The Mysterious Lithophones of Vietnam: Descendants of the First Musical Instruments?

The Mysterious Lithophones of Vietnam: Descendants of the First Musical Instruments?

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The word ‘lithophone’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘lithos’ and ‘phone’. The first can be translated as ‘stone’, whilst the second means ‘sound’. Therefore, a lithophone may be said to be a ‘sound-making stone’. Today, this word is used to denote a type of musical instrument made of stones. Lithophones have been discovered in different parts of the world, including Vietnam. Researchers have said that lithophones were played between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Generally speaking, a lithophone consists of several stone slabs of varying sizes. As these stones are struck, different tones are produced. Therefore, a lithophone may be considered to be a percussion instrument, and it has often been compared to a xylophone.

Example of a crude Lithophone in the garden of the convent St. Marienstern

Example of a crude Lithophone in the garden of the convent St. Marienstern. (CC BY 4.0)

The Vietnamese Lithophones

In Vietnam, lithophones are also known as Dan Da, which translates as ‘stone instrument’. The first lithophone is reported to have been discovered in 1949. In February of that year, a set of 11 large stone slabs, standing close together in a vertical position, were unearthed by a group of road-builders in Ndut Lieng Krak, in the province of Dak Lak, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. As these stones were thought to have some historical significance, a French ethnologist by the name of Georges Condiminas was contacted.

It was observed that the slabs, 10 of which were intact, were of varying sizes, and had been chiselled. This suggested that they had served a particular function. Subsequently, Condiminas requested permission from the Mnong people, with whom he was living at that time, to have the stone slabs brought back to Paris to be further studied by experts. This request was granted, and the stones were transported to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris to be examined.

Ethiopian Lithophones with Stand, Monastery of Na’akuto La’ab.

Ethiopian Lithophones with Stand, Monastery of Na’akuto La’ab. ( CC-BY-2.0)

Establishing the Musical Function of the Stone Slabs

It was during these examinations that the aural function of the stones was established. According to one source, this discovery was made by Condiminas himself, when he accidentally struck one of the stones, and realized that it made a sound. According to another source, it was André Schaeffner, a musicologist, who speculated that the stones were used to make music. Schaeffner noticed that there were tool markings on the slabs, which was taken to be an indication that they were tuned. In addition, the musicologist also recognised that the stones produced different notes when struck, thereby allowing him to arrange them according to pitch.

Similar discoveries were made in the following decades. For example, the biggest known set of lithophones so far was discovered in 2003. In that year, 20 slabs were unearthed by a farmer in the province of Lam Dong, also in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Such supposedly tuned stone slabs have been unearthed on a regular basis. Whilst it is often claimed that these are lithophones, not all of these claims have been substantiated. Nevertheless, as of today, over 200 lithophones have been verified as genuine by experts.

A Vietnamese Lithophone Melody:

Earlier Discoveries of Lithophones

It may be pointed out that whilst lithophones have only been known to the Western world relatively recently, their existence was already common knowledge amongst the local tribes. For example, in 1942, some years prior to the discovery at Ndut Leng Krak, 12 lithophones were discovered by Bo Ren, a 10-year-old boy belonging to the Raglai tribe. The stones, which were later known as the Khanh Hoa Stones, only became known to be public in 1979, when they were handed over to the Khanh Hoa Museum.

Khanh Son Stone Instrument.

Khanh Son Stone Instrument. ( Easytours24h)

The Raglai tribe did not use lithophones as musical instruments. Instead, these stones were used as a kind of crop protector. Animals were deterred from foraging in cultivated fields, as the sounds produced by the instruments were able to scare them away. These crop protectors functioned in different ways. The Raglai, for instance, would hang the stones on a bamboo frame, thus turning the lithophones into a type of wind chime. Another way was to have the stones hung above a stream, with a striker attached to a paddle. The water current would cause the striker to hit the stone, thus producing a sound that frightened away would-be foragers.

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