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7. Music and Communication:

Long before our modern day communication systems, man found that trumpets made from shells produced a sound that carried for many miles. By using as series of trumpet blasts, messengers were able to communicate fairly detailed messages from village to village, tribe to tribe.  (Note:  The Seashell Instrument Site is a great place to learn how to make your own shell trumpets and other instruments!!)In many countries shells have also been tied together or had such things as sand or beads sealed inside them so that they became as sort of rattle to accompany song and dance.

Check in here to see how to make a conch horn, to see what they look like and how they sound.

Some ways in which shells were or still are used are:

  • as a summons to religious ceremonies as well as often playing a role in the ceremony itself.

  • as a daily call to prayers. Shinto priests in Japan still use the Triton Trumpet shell (Charonia tritonis L.) for this today.

  • as a summons to call warriors to battle and to ring out triumphs in battle.

  • as an announcement to herald the entrance of kings, emperors, heroes, or important persons. (or, in Fiji to this very day, to announce that fish is being sold at the market, or at the pier!)

  • as a prelude, or to call people to public gatherings, such as tribal or community meetings, feasts, sporting events, etc.

  • as a curfew announcement  - and is still used in Samoa today, as a signal to proclaim the return of a sailing vessel from a voyage or fishing trip.

  • as a foghorn in the Mediterranean.

  • as an accompaniment in songs, chants and dance throughout the Indo Pacific.

  • as a ritual - blowing of the Triton trumpet (Charonia tritonis Linne) at sundown is still customary in Hawaii today.Almost any shell modified by drilling a hole into it can be used to make music. Any large shell, unmodified and filled with water, can be used to make musical gurgling sounds (try it!).  Most of us, at some time or other, have held an empty shell up to our ear to hear the music of the ocean waves (Note:This "whooshing" sound is actually a mixture of all the sounds around you, bouncing off the hard sides of the shell: if you could find a completely quiet place to hold a shell to your ear, you would only hear the Sounds of Silence!)


Some shells commonly used for making music, and for signaling devices are:

  • Horned helmet (Cassis cornuta Linne, 1758) (Note:  Linnaeus, known as the Father of modern taxonomy (the science of how living things are related to each other - see the article on Molluscan Taxonomy), named most of the common molluscs all around the world (he had students and helpers always out looking for new plants and animals!).  So, most beginning shells collections or discussions about well known shells or molluscs will have every second species followed by his name, and the date of his first and largest work, Systemmae Naturale - 1758!)

Cassis cornuta

Charonia tritonis
  • Triton's Trumpet (Charonia tritonis Linne), 1758. (Note: The Triton Trumpet shell, as its name suggests, makes a Fabulous trumpet, since it grows to over 450mm (20 "), and has a very large aperture (i.e., opening) - so it can produce a very low, very loud sound which if blown by someone with strong lungs, can be heard for miles!)
  • Queen conch (Strombus gigas Linne, 1758).  (Note: This is the common large shell found lining garden plots, paths, and as doorstops (which is why it is sometimes referred to as the "doorstop conch"!) Throughout North America.  In many parts of Florida, however, pollution and over-collecting for commercial purposes have nearly eliminated many local populations, so the species is now protected in the USA, although some are still imported from the West Indies.)

Strombus gigas

Cassis tuberosa
  • King helmet (Cassis tuberosa Linne, 1758) - Lives in the Caribbean Sea, and gets up to a foot (300mm) long, and very heavy.
  • Giant Frog shell (Bursa bubo Roding, 1798) - Indian and West Pacific Oceans.

Bursa bubo

Strombus galeatus
  • Giant stromb or conch (Strombus galeatus Linne, 1758) - Central America.

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