that were giving a beautiful ringing tone. From 1827, he spent 13 years with it, and produced a wonderful lithophone arranged with different levels of rocks. These were to be struck by mallets itself, and he took the stones on a three year concert tour through northern England. These stones have now come to be called the Musical Stones of Skiddaw, and hosted in Keswick museum. There are ads in early newspapers about an “Original Monstre Rock Band” which was Richardson’s creation, and his music reached so far as to impress even the queen!

Joseph Richardson and his sons with the lithophone on display. Image via Wikimedia

The Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós uses a slate marimba which was sculpted by Páll Guõmundsson out of rocks found in Iceland. There is a possibility of prehistoric lithophone stones found in Sankarjang in Odisha, India. In 1885, the Silex piano, which is a successor of the lithophone family, was also created by a French musician M. Baudre, using flintstones that emitted musical notes when stuck to other flintstones. 

One of the more modern instruments which were also made on a rudimentary form of the lithophone were variations of the rock gong. Sometimes, people would use natural rock formations to produce scales like the Great Stalacpipe Organ of Luray Caves in Virginia, which has 37 stalactites. Another example is Tenkasi in South India, and the ringing rocks in Pennsylvania.

Ancient stone instruments created the base for man’s imagination to further build on musical notes, harmonies, scales, and the vast development of music that followed. Percussion was one of the first forms of creating music deliberately, and the influence reverberates in our rich cultural history even today!

 

You may also like to read:
Overtone Singing – Nomadic Origins and Culture
Architectural Acoustic Wonders of the World
5 Malian Artists That Popularized West African Music

 

Feature image via Phòng khách sạn, vé máy bay trực tuyến giá tốt | Mytour.vn

Information gathered with the help of Elias Davidsson, Liveaboutdotcom, Futility Closet, and the writer’s own experience with stone instruments, and travel to Hampi.

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A singer, rapper and musician from Mumbai, India and host at Ticket Fairy (India), I've worked in the music business for over 7 years now, specialising in music marketing, public relations, social media, event management, hospitality and stage management.

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