Perfect Sound Forever


By Mitchell Clark © 1996

Shell Image Shell Image
Two views of an end-blown shell trumpet made by the author from a Cassis cornuta ("horned helmet"); length 8 1/4"; pitch B3 (open) or A3 (hand-stopped).

At the request of the editor of Experimental Musical Instruments, to whom I once casually mentioned that I had made a few shell trumpets, I will write something about the process of making such an instrument. But, to the possible disappointment of the editor, there's not an awful lot for me to say about their construction, as the simple forms of shell trumpets are quite easy to make. So, in the style of an entry in a cookbook where the author gives lots of history, lore, and anecdotes, and then finally gets down to the recipe, somewhere in what follows are some basic instructions for making shell trumpets. Endnotes - often referring to illustrations which may be consulted in other sources - are included, and contribute additional texture.

I'll start by saying that when I was young, I knew about shell trumpets but obviously did not quite understand the principle of how they worked. I thought that no alteration was made to a conch's shell, which I thought was very beautiful and that it would be a shame to deface it. Rather, it seemed that getting the shell to sound was a matter simply of blowing very, very, very hard. Fortunately I did not rupture any blood vessels trying out this theory.1

But the shell trumpet (an instrument in the domain of study of the organologist) has indeed been altered from the animal's natural shell (a natural object in the domain of study of the conchologist) in such a way that would make life uncomfortable for the actual mollusk itself (an animal in the domain of study of the malacologist) - that is, a hole's been poked in the shell. A shell trumpet will obviously have to made after the mollusk has (willingly or unwillingly) vacated.

There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire. The mouth hole may be at the apex if the spire is shallow, as on a Strombus gigas ("queen conch" or "pink conch," common in the Caribbean),2 Cassis cornuta ("horned helmet," found in the Indo-Pacific region), or Cassis tuberosa ("king helmet," found in the Caribbean). The mouth hole may be on the side of the spire if the spire is more steep, as on a Charonia tritonis ("Triton's trumpet," distributed throughout most of the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans). In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added. Mouthpieces seem to be a matter of what tradition has evolved, as sometimes the same species of shell may be found with or without a mouthpiece. For instance, a variety of approaches will be found with Charonia tritonis. In Polynesia, a mouth hole cut into the side of the spire is the norm.3 Occasionally a side-blown tritonis will have a mouthpiece added, as found in the Marquesas Islands;4 this appears to be a rare arrangement. Concerning end-blown tritonis, on the Hawaiian pu5 and on the Korean na,6 a mouth hole is cut into the apex. On the Japanese hora, the tritonis (called horagai) is given a mouthpiece, placed at the apex.7 Other shells used for trumpets usually have the hole in the apex, with a mouthpiece or (perhaps more commonly) without.

The qualities of sounds which shell trumpets can produce are varied, and also layered in the meanings and responses such sounds evoke. As children we learn of one of the poetic associations of shells - that if you hold a conch shell to your ear, you will hear (however far away from the coastline you may be) the sound of the sea.8 Yes, perhaps it is indeed the air column enclosed by the shell filtering the ambient level of noise to create a faint roaring sound. But the association of shells with water, and the sea especially, is also at the basis of the many of the ceremonial uses of shell trumpets around the world. Shell trumpets have often been used at great distances from the sea, and this has contributed to the sacredness of their sounds. Thus the hearing the of sea in a shell may be a vestige of these older, profound associations. Shell trumpets produce a profound sound in every sense of the word - there is a sense of the sound coming from the deep past. This is both true as regards the actual antiquity of the use of shell trumpets, which dates to the Neolithic era,9 and in the very shell itself. The apex of a univalve gastropod such as a conch or a snail is the oldest part of the shell (the place where the young animal started growing): in blowing a shell trumpet the sound is passing from the oldest place to the youngest - from the past towards the present.

Concerning this antiquity of the use of shell trumpets, the etymologist Eric Partridge puts forth the idea that the word "conch" may be of echoic - that is, onomatopoeic - origin.10 Echoic, I suppose, of the sound of the blast of a shell trumpet, and thus - given the early Greek roots of the work "conch" - indicating the great antiquity of their use. A common term applied in a number of parts of Polynesia to the shell trumpet - pu - would certainly also seem, in its own way, to be echoic.

