Conch Shells as Musical Instruments and in Living Sea Snails

The shell of a queen conch
The shell of a queen conch | Source

Shells of sea creatures have fascinated humans for a long time. Their often intricate shapes, their beautiful colours and patterns and the mystery of their previous inhabitants all capture the imagination. Conch shells have an additional allure, however. They can be used as musical instruments.

In everyday English, the word “conch” refers to any large sea snail or its shell. A conch (pronounced konkg) has a spiral shell with a long, tapering tip called a spire. Conch shells are often used as wind instruments. The end of the spire is removed and then the player blows air into the shell through the hole. The sound is loud and dramatic and also has an eerie quality. Conch “trumpets” have long been used in rituals and ceremonies and for communication. Today they are also used in music.

How to Blow a Conch Shell

How to Play a Conch

It might seem that the sounds produced by a conch shell must be very limited because of the absence of keys or valves. This is definitely a false assumption when the shell is played by an expert, however! Beautiful and varied sounds can be produced by using specific techniques while playing a conch.

A conch player controls the pitch of the sound by his or her embouchure (the control of a sound by the shaping of the lips and the use of facial muscles and the tongue). The player may also modify the pitch by putting a hand into the aperture (opening) of the conch shell. Shells of different sizes and shapes are used for their different pitch possibilities and tonal qualities.

Steve Turre is an American jazz musician and trombonist who is an expert conch trumpet player. He often switches between different conch shells during a performance and is able to play two conch trumpets at once to create harmony.

Steve Turre Plays Conch Trumpets

Making a Conch Trumpet

When a conch shell is obtained, it must be cleaned before it can be used to produce music. The next step in making a conch trumpet is to remove the top section of the spire from the cleaned shell, which is usually done with a hacksaw. Once the tip of the spire is removed, the broken surface of the shell is filed or smoothed with sandpaper so that it doesn’t cut the player’s lips. The shell material in the center of the mouthpiece is removed. Some musicians use the spire as a natural mouthpiece, but others add an artificial mouthpiece.

Two views of a Triton's trumpet, or Charonia tritonis
Two views of a Triton's trumpet, or Charonia tritonis | Source

Conch Trumpets Around the World

Conch shells have been used as trumpets in many cultures in the past and are still used today. They are often used in a religious or ceremonial context, such as in a call to prayer. In addition, the call of a conch was once used to summon fighters to battles.

Ceremonial conchs (or conches) that have survived from the past are often elaborately decorated with bright colors, gilt metal, precious stones and textiles. They are very attractive objects.

A popular conch is the Triton’s trumpet, which is used in Polynesia, Melanesia, Korea and Japan, although it’s sometimes given a different name. The queen conch is used in the Caribbean. The chank, sometimes called the sacred chank, is used as a trumpet in India and Tibet. In Hinduism it's known as the shankh or shankha and is considered to be a sacred shell. In Buddhism the sacred conch is known as the dung-dkar.

Different views of the chank, or Turbinella pyrum
Different views of the chank, or Turbinella pyrum | Source
The shell of a queen conch
The shell of a queen conch | Source

Ancient Shell Instruments

Researchers at Stanford University have discovered a 3,000-year-old temple in Peru containing conch shells that are still playable. The temple is located at Chavín de Huantar, a ceremonial and religious centre that played an important role in the lives of the Chavín people. The centre seems to have been the seat of power for the Chavín, who lived before the Incas. Today it’s the location of a major archaeological investigation and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many sculptures and artifacts have been discovered at the site, including conch shell trumpets.

The temple at Chavín de Huantar contains numerous narrow and twisting passages as well as staircases that form maze-like patterns. It also contains ventilation shafts. The temple seems to have been created with acoustics in mind. When the researchers played the conch trumpets inside the temple, they found that the passageways acted like a series of interlinked, resonant chambers which created strange acoustic effects. People on the research team who were placed at different points in the corridors couldn't tell where a sound was coming from and were confused. The researchers wonder if the strange acoustics were once used as a form of sensory manipulation to create a particular mental and emotional state in the temple visitors.

Pre-Incan Use of Conches

The giant horse conch has an orange body.
The giant horse conch has an orange body. | Source
A giant horse conch shell that has been cleaned and put on display in a museum
A giant horse conch shell that has been cleaned and put on display in a museum | Source

The Giant Horse Conch

Conch shells are interesting objects that make great musical instruments. It's fascinating to study living conchs as well, though.

A conch is a very large sea snail. It has a soft body that can retract into its hard and protective shell. The surface of the shell is often green and furry due to the growth of algae.

True conchs belong to the family Strombidae. They generally live in the warm water of tropical and subtropical seas. Some other large sea snails are known as conchs, too. One of these is the giant horse conch, which is the state shell of Florida. Its scientific name is Triplofusus giganteus (or Pleuroploca gigantea).

The shell of a horse conch may reach two feet in length. The visible soft parts of its body are orange in colour. The snail moves by means of a flat, muscular foot. A protective lid-like structure called an operculum covers the opening of the shell when the body is retracted. LIke other conchs, the horse conch obtains oxygen through its gills. True conchs are vegetarian, but the horse conch is a predator. It feeds on smaller snails, such as tulip snails.

