Stone may seem like the least likely material for making a musical instrument but it may well have been the first. As Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum put it in his radio series A history of the world in 100 objects, “For a million years the sound of making hand-axes provided the percussion of everyday life.” Thought about in this way it doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to conclude that striking pieces of stone perhaps constituted the first move towards creating musical instruments.
Such speculation has been borne out not only by the fact that certain types of rock ring out with a fine tone when struck, but also that ringing rocks have been discovered which show hammer indentations that have no practical explanation. Recent research has concluded that this quite possibly indicates that the rocks were being struck for the sound that was produced. Exactly why this was done remains largely speculation: it may have been a form of communication, part of a ceremonial ritual, an early form of music or a combination of these things. Rock gongs, which can be found in the landscape of various parts of Africa (including Nigeria, Uganda and Sudan), India and elsewhere continue to have significance within certain cultures, and their early use has been compared to the later development of the drum with its different cultural roles.
Not only do some rocks ring but they can also do so with a clearly defined note. This means that small rocks may be assembled and played melodically. Around sixty years ago archaeologists began to unearth sets of stones in Vietnam, in which each stone of its group had a different pitch. Some of these sets date back well over three thousand years, and are still used ceremonially within some minority cultures. In Vietnam today there are also various examples of musicians using modern tuned lithophones (Dàn dá in Vietnamese), resembling stone xylophones. As will be seen elsewhere on this site similar groups of stones to those found in Vietnam appear in other parts of the world. In Togo, in Central Africa, small flat stones emitting different notes are laid on the ground and struck with another smaller stone in a ritual performance that relates to changes in the seasons.
In some parts of the Far East sets of stone chime bars have continued to be used in ritual and court music since ancient times. These originated in China where they are known as bian q’ing and are usually in sets of sixteen or thirty two bars. The chimes vary in the type of stone used, earlier examples generally marble, later ones often jade, and they are suspended on a frame. The chimes are L-shaped and played by striking with a hammer, the difference in pitch being determined by the thickness of the stone. These were later used in Korea, Japan and Vietnam where examples can still be seen.
During the 19th century there was a curious spell of interest in the lithophone in England. In 1785 a man called Peter Crosthwaite who at the time was running a museum in Keswick, discovered that some rocks from Skiddaw in the Lake District rang out with a fine tone and could be tuned by chipping away at the stone. He proceeded to make a xylophone-type instrument using such stones which some years later inspired a local stonemason called Joseph Richardson to build a much larger instrument which he called the Rock Harmonicon. Both instruments are now located in Keswick Museum. With his family Richardson toured at home and abroad with the enormous instrument he had spent thirteen years building, its stones augmented by bells, steel bars and drums. They achieved considerable success, performing more than once to Queen Victoria herself. Responding to its popularity, numerous other performers took up the challenge, the most successful being another Cumbrian man, William Till, who built a similar instrument, again enlisting members of his family to perform upon it. They travelled to the USA where they apparently stayed for five years performing with the Till Family Rock Band.
Today there are examples throughout the world of musicians and composers using the sound of stone in their work. None of these will be mass-produced. They will generally be one-off items made by instrument-builders or sculptors and it’s likely that the music played on them will stand apart from the mainstream. On the website can be found a range of just some of what’s been going on, from the construction of modern slate marimbas and musical stone fences to a collaboration between a western composer, orchestral musicians and Ugandan musicians playing rock gongs on an island in the middle of Lake Victoria.