Older than the Rolling Stones: lithophones of the world
August 31, 2015 11:03 AM   Subscribe

A Lithophone is a music instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. While there are a number of such man-made instruments built with stones, like The Musical Stones of Skiddaw (in action) and possibly Stonehenge, there are also rocks that resonate, when struck in their natural setting, such as these ringing rocks in Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, and Cerro de las Campanas (The Hill of the Bells) in Querétaro, Mexico (which is better know as Maximilian and two of his generals, Miguel Miramón, and Tomas Mejia were shot). But that's just the tip of this trip, so let's get ready to rock!

If you want to focus on the man-made instruments, Lithophones.com is your go-to destination, as they have good lists of both historical and contemporary lithophones, ordered by country of origin, plus an audio-visual gallery.

Other lithophones are something between the fabricated and naturally occurring, including ancient rock gongs in Nubia (link to a extract from BBC's Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Nubia), and similar rock formations/ creations in Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. And in Malaysia, there's the Batu Gong[s] (Music Rock[s]) in Tambunan, Sabah.

In China, the contemplative "Scholar's Rocks" include Lingbi rocks, which produce a metallic, resonant sound when tapped, also earning the name "resonant rocks"(bayinshi) or "chiming rocks."

In Ontario Archaeological Society's ArchNotes newsletter, there is a broader write-up of lithophones of various sorts from around the world in the 5th edition from 1999 (PDF), which includes this excerpt from a historic article on ringing rocks found in Bucks County, Pennsylvania:
In 1890, a Dr. J.J. Ott played several musical selections ... accompanied by a brass band ... [and] ... the clear bell like tones he was playing could be heard above the notes of the horns.
You can visit those stones, and the similar rocks in Jefferson County, Montana. If you want to take some rocks home to study them, don't bother - if a boulder is removed from the pile, it doesn't ring. The exact mechanism that causes some rocks to ring is still unknown, but there are theories (Wikipedia page on ringing rocks).
posted by filthy light thief (17 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent post -- what a cool thing! Thanks, filthy light thief!
posted by lord_wolf at 11:07 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Very impressive post, though it could use a reference to the pioneering work of Dr. Howard Bannister.
posted by Naberius at 11:09 AM on August 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

When I was a kid there was a TV show called "You Asked For It" and one episode of it featured a cave somewhere like Tenneesee which was privately owned. The owner had spent a lot of time going around it tapping the stalagmites and stalactites with a little rubber hammer, looking for places that made sound of proper notes, and each time he found one he mounted an electrically operated hammer there.

Eventually he filled the entire keyboard from low to high, and was able to play it like an organ. He ran it as a tourist attraction, with scheduled performances.

I wonder if it still exists?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:10 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

It makes me surprisingly irked to see the spray-painted graffiti defacing the rocks in the Pottsgrove, PA video.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:15 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Chocolate Pickle, this same line of thought came up before - a question about a cave organ seen in "You Asked For It,"and the suggestion that it might be The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia, which I now see was posted previously. (I actually searched on Google for this, and that prior thread came up as the second search result.)

Unfortunately, there was no confirmation if this was the same cave.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:17 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Unsurprisingly gongish but man, some weird tones out of those things. I mean shrieking I would not have anticipated.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:22 AM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Y'all used to watch 'You Asked For It!' ? Awesome!
I've heard of his kind of rock music before, and heard a Chinese lithaphone on TV years ago, NOT on 'You Asked For It!'
Local San Francisco programming.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:45 AM on August 31, 2015

It is important not to play a lithopone if you're stoned.
posted by eriko at 12:05 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I absolutely love this sort of thing. And here are some very small rocks making a musical noise (that can be played with one's arse), and a very big rock that makes a noise your subwoofers are unlikely to cope with.
posted by Devonian at 12:35 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

this is so cool! There are also musical columns in the LoltĂșn Caves, Mexico. I visited them a long while back, and they were these stalagtites/mites that stretched from the roof of the caves to the floor, and if you hit them with the side of your fist, they would let out an amazing "booooonnnnnggggg"
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:53 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I saw the Great Stalacpipe Organ on a class trip when I was in eighth grade and it BLEW MY MIND. Honestly I think a lot of my love for "found sound" type sampling probably dates back to that experience.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:56 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can't even think of Lithophones without thinking of Ruskin's Brantwood (also in Cumbria).

Here's a short clip of Evelyn Glennie at Brantwood, which is probably as big of a deal in the litho-world as anything that I can imagine.
posted by ovvl at 1:57 PM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Came here to talk up the Luray Caverns stalactite organ, see it has already come up. It's a nice system, though they only play it via amplification if there's people touring the site. I've heard you can hear the thing clearly without the speakers if people aren't making a lot of noise walking all over the place.
posted by Blackanvil at 3:42 PM on August 31, 2015

Recommending Stephan Micus' "The Music of Stones".
posted by davebush at 5:10 PM on August 31, 2015

How is it possible that the rocks stop ringing if removed from their "natural place"? That makes no sense, just sounds like a way to mitigate thievery.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:10 PM on August 31, 2015

There's a scene in the Sigur Ros DVD "Heima" where they play an instrument (the YouTube video says a marimba) made of rocks. It sounds really cool.
posted by gucci mane at 8:10 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Came here for the Pirate Movie reference and was then further surprised by an amazing FPP
posted by Senor Cardgage at 12:21 AM on September 1, 2015

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