Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.
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 kongksh) 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 comes from an animal known as the Triton’s trumpet. The instrument 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 to make instruments in the Caribbean. The shell of a chank, sometimes called the sacred chank, is used as a trumpet in India and Tibet. In Hinduism, the instrument is 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.
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Ancient Shell Instruments From Peru
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.
Discovery of an Ancient Conch Trumpet
In 2021, researchers announced the discovery an ancient conch trumpet in a French museum. The shell is 17,000 years old. It was discovered in the Pyrenees in 1931. It was originally thought to have been used as a cup by the community that once lived in the cave where it was found. The shell was decorated with the same red pigment that has been found in the art on the walls of the cave. The researchers said that no one had noticed that the shell had been modified to create a wind instrument.
An archaeologist on the team investigating the conch says that bone flutes were made and used 35,000 years ago, but the latest discovery is the oldest one related to conch trumpets. The shell belonged to a Charonia lampas specimen. The alterations to the shell indicate that the changes were almost certainly made deliberately instead of accidentally and were part of a planned effort to create an instrument. A musician was able to create distinct notes with the conch trumpet, as mentioned in the quote below.
Remarkably, a skilled horn player enlisted by the multi-disciplinary team of French scientists was able to produce three clear notes of C, D and C sharp from the artefact, offering a tantalising hint of how it sounded to its original owners.
— Esther Addley, via The Guardian online
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.
Reproduction and Status of the Animal
During mating, the male conch 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 survive for as long as 40 years if it isn't caught by a human. The animals 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. Over-fishing of the species is becoming a serious problem.
Their slow growth, occurrence in shallow waters and late maturation make queen conch particularly susceptible to over-fishing, their greatest threat.
— U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (with respect to the queen conch)
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 seashells 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)
- Discovery of a 17,000-year-old wind instrument from The Guardian newspaper
- Horse conch (state shell) facts from the Florida Department of State
- Queen conch biology facts from the NOAA Fisheries
© 2011 Linda Crampton
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 23, 2015:
Hi, Logan. There are playable conch shells in the musical instrument section of Amazon. I have no idea about their quality, though, so you'd have to read the reviews carefully.
Logan on August 23, 2015:
Where can I buy a conch that I can play?
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 25, 2013:
Thank you for the comment, fuku.
fuku on September 25, 2013:
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 10, 2011:
Thank you very much, sligobay!! I loved creating this hub and I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.
sligobay from east of the equator on March 10, 2011:
Thank you for a wonderful article and Hub. I have always visually appreciated the shape of the shell. Now I am in love with its sound as played by jazz trumpeter Steve Turre. I listened to each selected video and am glad I did. I have never seen such an interesting underwater video as this. Bravo! Bravissimo!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2011:
Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Peggy W. I'm glad that you enjoyed the videos.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 02, 2011:
Very interesting subject. It was wonderful hearing the conch shells being played and I found that BBC video to be well worth the time in watching. Thanks! Voting this up and useful.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 01, 2011:
Thanks for the comment, suncat!
suncat on March 01, 2011:
Now I know what to do with all these shells :)
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 24, 2011:
Thank you, daydreamer13.
daydreamer13 on February 24, 2011:
This is cool! Thanks for posting this!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 23, 2011:
Hi, Karanda. I love the sound of a conch being blown at the start of a ceremony. It certainly is a magical sound! Thanks for your comment.
Hi, CMHypno. Thank you for your comment. I'm very glad that the art of playing conch trumpets hasn't been lost.
CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on February 23, 2011:
Interesting information, Alicia. I have only ever seen conches being blown in films about desert islands, so didn't know that they asre still being played today.
Karen Wilton from Australia on February 22, 2011:
Many of the South Pacific islanders use the conch shell as a trumpet to welcome visitors or begin ceremonies. The sound is magical. Wonderful Hub and videos.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 19, 2011:
Thanks, b. Malin! I'm looking forward to reading your poem.
b. Malin on February 19, 2011:
What a wonderful Hub on the subject of Conch Shells, who would have ever thought that they would make such wonderful instruments. I found a small Conch Shell on the beach the other day and wrote a Poem about it called...." Inner Shell, Outer Shell" on imperfections of our souls.
I loved the videos, so informative...you certainly put a lot of work into this Hub, thanks for the enjoyment and knowledge you've given us.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 17, 2011:
Fossillady - I agree, Steve Turre is a fantastic conch trumpet player!
kashmir56 - Thank you!
Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on February 17, 2011:
Hi AliciaC, very interesting hub and loved the video to !
Great hub !!!
Kathi Mirto from Fennville on February 17, 2011:
Interesting, I own several, handed down from my dear mother in law who is no longer with us in body but in spirit. This reminded me of her, thank you!Steve Turre, wow
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 16, 2011:
Thank you very much for your comment, thougtforce. I was happy to discover the videos when I was preparing this hub, especially the first video. I love the sound of conch trumpets.
Christina Lornemark from Sweden on February 16, 2011:
Very interesting hub and the videos are amazing! I have never heard nor seen anyone play on a conch trumpet before. Thanks for sharing this! I like conch shells also because they are so beautiful to look at!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 15, 2011:
Hi, Truckstop Sally. Thank you for your kind comment.
Truckstop Sally on February 15, 2011:
Beautiful hub. Great information, pictures, and videos
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 15, 2011:
Thank you for the information, Purple Perl.
Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on February 15, 2011:
You are right-conch shells are used to blow during special pujas by the Hindus in India.