There are probably more theories about Stonehenge than there are archeology departments and archeologists within them who have had hot dinners, but a new one has emerged, effectively, that the stones are a prehistoric glockenspiel. They were chosen, says a new survey, for their acoustic qualities, which makes them “sing” when struck. Thus, Stonehenge, at 4,000 years old, could possibly be the earliest known source of rock music.
The team who came up with this musical interpretation were from the Royal College of Arts under the title of the Landscape and Perception Project. They found that the ancient bluestones, famously transported over 200 miles from faraway Wales, to remote Wiltshire, have an “exceptional sonic nature.”
By striking the stones and recording the sounds, the researchers found a variety of tones ranging from sounds resembling gongs, tin drums and bells. They conjecture that the circular formation also plays a part in the compositional possibilities. Leader of the study, Paul Devereux, says that sound is the one arena that has never previously been explored in hypotheses about Stonehenge and its purpose.
He found Stonehenge to be a “noteworthy soundscape” and invited percussionists to the site to create tunes, by tapping the monoliths with small hand-held hammers. Results were compared with rock tappings from over 1,000 other locations, and the bluestones at Stonehenge were the only ones to have these sonorous capabilities.
Noises of different pitch were detected at different places, and there was evidence that had been struck at before. The sounds are apparently quite distinctive, albeit muted. The range around the stone circle was so varied that the tones went all the way from metallic to wooden, making a cross between a glockenspiel and a xylophone.
The Royal College of Art investigators have no doubt that this is the answer to the ancient riddle as to why the giant rocks were carried so far, whilst there were, and are, plenty of stones and rocks in the area of the Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge remains an astounding landmark to this day. The resonance of the rocks from Wales were the requisite factor.
Whilst this was only a pilot study, the team believe they have plenty to go on, to build their theory of the singing stones. Jon Wozencroft, a member of the research group, is excited by the progress to date. He says they had asked themselves the question – what would the Stone Age mindset have made of the south-west Wales bluestones, when they first realized they could hit them and create these sounds? How did that then become important to the builders of Stonehenge, so that they simply had to have these particular lithophone stones for their great monument?
Wozencroft said, “It was a really magical discovery” and also, acknowledging the work to be done, that it was “refreshing to come across a phenomenon you can’t explain.” He had feared that the “acoustic bounce” may have been adversely affected when Stonehenge was set in concrete in the 1950s to preserve it. He suspects their clarity would have been greater before this. He surmises that the tunes would have been an early form of communication across distances.
Tim Darvill, a professor who has been involved with dozens of Stonehenge digs, admits that singing stones perform a role in many cultures. He said that soundscapes of pre-history were a relatively new field for exploration but a very interesting one.
In the part of Pembrokeshire where the original rocks were sourced, there is a village called Maenclochog which translates as “stone bells.” According to local lore there were stones to the south of the village which were “played” up until the eighteenth century. An earlier proponent of the singing stones theory, Bernard Fagg, has long thought that the ringing of the rocks in the Presili hills made it a sacred place for Stone Age peoples.
More recent rock bands who have associated with music at Stonehenge include, appropriately, the Rolling Stones. In Keith Richard’s autobiography, Life, he reminisces about the time they went there in 1967. He and Mick Jagger were photographed by Michael Cooper for a proposed album cover for Their Satanic Majesties Request. Bands that have featured the stones in their stage sets include Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.
The stones have long been closed to the public except for the summer and winter solstices, but back in the 1960s, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, along with Keith Moon of The Who, performed at the site with a song called Sun Ra. Hawkwind were given permission to perform there in 1984. This may have led to Stonehenge’s appearance in the spoof film This is Spinal Tap. Stretching the musical connections somewhat, there have even been suggestions that Elvis Presley had Welsh ancestors, and emanated from Preseli, the original mountain quarry location.
Those unable to travel all the way to Wiltshire to experience the wonders of Stonehenge have recently been able to enjoy it in a more mobile and people-friendly fashion. An inflatable version, first seen at the London Festival in 2012, and named Sacrilege, has been on a world tour. It was last seen in Hyde Park in Sydney in January as part of their festival. And yes, it was accompanied by music.
Stonehenge has been a source of fascination and speculation for centuries. The new theory that it was a musical venue for sacred singing stones adds to the ongoing debate as to why and for what it was first constructed.
By Kate Henderson