Thursday, March 14, 2013



Free Aerophone
Ever since prehistoric times, the bull-roarer has been a symbol of fertility with evidence of them found in Paleolithic sites. The sound of the bull-roarer is said to be the voice of an ancestor, a spirit, or a deity. This is very important as this plays a role in certain rites of passage in some areas of the world. It is still found in some areas of each continent and the Pacific. The bull-roarer is almost exclusively used in rituals with virtually no evidence that it has ever been used as part of a purely musical activity. The bull-roarer has been studied by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, because of its ties to rituals and magic ceremonies. This instrument is also known by the names thunder stick or whizzer.
Made from slabs of wood, rhomboid in shape, and some times carved, the bull-roarer pierced with a small hole at one of the ends where a length of cord is attached. The performer holds this piece of chord in his/her hand and the wood is twirls the bull-roarer in the air.
The sound is produced by vibrations of the bull-roarer as it spins in the air. In some cultures the composition of the instrument can result in a sound similar to that of a bull, the howling of an animal or spirit, or thunder. Changes in the speed and angle to the ground can change the sonority so that the performer can produce the sounds of a whimper, scream, moan, or roar.
There is no standard pitch range for the bull-roarer, as they are typically one of a kind instruments. However, changing the velocity of the spin of the bull-roarer and the size of the instrument effects the relative pitch. A smaller bull-roarer can be spun faster resulting in a higher pitch. A larger instrument, spinning at a slower speed, results in a lower pitch.


Making a Bull-roarer

Wind Science

Using Aboriginal Technology

The bull-roarer
 has long been used by the Australian Aborigines in rituals and as a simple method of communication over long distances. When swung around above your head the bull-roarer creates a fantastic roaring vibrato sound that changes throughout its circuit.

To start you need a piece of wood about as long as your hand and 3 - 4 fingers wide is a good size although bull-roarers have been made in a variety of different sizes, some as long as 60 cm!

Now that you have your plank of wood you can shave each side smoother and to a desired thickness. 
Begin to give your wood a bit of shape. Draw on an outline as a guide if you wish.
Carve the basic shape until happy that both sides are symmetrical.

You now need to carve your bull-roarer so that when you look at it 
from the end the cross section will be like this:
That’s the basic bull-roarer made! 
All you need to do now is attach a string and give it a whirl! 
You can sand the wood if you wish but that is not essential.

Make a small whole with the point of your knife through which you can tie your string. 
Be careful not to split the wood when doing this!

Tie the string on to complete the bull-roarer!


The test:

Hold the end of your string good and tight and let the wood dangle. 
Give it an initial spin and then swing it up and above your head. Roar!!!!! 
The faster you go the louder the roar. 
Due to the shape of the bull-roarer it will keep spinning and roaring after the initial spin. 
Have fun and be safe!
Hear and see a bull-roarer in action:
How to Make a Primitive Bull-Roarer

Corwen ap Broch

And bull-voices roar thereto from somewhere out of the unseen, there are fearful semblances...  
From an image as it were the sound of thunder underground is borne on the air heavy with dread."
~Aeschylus, describing the sound of the bull-roarer in the rituals of the Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult.

Although widely thought of as an Aboriginal Australian instruments, the bull-roarer is one of the few musical instruments known on every continent. Bull-roarers of tremendous antiquity have been found, and it must be considered part of our common human heritage.

How to Make
Find a fairly well seasoned log or branch at least 8" long, and up to 2' long. A tree that has died standing up, or a branch that has fallen but has been caught up in other branches and kept off the ground are good things to look for. Alternatively you could use bought timber, but it will have less  soul. I used a piece of birch wood someone had cut down by the roadside, sawed to length. (fig 1)
make a bullroarer, sawing
Split the log slightly off center with an axe, or better still a billhook, cleaver or splitting froe, and then split it again to make a thin billet of wood from the center of the log.  I'm using a billhook (fig 2).
make a bullroarer, splitting
The thinner you can make this now, down to a minimum of about 1/3," the less carving and sanding to do later. Obviously be careful with sharp tools. Hopefully you'll end up with a thin billet (fig3).
make a bullroarer, billet
Pare the billet roughly flat, narrow it and shape the ends into a pleasant curve with a knife or draw-knife. The finished bull-roarer should be between 6" and 2' long, and between 1" and 2 1/2" wide, and between 1/4" and 1/2" thick (fig 4).
make a bullroarer, paring
Make a hole at one end with a hand auger, knife tip, bow drill, hand drill or power drill (if you must!), or alternatively burn a hole with a small poker. The hole should be big enough to get your chosen cord through. I used the point of my knife to make a hole. If you wish, sand the bull-roarer as smooth as you like, starting with 60 or 80 grit sandpaper and working your way through 120, 180  to 240 will make it very smooth quite quickly. Decorate it if you wish by carving or pressing a design into it with a knife or chisel, or burning it in with a hot piece of iron. A carved design can be picked out with paint made from soot or earth color mixed with fat or oil.

