Conch Shells as Musical Instruments and in Living Sea Snails
An Unusual Instrument
Shells of sea creatures have fascinated humans for a long time. Their often intricate shapes, their beautiful colours and patterns, and the mystery of their previous inhabitants all capture the imagination. Conch shells have an additional allure, however. They can be used as musical instruments.
In everyday English, the word “conch” refers to any large sea snail or its shell. A conch (pronounced konkg) has a spiral shell with a long, tapering tip called a spire. The shells are often used as wind instruments. The end of the spire is removed and then the player blows air into the shell through the hole. The sound is loud and dramatic and also has an eerie quality. Conch “trumpets” have long been used in rituals and ceremonies and for communication. Today they are also used in music.
Playing a Conch
It might seem that the sounds produced by a conch shell must be very limited because of the absence of keys or valves. This is a false assumption when the shell is played by an expert, however, as Steve Turre demonstrates in the video above. He's an American jazz musician and trombonist who is an expert conch trumpet player. He often switches between different shells during a performance and is able to play two trumpets at once to create harmony.
Beautiful and varied sounds can be produced by using specific techniques while playing a conch. A player controls the pitch of the sound by his or her embouchure (the control of a sound by the shaping of the lips and the use of facial muscles and the tongue). The player may also modify the pitch by putting a hand into the aperture, or opening, of the shell. Shells of different sizes and shapes are used for their different pitch possibilities and tonal qualities.
The man in the video below describes how to play a conch. As he says, it's not hard, but it requires more than simply blowing into a shell without controlling the lips and facial muscles.
Making a Trumpet
When a conch shell is obtained, it must be cleaned before it can be used to produce music. The next step in making a trumpet is to remove the top section of the spire from the cleaned shell, which is usually done with a hacksaw. Once the tip of the spire is removed, the broken surface of the shell is filed or smoothed with sandpaper so that it doesn’t cut the player’s lips. The shell material in the centre of the mouthpiece is removed. Some musicians use the spire as a natural mouthpiece, but others add an artificial one.
Conch Trumpets Around the World
Conch shells have been used as trumpets in many cultures in the past and are still popular today. They are often used in a religious or ceremonial context, such as in a call to prayer. In addition, the call of a conch was once used to summon fighters to battles.
Ceremonial conchs (or conches) that have survived from the past are often elaborately decorated with bright colours, gilt metal, precious stones, and textiles. They are very attractive objects.
A popular conch is the Triton’s trumpet, which is used in Polynesia, Melanesia, Korea, and Japan. It's sometimes given a different name, even though the shell comes from the same species of animal. The queen conch is used in the Caribbean. The chank, sometimes called the sacred chank, is used as a trumpet in India and Tibet. In Hinduism it's known as the shankh or shankha and is considered to be a sacred shell. In Buddhism the sacred conch is known as the dung-dkar, dung-kar, or kar-dung.
The ability of a conch to produce a haunting sound has been known for a long time. In Ancient Greek mythology, Triton was a god of the ocean. He blew a twisted conch trumpet to either calm the waves or increase their strength.
Ancient Shell Instruments
Researchers at Stanford University have discovered that a 3,000-year-old temple in Peru contains conch shells that are still playable. The temple is located at Chavín de Huantar, a ceremonial and religious centre that played an important role in the lives of the Chavín people. The centre seems to have been the seat of power for the Chavín, who lived before the Incas. Today it’s the location of a major archaeological investigation and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many sculptures and artifacts have been discovered at the site, including conch shell trumpets.
The temple at Chavín de Huantar contains numerous narrow and twisting passages as well as staircases that form maze-like patterns. It also contains ventilation shafts. The temple seems to have been created with acoustics in mind. When the researchers played the conch trumpets inside the temple, they found that the passageways acted like a series of interlinked, resonant chambers which created strange acoustic effects. People on the research team who were placed at different points in the corridors couldn't tell where a sound was coming from and were confused. The researchers wonder if the strange acoustics were once used as a form of sensory manipulation to create a particular mental and emotional state in the temple visitors.
Researchers say that a conch trumpet played in the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico (a cultural centre for pre-Columbia people) would have been heard almost 1.5 kilometres away.
The Giant Horse Conch
Conch shells are interesting objects that make great musical instruments. It's fascinating to study living conchs as well, though. Like land snails, sea snails belong to the phylum Mollusca. A conch is a very large example of a sea snail. It has a soft body that can retract into its hard and protective shell. The surface of the shell is often green and furry due to the growth of algae.
True conchs belong to the family Strombidae. They generally live in the warm water of tropical and subtropical seas. Some other large sea snails are known as conchs, too. One of these is the giant horse conch, which is the state shell of Florida. Its scientific name is Triplofusus giganteus (or Pleuroploca gigantea).
The shell of a horse conch may reach two feet in length. The visible soft parts of its body are orange in colour. The snail moves by means of a flat, muscular foot. A protective lid-like structure called an operculum covers the opening of the shell when the body is retracted. Like other conchs, the horse conch obtains oxygen through its gills. True conchs are vegetarian, but the horse conch is a predator. It feeds on smaller snails, such as tulip snails. Tulip snails belong to the family Fasciolariidae and are themselves predators.
It might be thought that such a big and powerful snail as the giant horse conch would be safe from predators, but this isn't the case. The moon snail climbs on top of the conch and drills a hole in its shell, reaching the soft parts inside. The drilling is done with the radula, a ribbon-like structure in the moon snail's mouth that has rows of chitinous teeth on its surface.
The Queen Conch
The queen conch belongs to the family Strombidae and is therefore considered to be a true conch. Its scientific name is Strombus gigas. It lives in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and is also found in the Florida Keys. The animal can reach a length of one foot and a weight of five pounds.
Like other members of its family, the queen conch moves with the aid of its modified operculum. It moves in a series of jerks, pushing itself forward on the strong and pointed operculum, which acts like a claw. This method of movement is slow but effective.
The queen conch is most active at night but may be active during the day as well. Unlike the giant horse conch, it's a vegetarian. It feeds on algae and sometimes on the detritus that reaches the ocean floor. The snail scrapes algae from surfaces using its radula.
During mating, the male inserts a tube under the female's shell and transfers sperm into her body. She stores the sperm until her eggs are ready to be fertilized. The eggs are laid in a sticky, rope-like structure. The rope becomes covered with sand, which camouflages the developing eggs. After three to five days, the eggs hatch into larvae. The larvae eventually undergo metamorphosis and become adults (if they aren't eaten by predators). The queen conch is a long-lived animal. It generally lives for 20 to 30 years but may live for as long as 40.
Queen conchs are collected for both their meat and their shells. The meat is enjoyed as food and is used as fish bait. The shells are appreciated as ornaments and are also used to make jewelry. Overfishing of the species is becoming a serious problem.
Animal Conservation and Music
I think that conchs are very interesting animals. I also think that their conservation is important. They play a useful role in the ocean ecosystem. I would never kill a conch in order to obtain its shell. If I found an empty shell, though, I would definitely pick it up, as I often do with other sea shells that I find. I think the sound of a blown conch shell is beautiful and haunting when created by a skillful musician. It's a sound that I'd love to produce myself.
Information about Chavin from Unesco
Conch trumpet sounds in the Chaco Canyon from Science (an online publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science)
Horse conch (state shell) facts from the Florida Department of State
Queen conch facts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Linda Crampton