Surely each of us hears more music in a day than the average prehistoric human being heard in a lifetime. Then again, it depends on the definition of “music”: though what we listen to is undoubtedly more complex than what our distant ancestors listened to, our music descends from theirs just as we descend from them. And so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the musical instruments used in prehistoric times should sound vaguely familiar to us. Take, for instance, archaeologist and prehistoric music specialist Jean-Loup Ringot’s performance on the semicircle of stones known as a lithophone, or “rock gong.”
Lithophones, wrote Josh Jones on the instrument’s last appearance here on Open Culture, “have been found all over the African continent, in South America, Australia, Azerbaijan, England, Hawaii, Iceland, India, and everywhere else prehistoric people lived. Not the cultural property of any one group, the rock gong came, rather, from a universal human insight into the natural sonic properties of stone.”
A commenter on the video of Ringot playing the lithopone describes it as “reminiscent of the bonang,” the collection of small gongs set on strings that constitutes one of the defining instruments of the traditional Javanese percussion ensemble known as gamelan.
Even if you’ve never heard of gamelan or bonang, the sound of the lithophone — and its resemblance to that of instruments used in other traditional musics — may well resonate with you, so to speak. The main difference comes out of the materials: the gongs, or kettles, of a bonang are made from bronze, iron, or mixtures of other metals, while the lithophone generates sound with only what would have been available to the Flintstones. The use of such a naturally abundant substance has, of course, inspired many a modern wag to Flintstonian quips about lithophone players as the first “rockers.” Players of the real classic rock, in other words — not like all the junk that has come out in the last few millennia. But then, don’t we all prefer the early stuff?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.