Skin Rocks: Integuments Made Into Instruments

Posted: August 2, 2022
Animals Art Biology

Toot, ding, boom, twang, plonk, boing, tiss, zzzz, daa. Many of the sounds that come out of musical instruments involve skin or materials that grow from skin. Since we’re hosting the Skin: Living Armor, Evolving Identity touring exhibition, we thought we’d [ahem] note some interesting implements made from various types of skin. And a 1 … 2 … 1, 2 ready go!

Image credit: Getty Images

Conch shell horns

  • The shells we refer to as conchs belong to several different species of giant sea snail, a type of mollusk.
  • The shell is secreted by the animal’s mantle—part of its skin—and grows with the animal. It’s made up of calcium carbonate crystals within an organic framework of proteins and sugars.
  • People have made trumpet-like horns from animal shells for at least 18,000 years!
  • Lots of people eat conch, but the shell is inedible, so why not make it into a musical instrument!?
  • The score for the 1979 film Alien, including the title track, included an Indian conch run through a tape delay machine.

Cocoon rattles

  • Cultures around the world use moth cocoons to make rattles.
  • A cocoon is the silken enclosure of certain moth species. As the caterpillar begins to pupate, it spins a silken web around itself as an added layer of protection while it metamorphoses into an adult.
  • To make the rattle, people either add small rocks, seeds or even the dried pupa left inside the silk.
  • Dancers add string to the cocoon rattles and strap them to their legs.

Horsehair bow

  • From the Chinese erhu to the Mongolian Morin Khuur to the Swedish ​​nyckelharpa, there are many stringed instruments worldwide that use a bow. Musicians also use a bow to play non-stringed instruments, like the saw and nail violin.
  • Bow hair typically comes from male horses.
  • Although there are synthetic bows, most professionals use real horse hair. The scales on the natural hair shaft help catch the strings of the instrument helping them to vibrate and produce sound.
  • Just like human hair, horse hair is made from the protein keratin. Keratin is also the protein in fingernails and horns of animals from goats to rhinos.
  • A bow maker, or archetier, typically uses between 150 and 200 hairs from the tail of a horse for a violin bow.


  • Although associated with Scottish Highlanders, bagpipes are found worldwide.
  • This woodwind instrument has a reservoir of air in the form of a bag, which was historically made from the hide of goats and sheep.
  • Bagpipes are aerophones, so once the musician starts playing, there will be continuous sound coming from the instrument (i.e. no breaks between notes). They produce sound by forcing air over a reed.
  • Bagpipes have been incorporated into songs by mainstream musicians such as AC/DC, U2 and Peter Gabriel.

Cow horn bugle

  • The original musical horn was … well … a horn, specifically an animal horn from animals such as sheep, cows and antelopes.
  • The horn bugle doesn't have any holes. The musician playing the horn makes changes in the sound using their lips.
  • Horns are a two-part structure on an animal’s head consisting of a keratinized sheath over a core of bone. Keratin is the same protein that makes up your fingernails and hair.
  • Antlers, by contrast, are a bony extension of an animal’s skull. When they first emerge, antlers are covered with a layer of skin called velvet, but this eventually rubs off leaving the bone behind. Antlered animals include deer, moose and elk.
  • Animals with horns typically do not shed them whereas animals with antlers frequently shed their antlers annually.


  • Percussion instruments come from around the world. They don’t use wind or reeds, but are struck with hands or mallets to produce sound.
  • They consist of at least one vibrating membrane, the drumhead–or drum skin–stretched over a resonating shell.
  • The drum skin was originally made from animal hides.
  • Changing the tension on the skin changes the pitch, or the vibrating frequency of the skin. The tighter the skin, the faster the membrane vibrates and the higher the pitch. Also, the smaller the drum, the higher the pitch.

There you go, rockstars! That list is a reminder that all types of music can come from skin instruments. Maybe you don’t see yourself trying any of these instruments anytime soon—we know not everyone has a set of bagpipes or a conch shell laying around—so why not try a tune using the skin instrument you do have: your lips. That’s right, we’re talking about whistling! Working in conjunction with various month parts, whistling is a way many humans can turn some of the skin on their face into a melody making musical instrument. Of course, just like with all instruments, some of us are better at it than others!