The Full Wiki

Bullroarer (music): Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bullroarers from Africa, in the Pitt Rivers Museum

The bullroarer,[1] rhombus, or turndun, is an ancient ritual musical instrument and means of communicating over extended distances. It dates back to the Paleolithic period, being found in Ukraine dating from 17,000 B.C. It is found in Europe, Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Africa, the Americas, and Australia.[2]

In ancient Greece it was a sacred instrument used in the Dionysian Mysteries and is still used in rituals worldwide.[3]

Along with the didgeridoo, it is prominent technology among Australian Aborigines, used in ceremony across the continent.

The bullroarer is sometimes used as a means of demonstrating the Doppler effect in sound waves. As the instrument travels around its circular path, its perceived pitch will, to a third party, appear to rise and fall as it moves closer and farther away, respectively.


Design, use, and sound

It consists of a weighted aerofoil, a rectangular slat of wood about 15 cm (6 in) to 60 cm (24 in) long and about 1.25 cm (0.5 in) to 5 cm (2 in) wide, attached to a long cord.

The cord is given a slight initial twist, and the roarer is then swung in a large circle in a horizontal plane. The aerodynamics of the roarer will keep it spinning about its axis even after the initial twist has unwound. The cord winds fully first in one direction and then the other.

It makes a characteristic roaring vibrato sound with notable modification from both Doppler effect and the changing speed of the roarer at different parts of its circuit.

By modifying the expansiveness of its circuit and the speed given it, the modulation of the sound can be controlled, making the coding of information possible. The low frequency component of the sound travels extremely long distances, especially on the wind.

In culture

North American Indian Bullroarers.
BullRoarerNavajo1910.jpg BullRoarerApache1892.jpg BullRoarerGrosVentre1908.jpg
tsín dī'nĭ
"groaning stick"[4]
"sounding wood"[5]
Gros Ventre
"making cold"[6]

This instrument has been used by numerous early and traditional cultures in both the northern and southern hemispheres but in the popular consciousness it is perhaps best known for its use by Australian Aborigines (it is from one of their languages that the name turndun comes).


Australian Aboriginal culture

Bullroarers have accompanied the didgeridoos in initiation ceremonies and in burials to ward off evil spirits, bad tidings, and even women and children.

Bullroarers are considered secret men's business by some Aboriginal tribal groups, and hence taboo for women, children, non-initiated men and/or outsiders to even hear. They are used in men's initiation ceremonies and the sound they produced is considered by some Indigenous cultures to represent the sound of the Rainbow Serpent. In the cultures of South-East Australia, the sound of the bullroarer is the voice of Daramulan, and a successful bullroarer can only be made if it has been cut from a tree containing his spirit.

In 1987, Midnight Oil included a recording of a bullroarer on their album Diesel and Dust (at the beginning of the song, Bullroarer) inadvertently causing offence to the Aboriginal people of Central Australia from whom the recording was taken.

The bullroarer can also be used as a tool in Aboriginal art.

Bullroarers have sometimes been referred to as "wife-callers" by Australian Aborigines.

A bullroarer is used by Paul Hogan in the 1988 film Crocodile Dundee II. John Antill included one in the orchestration of his ballet Corroboree.

Bull-Roarers from the British Islands.[7]

British Isles

In the British Islands, the bullroarer—under a number of different names and styles—is used chiefly for amusement, although formerly it may have been used for ceremonial purposes.[8] In parts of Scotland it was known as a "thunder-spell" and protected against being struck by lightning.[9] In the novel Gentian Hill, set in Devonshire, Great Britain in the early 19th century, a bullroarer figures as a toy cherished by Sol, an elderly farm labourer, who being non-verbally gifted uses it occasionally to express strong emotion; however, the sound it makes is perceived as being both eerie and unlucky by two other main characters, Stella and Zachary, who have an uneasy sense that ominous spirits of the air ("Them") are being invoked by its whirring whistle. [10]


The Dogon use bullroarers to announce the beginning of ceremonies conducted during the Sigui festival held every sixty years over a seven year period. It has been identified as being the voice of an ancestor from whom all Dogon are descended.

North American Indian

Almost all the Indian tribes in North America used bullroarers in religious and healing ceremonies and as toys. There are many styles.


  1. ^ Haddon, The Study of Man, p. 219: "Prof. E. B. Tylor informs me that the name of 'bull-roarer' was first introduced into anthropological literature by the Rev. Lorimer Fison, who compares the Australian tundun to 'the wooden toy which I remember to have made as a boy, called a 'bull-roarer',' and this term has since been universally adopted as the technical name for the implement." [Fison and Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, 1880. p. 267.]
  2. ^ Gregor, Thomas. Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People. University Of Chicago Press (1987). p. 106 "Today we know that the bullroarer is a very ancient object, specimens from France (13,000 B.C.) and the Ukraine (17,000 B.C.) dating back well into the Paleolithic period. Moreover, some archeologists—notably, Gordon Willey (1971,20)—now admit the bullroarer to the kit-bag of artifacts brought by the very earliest migrants to the Americas."
  3. ^ Bayley, Harold. The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Inquiry into the Origin of Certain Letters, Words, Names, Fairy-Tales, Folklore, and Mythologies Book Tree (2000). p. 86: "The bullroarer, used always as a sacred instrument, is still employed n New Mexico, the Malay Peninsula, Ceylon, New Zealand, Africa, and Australia, and under the name of Rhombus it figured prominently in the Mysteries of Ancient Greece."
  4. ^ Fransciscan Fathers, An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language, p. 414.
  5. ^ Powell, Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 477: "Fig. 430.—Rhombus of the Apache."
  6. ^ Kroeber, "Ethnology of the Gros Ventre", p. 190: "Fig. 26 (50-1788). Bull-roarer, Length, 56 cm."
  7. ^ Haddon, The Study of Man, p. 221: "Fig 38. Bull-Roarers from the British Islands."
  8. ^ Haddon, The Study of Man,p 225: "Those given to me were made for me, and may not represent the common form of bull-roarer in the north-east corner of Ireland. My informant stated that once when, as a boy, he was playing with a 'boomer' an old country woman said it was a 'sacred' thing."
  9. ^ Haddon, The Study of Man, p. 222: "It was believed that the use of this instrument [thunder-spell] during a thunder-storm saved one from being struck with 'the thun'er-bolt'."
  10. ^ Goudge, Elizabeth. Gentian Hill, New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1946, pp. 71-72, 168, 315-321, 346-348, 354.

Other sources

  • Franciscan Fathers. An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language. Saint Michaels, Arizona: Navajo Indian Mission (1910.
  • Haddon, Alfred C. The Study of Man. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons (1898).
  • Kroeber, A.L. "Ethnology of the Gros Ventre", Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History pp. 145-283. New York: Published by Order of the Trustees (1908).
  • Powell, J.W. (Director). Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1887-'88. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office (1892).
  • Hart, Mickey Planet Drum, A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm pp. 154-155. New York: HarperCollins (1991).

See also


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address