Playing the Conch: A Skill from Ancient Times

While people may be familiar with holding a conch shell up to their ear to hear the ocean, they may be surprised to learn that it is an important musical instrument for many ancient cultures, such as in South America, Southern Asia, and on the Pacific Islands.

A GIFT FROM THE SEA

A conch is the shell of a large sea snail and the shape makes it perfectly suited to be used as a musical instrument. The shells are a long and spiral shape with a tapered tip called a spire. When the spire is removed, the shells can be used as wind instruments by blowing through the hole.

Because each conch shell is unique, they all provide a slightly different sound.  Generally, the sound of a conch is loud and dramatic, however it has also been described as having an eerie quality. An experienced player can produce a variety of sounds from the shell.  The shape of the mouth, called the embouchure, controls the pitch of the sound. The sound can also be modified by putting a hand into the hole of the shell.

STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

Conch shells have been used since ancient times and have been a mainstay in religious ceremonies. The durability of the shells have allowed scientists to study these early instruments. In 2018, scientists discovered a 3,000-year-old conch instrument at a pre-Inca religious site in Peru. Conch shells have also been located at an ancient ceremonial center in the Andes, which were well-preserved with painted and etched symbols.

Modern technology allows scientists to emulate how the conch may have been heard and used in ancient times. In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, scientists calculated how sound waves would transmit in the specific, physical environment in the canyon. They determined that 1,000 years ago, the sound produced by a conch could be heard for 1.5 kilometers.

TEST YOUR CONCH SKILLS

If you think you have what it takes to be a conch musician, consider attending the annual conch-playing contest in the Florida Keys.