This list is not comprehensive and sometimes an entry is the result of coming across a single reference to a use of stone in music-making. It does, however, give an indication of how widely rocks and stones have been and are used in the music of different cultures around the world. It will be regularly updated as new information arrives. The photographs used may be copyright. Where possible permission has been sought for their use.
The Chokwe people use stone handbells called sango
In Santa Rosa de Tastil, in Argentina there is a special quartz from which lithophones have been made locally. "Tastil" apparently mean "rock that sounds". An example of the lithophones can be found in the local museum.
In the early 19th century Franz Weber built an instrument from alabaster which he called the Lithokymbalon.
The caves of Gobustan (Kobustan/Qobustan) contain ancient rock drawings which include depictions of dancing. There is also a rock which emits a deep resonating sound when struck, known as gaval-dashy (apparently it means "tambourine stone") and it is popularly thought that the dancing took place to the accompaniment of the sound of the stone.
The people of Northern Potosî in Bolivia apparently used ringing stones whose sound was apparently held by them to be manifestations of the presence of the devil, Supay, trapped within them.
The Sea Dayak people in Borneo have used stone chimes which they refer to as kromo.
Small stones are used in the rattle known as Yondo which comprises a pipe, normally made of metal.
There are many examples of suspended stone chime bars in China. Original examples found in archaeological finds are made of marble, though later ones tend to have been principally made from jade. They were generally used for ceremonial purposes. Some of these date back thousands of years. The bian ch’ing or bian'qing is typically made up of a set of sixteen or thirty-two L-shaped tuned slabs, which are suspended in a large frame and struck on their long side with wooden mallets or padded sticks. Picture below courtesy of Dr Kia C.Ng, University of Leeds.
The Murui Muinane people from the region of La Chorrera have long traded in locally quarried granite. A large slab of this they appropriated for use as a gong which they have traditionally used to communicate across distances and for rituals.
Apparently the National Museum possesses a lithophone, though details are hard to come by.
In the eighteenth century rocks found on the river bed in Skiddaw in the Lake District were found to possess a particularly sonorous quality. Peter Crosthwaite, who had opened his own museum in Keswick assembled a set of musical stones in 1785, some of which were already in perfect tune, the rest he tuned himself by chipping baway at the stone. They can now be seen in Keswick Museum & Art Gallery where the picture below was taken.
In the years following a number of people began to make musical instruments using the stone, known as hornfels or spotted shist, meticulously tuning them by cutting them into different length slabs and laying them horizontally. The best known, and largest, was built by Joseph Richardson - he called it the Rock Harmonicon - and he subsequently made a career out of it touring Britain and abroad giving recitals. The instrument may now be seen, and played, in Keswick Museum.
Also widely known, emanating from the same area but finding success by moving to the USA, was the Till Family Rock Band, formed by Daniel Till and his two sons, James and William. Part of their instrument can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum. New York. There are other examples of Skiddaw lithophones to be found, including one commissioned by John Ruskin which is now housed in the Ruskin Museum in Coniston. A new lithophone is currently being constructed which will be housed at Ruskin’s former home, Brantwood, on the edge of Lake Coniston.
In nineteenth century Yorkshire, a man called Neddy Dick, from Keld in upper Swaledale was known for his extraordinary collection of musical instruments which included a collection of rocks which he played by striking with various implements. Many of these he obtained by scouring the bed of the River Swale. He never achieved the wider success enjoyed by the Richardsons and the Till family: a tour of the country was planned but he sadly died a few days prior to his debut.
The use of stone bells, known as dowel has been adapted for Christian use in the Coptic church and can be heard, for example, at one of the monasteries on an island in the middle of Lake Tana. They hang from a rope and are apparently used functionally, as, for example, a dinner gong.
In the region of Karelia, on the border of Finland and Russia, rock gongs have been found close to petroglyphs or stone carvings. This suggests they were used ceremonially, probably by Saami people.