Make or buy some cord. A thin flexible cord works best, but must be strong enough not to break when continually twisted and untwisted. I have found hemp string is best. Fine string may need to be pre-twisted before the bull-roarer will sound. Tie the bull-roarer to the end of the string with a knot that will allow it to turn freely, and won't pull off center. Perhaps tie a wrist loop in the other end, or secure it to a piece of wood to use as a handle. (fig 5)
make a bullroarer, finished
How to Play
First some thoughts on health and safety. The bull-roarer is whirled with considerable force and speed. Although even a large bull-roarer is not heavy, it has a thin edge that can hurt. Always make sure you have enough space around you. Strong winds stop the bull-roarer from sounding and can make it blow into you. Make sure that you grip the string firmly, if it slips out of your hands the bull-roarer can fly a considerable distance! Perhaps tie a loop around your wrist if you are in any doubt. Lastly inspect the string for wear, and check that the knot securing it to the bull-roarer is secure. Replace a worn string before using the bull-roarer.

To start swing it in a circle. The bull-roarer probably won't sound immediately, it will need to gain some twist first, but if it doesn't sound after 30 seconds or so stop and put about a dozen turns of twist into the string. You can roll the bull-roarer over in your hand, or roll it along your thigh to twist the string, start it spinning quickly before all the twist is lost.

It is easiest to keep it going for a long time by twirling the bull-roarer in a circle beside you, but a large bull-roarer may need to be twirled above your head. Watch out, because as the twist winds and unwinds, the bull-roarer will tend to angle first towards you, and then away. Keep it at arms length.

Speeding up and slowing down, along with the length of string you give it will affect the sound you get, as will the general acoustic, the wind and any other bull-roarers around. If you are feeling adventurous try twirling one in each hand, in the manner of poi. It makes quite a sound.

make a bullroarer, twirling

How to Use
With its unearthly sound the bull-roarer has commonly been used in ritual to signify the presence of spirits, whether this be a Turndun played during an Australian Aboriginal initiation, a Rhombos played in ancient Greek rituals, a Maori Purerehua, or a Basque Toulouhou played during a Catholic festival to symbolise the presence of the Devil...

The ultra low frequency sound generated by a bull-roarer is known to have effects on brainwaves and the instrument can be used as a tool to help produce an altered state of consciousness. The combination of rhythmic movement, the strobe effect of the string passing in front of the eyes, and of course the sound itself with its characteristic doppler 'whoop' all combine to make the bull-roarer very hypnotic for both the 'whirler' and the 'audience'. A medium sized or small bull-roarer can be sounded continuously for a long time, although adding a wooden handle to the end of the string reduces wear on the fingers!

Corwen is a musician and musical instrument maker, specialising in the ancient instruments of Northern Europe. He also plays with his partner Kate Fletcher in the duo


Build a Bull-Roarer

Bull-roarers are fun! Native people groups in many countries, including those in southern Europe, use them in different ways. By twirling a bull-roarer in circles, you can use it to play music or to send messages.
Follow these steps to make your own bull-roarer:
What you need:
• paint stirrer
• sandpaper
• drill
• 2-foot length of Parachute cord (also called “paracord” or “550 cord”), or leather lace
• marker
What you do:
1. Sand the paint stirrer.
2. About an inch from one end of the paint stirrer, drill a hole large enough for the cord to go through. (Caution: Always use adult supervision when using drill.)
3. Pull the cord through the hole. Tie it off with a double knot.
4. You may want to tie a hand loop into your cord to make it easier to hold.
5. Decorate your bull-roarer.
6. Grab the rope end of your bull-roarer and swing it in large circles. It will make a neat whirring sound!
Tip: Use this toy outside only! Be careful not to hit others, or yourself, as you swing it around.



Materials you need are: 

a thin strong length of timber (like a meter ruler) 

a length of string

Tie the string to the length of timber as shown in the diagram below. 
Hold it above your head and swing it around as fast as you can 
and as long as you can.
Bullroarer Diagram

The movement of the timber through the air creates a deep droning sound. Indigenous Australian men used the bull-roarer to summon tribesmen to meetings.