It might be thought that such a big and powerful snail as the giant horse conch would be safe from predators itself, but this isn't the case. The moon snail climbs on top of the conch and drills a hole in its shell, reaching the soft parts inside. The drilling is done with the radula, a ribbon-like structure in the moon snail's mouth that has rows of teeth on its surface.

The Giant Horse Conch and Burglar Hermit Crabs

A Queen Conch Moving in an Aquarium

The Queen Conch

The queen conch belongs to the family Strombidae and is therefore considered to be a true conch. Its scientific name is Strombus gigas. It lives in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and is also found in the Florida Keys. The conch can reach a length of one foot and a weight of five pounds.

Like other members of its family, the queen conch moves with the aid of its modified operculum. It moves in a series of jerks, pushing itself forward on the strong and pointed operculum, which acts like a claw. This method of movement is slow but effective.

The queen conch is most active at night but may be active during the day as well. Unlike the giant horse conch, the queen conch is a vegetarIan. It feeds on algae and sometimes on the detritus that reaches the ocean floor. The snail scrapes algae from surfaces using its radula.

During mating, the male conch inserts a tube under the female's shell and transfers sperm into her body. She stores the sperm until her eggs are ready to be fertlized. The eggs are laid in a sticky, rope-like structure. This becomes covered with sand, which camouflages the developing eggs. After three to five days, the eggs hatch into larvae. The larvae eventually undergo metamorphosis and become adults (if they aren't eaten by predators).

The queen conch is a long-lived animal. It generally lives for 20 to 30 years but may live for as long as 40 years. It may not reach its potential lifespan, however. Queen conchs are collected for both their meat and their shells. The meat is enjoyed as food and is used as fish bait. The shells are appreciated as ornaments and are also used to make jewelry. Overfishing of queen conchs is becoming a serious problem.

Uses, Life Cycle and Conservation of the Queen Conch

Queen Conch Conservation

Information about queen conch conservation from NOOA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

I think that conchs are very interesting animals. I also think that their conservation is important. They play a useful role in the ocean ecosystem.

I would never kill a conch in order to obtain its shell. If I found an empty shell, though, I would definitely pick it up, as I often do with other sea shells that I find. I think the sound of a blown conch shell is beautiful and haunting when created by a skilful musician. It's a sound that I'd love to produce myself.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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Comments 26 comments

Purple Perl profile image

Purple Perl 5 years ago from Bangalore,India

You are right-conch shells are used to blow during special pujas by the Hindus in India.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the information, Purple Perl.


Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Beautiful hub. Great information, pictures, and videos


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Truckstop Sally. Thank you for your kind comment.


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden

Very interesting hub and the videos are amazing! I have never heard nor seen anyone play on a conch trumpet before. Thanks for sharing this! I like conch shells also because they are so beautiful to look at!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for your comment, thougtforce. I was happy to discover the videos when I was preparing this hub, especially the first video. I love the sound of conch trumpets.


Fossillady profile image

Fossillady 5 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

Interesting, I own several, handed down from my dear mother in law who is no longer with us in body but in spirit. This reminded me of her, thank you!Steve Turre, wow


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 5 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi AliciaC, very interesting hub and loved the video to !

Great hub !!!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Fossillady - I agree, Steve Turre is a fantastic conch trumpet player!

kashmir56 - Thank you!


b. Malin profile image

b. Malin 5 years ago

What a wonderful Hub on the subject of Conch Shells, who would have ever thought that they would make such wonderful instruments. I found a small Conch Shell on the beach the other day and wrote a Poem about it called...." Inner Shell, Outer Shell" on imperfections of our souls.

I loved the videos, so informative...you certainly put a lot of work into this Hub, thanks for the enjoyment and knowledge you've given us.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, b. Malin! I'm looking forward to reading your poem.


Karanda profile image

Karanda 5 years ago from Australia

Many of the South Pacific islanders use the conch shell as a trumpet to welcome visitors or begin ceremonies. The sound is magical. Wonderful Hub and videos.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Interesting information, Alicia. I have only ever seen conches being blown in films about desert islands, so didn't know that they asre still being played today.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Karanda. I love the sound of a conch being blown at the start of a ceremony. It certainly is a magical sound! Thanks for your comment.

Hi, CMHypno. Thank you for your comment. I'm very glad that the art of playing conch trumpets hasn't been lost.


daydreamer13 profile image

daydreamer13 5 years ago

This is cool! Thanks for posting this!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, daydreamer13.


suncat profile image

suncat 5 years ago

Now I know what to do with all these shells :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, suncat!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Very interesting subject. It was wonderful hearing the conch shells being played and I found that BBC video to be well worth the time in watching. Thanks! Voting this up and useful.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Peggy W. I'm glad that you enjoyed the videos.


sligobay profile image

sligobay 5 years ago from east of the equator

Thank you for a wonderful article and Hub. I have always visually appreciated the shape of the shell. Now I am in love with its sound as played by jazz trumpeter Steve Turre. I listened to each selected video and am glad I did. I have never seen such an interesting underwater video as this. Bravo! Bravissimo!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, sligobay!! I loved creating this hub and I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.


fuku 3 years ago

gud info


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, fuku.


Logan 15 months ago

Where can I buy a conch that I can play?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 15 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Logan. There are playable conch shells in the musical instrument section of Amazon. I have no idea about their quality, though, so you'd have to read the reviews carefully.

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    Linda Crampton (AliciaC)1,248 Followers
    426 Articles

    Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honours degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.



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