The History of Musical Stones


Stone has been used to make music for thousands of years. Some of the earliest playing of music involved the striking of rocks. Ringing rocks have been discovered on various sites across the world, often in close proximity to rock paintings. The earliest forms of tuned percussion are to be found in South East Asia, including Vietnam and China. Tuned percussion instruments such as the xylophone were not widely known in Britain until the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet as early as 1785 Peter Crosthwaite, founder of the Lake District's first public museum, began work on a similar type of instrument using pieces of stone he had taken from the River Greta in Skiddaw. The instrument he created, almost certainly influenced by ones he had seen whilst travelling in Asia, was later to become known as a lithophone. Some forty years later Joseph Richardson decided to start work on an altogether grander version. This took him thirteen years to build after which time he and his sons toured it extensively in Britain and Europe, including performances for Queen Victoria. Others attempted to copy the Richardsons' success, again exploiting the special properties of the hornfels stone from Skiddaw. These included the Abraham Brothers and Daniel Till. From the early 1880s the Till Family Rock Band began touring extensively in Britain. Later they moved to the USA. The Till instrument is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York. John Ruskin first encountered musical stones as an eleven year old when he visited the Crosthwaite Museum with his parents in 1830. As a child he wrote an epic poem, Iteriad, in which he refers to the Musical Stones.

And next we were shown, upon quite a new plan - O

A kind of a sort of a stoney piano!

Some stones in the bed of the Greta's stream found,

Emitted, when struck, a most musical sound!

In 1884 Ruskin commissioned the Tills to build him his own rock instrument to amuse visiting children. The idea of an instrument constructed of materials so directly related to its surroundings appealed to Ruskin. He was a long time collector of rocks and minerals and for him this would surely have represented a true synthesis of art and nature. Stone was never going to become the ideal material for musical instruments. The tone to be elicited from wood, the durability and versatility of metal, set against the sheer impractical weight of stone, meant that these other materials were preferred. Nevertheless, there are still instrument builders, in different corners of the world, drawn to the special qualities of stone. Here at Brantwood, in the instruments you see before you, we have yet another innovation: Lithophones for the 21st century. Scientists at the University of Leeds have used modern technology to create these instruments but with similar passion for the synthesis of music and nature in order to stimulate an interest in the local landscape, geology and music. This instrument is made with families in mind - so pick up a beater and listen for yourself!

For more information follow the links below:

The history of lithophones from across the world -
Linton Room Poster - Musical Stones


[Ruskin Rocks home] [Introduction to the Project] [Who's who] [History of Musical Stones] [Why do Rocks Ring?] [Geology of the Lake District] [The Ruskin Rocks Instrument] [Links]

Created by Ruskin Rocks Team, August 2010
Last updated: Rebecca Hildyard, 24 August 2010