Make Your Own Conch Horn

In addition to getting some much needed rest and relaxation, I had time over the break to pursue a project I’ve wanted to do for some time – make my own conch horn!  These primitive but fascinating instruments can be purchased online, but with the right tools can be easily constructed at home.  Basically all that is needed is some sort of tool to safely remove the tip located at the larger end of the shell.  Once removed, a small cavity inside the opening needs to be created to function as a mouthpiece.  It is also necessary to make sure the inner and outer surfaces of this opening are as smooth as possible – otherwise you risk cutting your lips on any sharp edges.  I owe a big thanks to my Dad on this project, as he had the perfect tool for this job, as well as the know-how to execute the necessary cutting and sanding.  Since conch shells come in a wide variety of sizes, there aren’t really any hard and fast rules for cutting the appropriately-sized mouthpiece.  My advice would be to make the opening as close to the size and shape of your own horn mouthpiece – we used a dime to approximate the correct inner diameter.  In addition to the Dremel tool linked above, I also recommend using several different grits of sandpaper ranging from coarse to fine to get the mouthpiece nice and smooth.  You’ll probably only be able to get a few notes on your horn, but you can alter the pitch by using your hand. The sound of these instruments is actually quite nice, and they make great conversation pieces for your studio or office.  See the pictures below for some up-close views of my conch-horn, as well as a short video clip of me demonstrating it.  The video was shot with a digital camera, so I apologize for the microphone quality. If you are interested in making your own conch horn and have any questions about the process, feel free to contact me.

Brüchle and Janetzky’s “A Pictorial History of the Horn” Part 1

As a visual learner, I really enjoy looking at pictures of various horn designs and images of horns throughout history.  Besides the internet, one of my favorite resources for these images is Kulturgeschichte des Horns (“A Pictorial History of the Horn”) by Kurt Janetzky and Bernhard Brüchle (English translation by Cecilia Baumann). Published by Hans Schneider in 1976, this unique book is now out of print, but occasionally a used copy will show up on Amazon. If you happen to see a copy for sale and it won’t bankrupt you, go ahead and buy it as it really is a neat book.  Fortunately, our university library owns a copy, as do many other libraries I’m sure. This three-part series of posts will be devoted to some of the images found in this book. As you read through this post, you can click on the images to view them at a larger size. In the Foreword, the authors spell out the purpose of this volume.

The sole purpose of a work such as this should be to present the horn in a clear and faithful manner through pictures and words, concentrating on that which is essential.

With this end in view, then, we have striven to make a judiciously limited, painstaking selection from among the countless pictures, reports, letters, and other documents collected over the years with the true zeal of the enthusiast. It is our intention that this book should serve to provide the reader with a practical, comprehensive, but above all visually impressive picture of the horn. No one should be forced in a didactic way to any preconceived view; rather, it should be left to the reader to experience the horn on his own and form his own image of it. [p. 13]

In this first post we’ll look at images from ancient times up through the Renaissance.  First is the ubiquitous conch horn.

Quoting from the text, this is a “Shell of a tropical marine gastropod (genus Murex). The tip is broken off to form a crude blowing hole. Length: 17cm. Found in the Antilles (Hatiti)” (p. 21) Check out the website Lark in the Morning for details on purchasing your own conch horn.

Next is the Scandinavian luur.  Here’s some more information on the Luur, again quoting from A Pictorial History of the Horn.

During the past century a number of horn-like instruments, which usually belonged together in pairs, were found in the western Baltic area, especially in Denmark, but also in Iceland, Sweden, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and Hannover. These were the lurrs of the Nordic Bronze Age, which, perhaps as early as the second millennium B.C. (possibly, however, not until more recent times), sank into the bog and were amazingly well preserved. All have in common a perfectly conoidal S or question-mark form curing either to the left or to the right. The slightly conical, thin-walled tube, three to four meters long, was cast out of bronze in separate pieces with admirable craftsmanship and artistically fitted together with decorative ring clamps. [p. 32]

“One of the two luurs of Tellerup on the island of Fyn (Denmark), a horn from the Nordic Bronze Age (5th period)” (p. 33)

Next is the oliphant.  Here is a brief description of this ancient type of horn, courtesy of Brüchle and Janetzky.

The oliphants, which were artistically carved from hollowed-out elephant tusks, were the hunting horns of medieval knighthood. The first pieces came to Europe from Byzantium at the end of the tenth century, and their ownership or use was for centuries the unlimited privilege of the high nobility. As [sic] signalling instruments their capability was modest; usually they produced only a single tone, but sometimes two, or in rare cases, at most three tones. The legendary range of its sound was usually greatly exaggerated with the intention of making the strength of the blower seem more heroic. [p. 65]

“Oliphant from Southern Italy (Salerno), ivory, 11th century.” (p. 63)

The last image for part one of this series is by the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

“Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) ‘Battle between Tritons and Nereids’ Pen-and-ink drawing, 29.2 x 38.2 cm” (p. 22)

If you enjoyed these excerpts from A Pictorial History of the Horn, see if your local library has a copy – it really is a fun read. Check back soon for Parts 2 and 3.

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