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Some science behind the scenes

Sacred geography - Lithophones

A lithophone is a musical instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. Notes may be sounded in combination (producing harmony) or in succession (melody and beat).

Although there are many modern lithophones that are simply used as musical instruments, the more ancient stones usually formed part of the architecture of many sacred sites.  Sound was a key way in which spiritual experience was achieved, either by the resonance from the notes themselves – and here infrasound has an important part to play – or simply from the beating sounds obtained from them.  Notable types and examples include:

The rock gong

A rudimentary form of lithophone,  the "rock gong", is usually a natural rock formation opportunistically adapted to produce musical tones, such as that on Mfangano Island, in Lake Victoria, Kenya.

Obelisks and columns

Some rocks, especially granite ones, can produce musical sounds when struck with another smaller rock. It is rarely understood that columns and obelisks might have been made from granite or other rock known to be capable of producing sound.  Not all columns do, not all obelisks do, but there are some that quite definitely were chosen for this purpose.   For example, there is a fallen obelisk in the great temple complex of Karnak in Luxor that if struck near its pyramidical point and the ear is placed close to this point can be just about heard to resonate.

Stalactites and stalagmites

As caves were once a very key site for shamanic initiation ceremonies, a large number of large and more solid examples of stalactites and stalgmites were used to produce sound – often beating sounds.  The Great Stalacpipe Organ of Luray Caverns, Virginia, USA uses 37 stalactites for example, although these days it has been 'modernised' to be used with rubber mallets and automated technology.

Multiple rocks

Often called ringing rocks, or sonorous rocks are rocks that resonate like a bell when struck, such as the Musical Stones of Skiddaw in the English Lake District [The Musical Stones of Skiddaw are a number of lithophones built across two centuries around the town of Keswick, northern England, using hornfels, a stone from the nearby Skiddaw mountain, which is said to have a superior tone and longer ring than the more commonly used slate]; the stones in Ringing Rocks Park, in Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania; the Ringing Rocks of Kiandra, New South Wales; and the Bell Rock Range of Western Australia.  These stones are often transported to the site they are needed and arranged so that they can be struck.  For example

The Garland handbook of Southeast Asian music Terry E. Miller, Sean Williams - 2008

" The oldest extant Southeast Asian musical instruments are the lithophones unearthed in Vietnam since about 1950 . Some nine or ten sets have been discovered, but they have attracted little attention from prehistoric specialists despite their having come to light over fifty years ago (Condominas 1952). Each set consists of eight to twelve narrow, variously shaped stones, each capable of producing a pitch when struck with a hammer. Since no one knows when they were made, by whom, or for what reason, it follows that we know nothing of the music played on them. They are likely associated with some phase of the Hoabinhian culture, dating from ten thousand to a few thousand years ago. Ancient lithophones are still being discovered, and copies of them are being made on which newly composed music is performed

The đàn đá is a lithophone played by ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in the provinces of Lâm Đồng, Đắk Nông, Đắk Lắk, Gia Lai, and Kon Tum. These provinces are also home of the space of Gong culture listed in UNESCO's World Heritage Site. The word đá means "stone" in Vietnamese, đàn is instrument.

Temple columns

Ancients Indians were perhaps first to use man-made Lithophone as an architectural element. Temples like

·         Nellaiyappar temple (8th century) in Tirunelveli,

·         Vijaya Vitthala temple (15th century) in Hampi,

·         Madurai Meenakshi temple (16th century) and

·         Suchindram Thanumalayan temple (17th century)

All have musical pillars

Phonolite stones

The name phonolite comes from the Ancient Greek meaning "sounding stone" because of the metallic sound it produces if an unfractured plate is hit.  Phonolite is an uncommon extrusive rock, of intermediate chemical composition between felsic and mafic, with texture ranging from aphanitic (fine-grain) to porphyritic (mixed fine- and coarse-grain). Its intrusive equivalent is nepheline syenite.   


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