The most common use of shell trumpets in many parts of the world - and they have a remarkably wide distribution - is as a signaling device. A shell trumpet may announce curfew in Samoa, or announce that fresh fish is for sale in Fiji, or may serve as a foghorn on the Mediterranean. The shell trumpet often has a magical role in relation to weather. It may be used on the one hand be used to calm rough seas, or on the other to summon wind when seas are becalmed.11 Shell trumpets are also used in musical contexts, most often in conjunction with ritual. The Indian shanka has held a place in the Hindu religion for millennia. There it may be used as a ritual vessel as well as a trumpet.12 The shanka is also of significance in Buddhism, where, besides its musical uses, it figures importantly into Buddhist iconography. Befitting their role in Tibetan ritual music, where they are called dung-dkar, shell trumpets made from shanka receive detailed decoration, with carving on the surface of the shell itself and with added ornamentation in metal and semi-precious stone.13 Shell trumpets were also important ritual instruments in Pre-Columbian South and Central America and in Minoan Crete. In these latter areas, skeuomorphic reproductions ("the substitution of products of craftsmanship for components or objects of natural origin") of shell trumpets, in ceramic and stone, are found archaeologically. The details of their exact purposes remain a mystery.14

Generally a shell trumpet is used to produce one note; harmonics are possible but seldom utilized. One exception is the Japanese hora, where three, sometimes even four, pitches of the harmonic series may be employed.15 On the end-blown Fijian shell trumpet made from the Bursa bubo ("giant frog shell"), there is a fingerhole which will allow for a whole-tone change in pitch.16 Shell trumpets with several fingerholes have also been explored.17 Occasionally pitch is modified by the player inserting his or her hand into the aperture. Although shell trumpets would seem to lend themselves to being played in a musical context in homogenous ensembles, along the lines of ensembles of panpipes and stamping tubes in Oceania (particularly Melanesia), such an approach is actually very rare. Tonga (in Polynesia) is the only place where conch ensembles have been found, and then only in the more remote areas (some of the northern islands) and only in a few musical contexts (for recreation and for cricket matches).18 In contemporary music and jazz, however, ensembles of shell trumpets have been used by trombonists Stuart Dempster and Steve Turre.

Now, to get to work. I've made a few shell trumpets with the mouth-hole at the apex. A simple basic recipe is:

Ingredients: Procedure:

That's it. But to be more specific: from my experience, for making a shell trumpet it seems that a conch of some size - something like seven inches or greater in length - is needed. My attempt at making an instrument with the shell of a young Strombus gigas (perhaps 5-6 inches long) did not work out: I just couldn't get a sound out of the thing. Perhaps a smaller shell such as that might work with a mouthpiece. I've made end-blown trumpets from Cassis cornuta (my shell of choice; see photos above), Cassis tuberosa, and adult Strombus gigas. My construction approach with the Cassis has been to file off the tip with an 8" mill bastard file and a lot of elbow grease, getting it to the point where the opening is about 5/8" in diameter. With the jeweler's files, I'll smooth down the insides of the opening. For a Strombus gigas, which has a steeper spire, I first cut off an inch or so of the tip with a saw, and then proceeded as with the Cassis.

It is certainly possible to get the job done more quickly. A friend once made a trumpet from a Strombus gigas by forcibly breaking off the tip - he's a percussionist - with little or no filing. In this case, it appears that the irregularities of the edges of the mouth-hole allowed for a more pronounced array of upper partials to the shell trumpet's tone. To remove the tip of a Strombus gigas, D.Z. Crookes (describing the process in his "How to make a shelly hautbois") supported the shell's tip "on an anvil, and nipped it off with a cold chisel," later carving a "half-civilized" mouthpiece.19 I suppose one could also use a power grinder or sander to quickly get through the early stage on a Cassis, for instance, but I think a couple of hours or so of manual filing is not too big a price to pay (however, see photo below). Of course, being physically involved with the stages of the manufacture of a shell trumpet, as with any musical instrument, increases one's connection with the instrument and its sounds.

As regards side-blown shell trumpets, I've made one, from a Charonia tritonis (see photo below). For such a shell, a basic recipe could be:

Ingredients: Procedure:

Again, a little more detail. I placed the hole in the second whorl out from, and on the same side of the spire as, the aperture. With this arrangement the aperture faces backwards from the player when the trumpet is played. I used photographs of side-blown Charonia tritonis as my guide.20 I used a drill bit of about l/8" diameter to get the hole started and then followed with a 1/4" bit. I expanded the hole to about 5/8" with a half-round jeweler's file. A larger rat-tail file would also be possible (although one needs to be careful of a bulkier tool damaging the interior of the shell), before following up with the jeweler's file.