There are various examples of ringing stones to be found in Brittany. At Menec, near Carnac, there some standing stones known as pierres creuses or "hollow stones" because of their ring. It is quite possible that the sound of the stones would have been incorporated in the rituals intended for the placed stones. In Le Guildo, on the edge of the Arguenon estuary, there are some boulders which are well known locally for their propensity to ring when struck. A folklore has accumulated around them. At the cave-shrine of St Gildas near Pontivy where, up to his death in 540 AD the Welsh missionary hermit who gave it its name used a rock gong to summon his small congregation to Mass. It may be that the gong had previously been used in pagan ceremonies. It may still be seen and a couple of miles away, in the church of Bieuzy, there is another rock gong.
In the Dordogne there are a number of caves which contain prehistoric paintings in close proximity to stalactites which ring when struck and which show evidence of considerable use.
In the 19th Century an amateur scientist Honoré Baudre spent over thirty years seeking out suitable pieces of flint for what he termed his geological piano. He was invited to play it at various concerts and exhibitions in France and elsewhere in Europe, including several concerts in Britain. A translation of a contemporary French article about him appears elsewhere on the site under Articles.
The composer Carl Orff (1895(1895-07-10) – 1982) wrote for the lithophone and had one built for him by his student Klaus Becker-Ehmck. The instrument, which he referred to as Steinspiel was used in particular in his opera Antigonae.
A number of examples of ringing rocks have been documented. These appear to have been used for communication, for public announcements and as warning signals of imminent danger.
Before the introduction of the guitar and ukulele into Hawaiian music in the early 1880s most instruments used to accompany traditional hulas were percussive. These included pairs of stone castanets consisting of round, flat pieces of basaltic lava, played by the hula dancers. Two such pairs are to be found in the USA’s National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.
The Icelandic composer Elias Davidsson has used and written about lithophones.
The band Sigur Rós have also used lithophones and there is a suggestion that their modern use follows an ancient tradition of lithophones to be found in the country. They are made from basaltic, isotropic stones which, as a result of climatic changes, have split into thin slices or slabs
There are ancient examples in Orissa in southern India of rocks and boulders that emit sonorous sounds when struck which, because of their proximity to sites of rock carvings suggest that they were used musically. It is thought these date back to Neolithic, or late Stone Age times (several thousand years BC). Other sites in southern India also have evidence of early use of ringing rocks. Some, cited by Catherine Fagg in Rock Music, are to be found in the Gulbarga, though to what extent they were used in any significant way is unclear. There is more evidence in the work of Nicole Boivin who has investigated sites in Sangana-Kupgal, close to the town of Bellary in Karnataka. Here there are ringing rocks with clear evidence of cup-marks to suggest rhythmic playing and they are sited alongside petroglyphs, drawings incised into the rock.
From a more recent, but still ancient time there are many temples in India built with stone pillars which resonate with different pitches, turning the whole building into a musical instrument. Examples may be found in Hampi (Karnataka), Tadpatri and Lepakshi (Andhra), Madurai, Vaishnavite shrine in Tirunalveli (or Tirunelvelei), Alagar Koil, Tenkasi, Curtalam, Alwar, Tirunagari and Suchindram in Tamil Nadu.
Suspended chime bars can sometimes be found in Buddhist temples and are very similar to those from China. It is most common for these to be metallic but early examples were made of stone. Stone is also used in wind chimes.
It is thought that gamelan gongs or bonangs were originally made from stone: examples have been uncovered on a number of sites in East and Central Java.
Rock gongs are to be found in a number of places: in central Kenya, near Embu, on Mfangano Island in Lake Victoria, in Kilifi district close to the coast and elsewhere. Sometimes these have had a ritual, sacred significance, elsewhere they are put to more playful use by children.
Like Japan, Korea adopted the Chinese form of stone chime bars for ceremonial use. In Korea these are known as pyen kyang and comprise sixteen L-shaped slabs suspended within a frame.
There are various examples of stones being used as a simple percussive material, without being characterized by any particular qualities of pitch. The National Sound Archive of the British Library has recordings of Liberian work songs being accompanied by stones.
