"...he had a conch shell. He just blew one note on it...the sound was so beautiful it made me tingle... - Steve Turré
From long ago, people have been making music. From the day the first rhythm was beaten out on a rock, we have been using the materials around us to create the instruments we use.
Introduction to Seashell Music
Almost certainly, the first wind instruments were made from things which resonated in the wind, such as hollow plant stems, and of course, seashells. By blowing into them, people found that they could make a noise for themselves, and hence created the first wind instruments.
The larger shells produce notes which can be heard a long way off, and were (still are) valuable for communication. Whether as alarms, calls to meeting or worship, shells were used to alert people. Today, their use is traditional, but no less important for that. Shells were used to:
call worshippers to prayer. Shinto priests use the Triton Trumpet shell to this day
a call to arms, or to give command codes in battle
salutes to, or announcement of, royalty or important personages
still used to accompany songs in the Pacific islands
a Triton Trumpet may still be heard at sunset in Hawaii
used to announce the sailing or returning of a boat, still carried out in Samoa
as a warning, for example, foghorn - still occasionally used in the Mediterranean Sea
They are also used percussively
, by either stringing smaller shells together, or sealing tiny pebbles inside the larger shells. Think of marine maraca
, and you'll get the idea.
Most large shells can be made into more versatile instruments by modifying them. The trombonist Steve Turré makes and plays seashell instruments, as he says, "I just love the sound. I wish I could make my trombone sound like a shell, in terms of the resonance".
You will need a perfect shell, with no holes or damage. Generally, the larger the shell, the better the sound you will be able to attain. You will also need a hacksaw, fine flat and round files, a hammer and screwdriver or old chisel, and possibly a drill. Oh, and a steady hand.
To make the mouthpiece, cut off the point of the shell and gently tap out the core of the shell, and clean up both the inside and outside of the cut area with a round file, and possibly some fine emery paper. Leaving a rough finish to this hole will make your lips sore, so be prepared to spend some time doing this. Getting the size of the hole right is important - some experimentation may be needed, and it is always best to start with a smaller hole, which you can later expand.
If a shell is very thin near the top, you may need to build up the outside. Steve uses denture plastic, but there are doubtless alternative substances. Again, this is important, as a sharp edge will almost certainly leave you with a nasty gash.
Playing such a shell is similar to playing any brass instrument - you need both lip and breath control to get the best out of them. "Playing the shells can help you as a brass player. They take a lot of endurance, a lot more air and strength", according to Steve.
Drilling holes in shells is also possible, to turn them into something like an ocarina. Getting the holes correctly placed, and the tuning right may be more difficult than with the 'bugle' shells, and a great deal of care and experimentation would be required.
Shells to use
Firstly, it is important to bear in mind the conservation issues. Many of the species whose shells are being sold are becoming rarer as collectors buy them in larger quantity. Before buying or using any shell, make certain that it is not endangered - ideally, collect the shells yourself from a beach.
Horned helmet (Cassis cornuta) is a very large and heavy shell which would require a lot of power, but makes a deep, loud and resonant sound.
Triton's Trumpet (Charonia tritonis) A massive shell, up to 20 inches long. Its sound can travel for miles.
Queen conch (Strombus gigas) This shell is protected by law in many areas, but is a popular choice for those able to collect one from a beach. Smaller and easier to play.
King Helmet (Cypraecassis rufa) A Caribbean shell up to a foot long.
Giant Frog Shell (Bursa bubo) From the Indian and Pacific oceans, so called because of their warty, knobbly appearance.
Giant Stromb (Strombus galeatus) Another large shell, eight to ten inches in length, and another easy one to play.