Although I've made a few shell trumpets, I have not yet made musical use of them in any concerted way. I do have a piece - forthcoming in my series of Anthems for ensembles of "peacefully co-existing" sustained sounds - for a plurality of shell trumpets and pre-recorded tape. Also, when you've got a shell trumpet around, blowing it every once in a while does impress neighbors and passers-by alike.

Again, these are the most basic of recipes. I look forward to other writers who have more background in the individual traditions of these instruments, and who are more acquainted with the acoustics and detailed construction,21 to contribute further on the subject of these fascinating instruments.


1. Despite the fact that a large conch does need to be modified to make a trumpet, a small snail shell can be used, unmodified, as a whistle. An intact snail shell is essentially a stopped pipe, and if the aperture is of an appropriate size - so the player is able to create an embouchure - the shell can be an effective whistle. Unaltered large conch shells filled with water were used for their gurgling sounds by John Cage in his pieces Inlets (1977, which also makes use of a shell trumpet) and Two3 (1991, which also includes a Japanese sh reed organ). A single such large water-filled conch was used by the present author in his "concerning an aspect..." (1988). Return to text

2. In general usage, the word "conch" is used to describe large spiral univalve gastropods even when it is not referring to what is, strictly speaking, a conch (the "true conchs" are members of the genus Strombus). This seems to be especially true in relation to shell trumpets, where the term "conch trumpet" is used quite freely. Return to text

3. See Richard M. Moyle, Polynesian Sound-producing Instruments (Princes Risborough, England: Shire Publications, 1990), 39 and figure 25, which shows several side-blown tritonis being played in Tonga. Return to text

4. Richard M. Moyle, Polynesian Sound-producing Instruments, 39 and lower portion of figure 23. Return to text

5. Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H. Buck), Arts and Crafts of Hawaii, IX: Musical Instruments (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1957, reprinted 1964), figure 256a. Return to text

6. See Chang Sa-hun, Uri yet Akki ("Our Traditional Musical Instruments"; Seoul: Daewonsa, 1990), 31. Return to text

7. See Hajime Fukui, "The Hora (Conch Trumpet) of Japan" in Galpin Society Journal 47 (1994): 47-62, where several photographs and a diagram of the mouthpiece are shown. For a full-size color photograph of a hora, see Jane Fearer Safer and Frances McLaughlin Gill, Spirals from the Sea: An Anthropological look at Shells (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1982), 174-5. Concerning the hora, one of its less-documented uses is in a rite called Shunie associated with the T dai-ji Temple in Nara (see Hajime Fukui's essay, 52). A shell-trumpet ensemble portion of the Shunie can be heard on the album Harmony of Japanese Music, mentioned in the attached discography. Return to text

8. Note that terminology relating to the human ear is rich in shell imagery. The cochlea (a Latin word derived from the Greek kokhlos, land snail) is the spiral, shell-shaped portion of the inner ear which transmits the signals to the brain which are interpreted as sound. As a word referring to a shell-like structure, concha (from the Greek konkhe - a shell-bearing mollusk in general - which, via Latin, is the ancestral form of "conch") is a term used to describe the human external ear, also known as pinna. And pinna, from the Latin word for "wing" or "feather," is also the name for a genus of large - and wing- or feather-shaped - bivalve mollusks (family Pinnidae). Return to text

9. John M. Schechter and Mervyn McLean, "Conch-shell trumpet" in Stanley Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (London: Macmillan. 1954), I:461. Note that it is conjectured that the earliest use of the instrument was as a voice modifier - a megaphone of sorts. Return to text

10. Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (2nd edition, New York: MacMillan, 1959), 114. Note especially one Middle English spelling, conk. Return to text

11. A recorded example of the former, from Chuuk, Micronesia, is included on the album Spirit of Micronesia, mentioned in the attached discography. The latter is mentioned in the entry for the shell trumpet ntuantuangi, of the Poso Toradja of Celebes, in Sibyl Marcuse, Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary (2nd edition, New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975), 368. Return to text