Apparently, the Dogon people of Mali have used lithophones. In 1966 film-makers Jean Rouch and Gilbert Rouget made a film Batterie Dogon. Éléments pour un étude de rythmes about their use. There are various examples of ringing rocks, some of which may have cultural significance.
Batu Gong, near Tambunan in Malaysia is apparently known for its musical rocks. They are large pieces of stone which lie on the ground and each emits a range of different tones and pitches depending on where it is struck. Groups of local people gather to play tunes on them (possibly for the benefit of passing tourists). What their past cultural significance might have been isn't clear.
In Oaxaca, in caves associated with the Mixtec people, there are a number of stalactites, stalagmites and columns which appear to have been used for musical purposes. These caves had particular cultural significance and were used for various rituals. In one cave in particular, Las Ruinas, there are speleothems bearing indentations and markings which suggest they were struck percussively.
In Pohnpei in the Caroline Islands there is a tradition of grinding the root of kawa, an intoxicant used widely throughout the region, using stones in a large, resonating basalt dish. The preparation turns into a musical performance as the resultant rhythms take over from the job in hand.
There is a now rarely heard Mongolian lithophone known as the shuluun tsargel, whose stones are suspended by cord on a frame. The CD Musique et Chants de Tradition Populaire Mongolie Grem G7511 contains a track played on an instrument made up of fourteen stones by a musician from Bayan Khongor in southern Mongolia.
Stones have been used in different ways in Maori music. Unusually, stone (along with bone and wood) has been used to make flutes imitating the sound of birds. In particular the stone koauau is used to replicate the bell-like notes of the bird known as kokako. Stone has also been used in making bullroarers in which “The player’s spirit travels up the cord to create the sound, which then travels on the wind to take the words and dreams of the player to the listeners of the world”
Examples of ringing rocks have been found with multiple cup-marks which suggest that they have been repeatedly pounded, most likely in a rhythmical, musical way, though the exact nature of their use no longer seems to be known.
The Yoruba people have a history of using lithophones, but the best documented examples of musical stones in Nigeria are the multiple rock gongs which Bernard Fagg wrote about in the 1950s and later documented in his widow Catherine’s book “Rock Music” (1997). The most notable of these are to be found at Birnin Kudu in Kano State. These rock gongs have been used for communication, ritual and recreational use. It may be that they were also used for ensemble musical performances.
The Escoural Painted Cave in Evora is similar to those in the Dordogne in France in that it combines rock paintings with stalactites which shown signs of having been repeatedly struck. This suggests evidence of rituals going back to paleolithic times.
Alla Ablova of the Conservatory of Petrozavodsk in Russia is an authority on ancient lithophones discovered in various parts of the world. She has written in particular about some that appear in a number of legends and folk songs from the Karelia region of Russia and in Saami folk-tales.
There are a number of ringing stones to be found in Scotland at least some of which had ritual significance in ancient times. One of these, "Arnhill", also known as the "Ringing Stane" and the "Haddock Stone" situated near Huntly in Aberdeenshire is part of a stone circle. Others include the Johnston Stone, also in Aberdeenshire, and The Ringing Stone or Clach o'Choire on the island of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides.
Catherine Fagg, in her book Rock Music mentions a number of ringing stones in Britstown District, in central South Africa, but she wasn't able to establish their level of significance within the community. In many parts of the world there is sometimes a reticence about talking about ringing stones, possibly because of their sacred quality, and even their whereabouts remains a local secret
Rock gongs are to be found on the west bank of the Nile and were also documented by Bernard Fagg. One was featured in the first of the BBC documentary series Lost Kingdoms of Africa and it was suggested that many other such gongs, whose use dates back to 5000 BC, have been discovered there in the Nubian desert.
In Western Sumatra there are some ancient musical rocks known as talempong batu which can be seen in Nagari Talang Anau. From photographs they look somewhat similar to those found in Vietnam. It seems likely that they were the predecessors of the metal gongs known as talempong found in the same region. Quite how old they are or what social function they may have had originally is not known, though they would have almost certainly had a ceremonial use. Apparently the talempong batu are still considered locally to have spiritual powers and it is said that in the event of imminent disaster the stones will make strange and bizarre rumbling sounds.
A granite ringing rock with cup-marks, indicating probable repeated playing, is to be found on the island of Gotland. It is reputed to have been used in ancient times as a sacrificial stone and a pagan altar.
The well-documented rock gong shown below is to be found in Moru Koppies in Tanzania's Serengeti national park. Unlike some rock gongs which are part of a larger rock formation, this one is free-standing. The cup-marks, resulting from years of being struck, are clearly visible and cover every side. How it has been used is not certain though it may have played a part in Maasai culture. There are many other examples of ringing rocks to be found in Tanzania, some of which may have been utilised in ancestral and rainmaking ceremonies.
The Kabiyé people, from a northern region of Togo, a small west African state which lies between Benin and Ghana, play musical stones for ceremonial and ritual purposes. The playing of music is linked strictly with agricultural seasons and these musical stones may only be played for a short period, after harvesting, between November and January. The stones, known as pichanchalassi, are laid on the ground, usually, it seems, in a set of five, each with a different pitch, and struck with another smaller stone. Several tracks featuring playing of the pichanchalassi can be heard on the Ocora CD Togo.
Along with Nigeria and Sudan, Uganda can boast of a number of natural rock gongs. These have been documented in Catherine Fagg’s book Rock Music.
It seems that these have sometimes been used ritually and their whereabouts is sometimes a local secret. More profanely they are often used by children as a play area. In 2007 the composer Nigel Osborne undertook a commission in collaboration with London Sinfonietta based on the sounds of rock gongs on the island of Lolui Island situated in Lake Victoria.
The Great Stalacpipe Organ, Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park.
The instrument is the creation of mathematician and Pentagon scientist Leland W.Sprinkle and was built in 1954. Playing the keyboard triggers rubber-tipped mallets, which strike stalactites in the surrounding caverns, carefully chosen for the accuracy of their pitch. The organ lays claim to being the largest musical instrument in the world. www.luraycaverns.com
Pipestone quarry, Minnesota, mentioned by Longfellow in “The song of Hiawatha”, is the source of a soft claystone carved by the Sioux into ceremonial pipes. They also created musical instruments from pipestone. This rare example of a non-percussive lithophone is to be found in the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Ringing rocks are a well-known feature of the landscape near Easton. It isn't known how far these had any ancient ritual significance. Their main cultural role comes through tourism.
Here stone castanets known as qayraq / kayrak or "black stones", are played, two in each hand, to accompany dancing.
In the early twentieth century various archaeological digs in South America unearthed what were thought to have been examples of stone percussion. A burial cave at Niquivao in Trujillo, Venezuela contained rectangular plates of serpentine with incisions which suggested they may have been suspended for use as a type of chime or gong.
Many groups of differently pitched stones have been found in Vietnam, indicating that they were being used musically thousands of years ago. The first of these were famously uncovered by a French archaeologist Georges Condominas in 1949. These stones have continued to be used by some of Vietnam’s minority people such as the M’nong, most of whom live in the Central Highlands. Although not central to Vietnamese traditional music as performed today, their place is acknowledged and some musicians have built their own modern versions and continue to play them. The Vietnamese name is dan da. The ancient set of stones seen in the photo below were spotted in a Hanoi music shop. An article by Mike Adcock about a trip to Vietnam in search of musical stones appears in the Articles section of this site.
The Pembrokeshire village of Maenclochog in Dyfed lies south of the Preseli Hills. Its name is Welsh for ringing stone, referring to two large such stones which once graced the landscape. That is until the late eighteenth century when they they were broken up for road-building in defiance of the wishes of local people. There are, it seems still other ringing stones to be found in the region, some possessing cup-marks.
Various rock gongs and ringing stones have been documented in Zimbabwe. As elsewhere in Africa some of these appear to have been used as means of communication over long distances. Others have sacred significance, and are believed to speak the voices of the ancestors. Near Muzondo, in the region of Musombo and Chiramba, ensemble musical performances have been documented, using mujejeje, the Shona word for musical stones.