12. Note that the Sanskrit word shanka (which may be romanized in various ways, with or without diacritics; the English common name for the shell is "chank") does share the same Indo-European root as konkhe, and ultimately, "conch." The Latin scientific name for the shanka is Turbinella pyrum. Return to text

13. See Safer and Gill, Spirals from the Sea, 176-7, for two views of a specimen dated 1400. Return to text

14. Jeremy Montagu, "The conch in prehistory: pottery, stone and natural" in World Archaeology 12/3 (1981): 273-9, which focuses on these shell-trumpet skeuomorphs. Return to text

15. Hajime Fukui "The Hora (Conch Trumpet) of Japan," 51-2. Return to text

16. Moyle, Polynesian Sound-producing Instruments, 39 and figure 24. Return to text

17. See D.Z. Crookes, "How to make a shelly hautbois" in FoMRHI Quarterly 80 (July 1995): 43, where he experiments with up to seven (?) fingerholes on Strombus gigas. Return to text

18. Richard M. Moyle, "Conch Ensemble: Tonga's Unique Contribution to Polynesian Organology" in Galpin Society Journal 28 (1975): 98-106. Also, his Polynesian Sound-producing Instruments, 41-2 and figure 25. Ensembles of three to seven, or more, side-blown Charonia tritonis are used. Return to text

19. Crookes, "How to make a shelly hautbois," 43. Return to text

20. For instance, Eric Metzgar, Arts of Micronesia (Long Beach, Calif.: FHP Hippodrome Gallery, 1987 {exhibition catalogue}), figure G, and Safer and Gill, Spirals from the Sea, 168. Return to text

21. See Montagu, "The conch in prehistory: pottery, stone and natural," 274-5, for a brief discussion of shell-trumpet acoustics which outlines some of the basic issues. Concerning shell-trumpet construction, note that Hajime Fukui's "The Hora (Conch Trumpet) of Japan" goes into a great amount of detail concerning making this particular instrument. Return to text


Following is a handful of recordings including shell trumpets. Occasionally, recordings of shell trumpets will appear on collections of music from Oceania. An example is Spirit of Micronesia (Saydisc CD-SDL 414), which includes a conche (note this alternate spelling) introducing two chants (track 20) and a conche used for warding off storm clouds (track 22; a photo on page 20 of the booklet shows a player of a trumpet made from a Cassis species). Though brief, this latter track beautifully captures, against a backdrop of storm waves, the shell trumpet's evocative qualities. Pan Records' Fa'a-Samoa: The Samoan way... between conch shell and disco (PAN 2066CD) includes a recording (track 1) of a conch-shell pu being used to announce curfew; on track 13, an animal horn used for the same purpose is also called pu. (The "disco" of the title is actually a brass band performance.) Another album on Pan, Tuvalu: A Polynesian Atoll Society (PAN 2055CD), has an impressive photograph of a shell-trumpet player on the cover, but does not include any shell-trumpet recordings.

A Japanese Buddhist ritual-music use of shell trumpets - as part of O-Mizu Tori ("a water-drawing rite") of the Shunie rite at T dai-ji Temple, Nara - may be heard on Harmony of Japanese Music (King Records [Japan] KICH 2021).

Steve Turre's Sanctified Shells (Antilles 314 514 186-2) and Stuart Dempster's Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel (New Albion NA076) include some contemporary creative uses of shell trumpets in ensemble. Colin Offord's Pacific Sound (Move Records [Australia] MD 3 105) makes use of shell trumpets in ensemble with instruments of his own construction. Together with other sound-makers made of shells, a shell trumpet may be heard on the track "Sea Language" on The Art of Primitive Sound's Musical Instruments from Prehistory (Hic Sunt Leones [Italy] HSL 003).

Baoding Balls shell trumpet
Baoding balls, the chiming vibrations of which can help soothe the aching hand that did the filing of a shell trumpet. The name shouqiu (literally, "hand ball") is sometimes used for these sealed, spherical pellet bells.
A side-blown shell trumpet made by the author from a Charonia tritonis ("Triton's trumpet"); length 11", pitch E4 (open) or as low as C4 (hand-stopped). (Photograph taken during the process of construction, i.e., the mouth hole is somewhat smaller than in the final instrument.)

Author Mitchell Clark can be contacted at

Check out the rest of Perfect Sound Forever