Also:       bull-roarer      rhombe      Schwirrholz      

Title: Cello America, volume 2--Adagio for Cello and Thunder Stick, by Henry Cowell; Roger Vetter, thunder stick (bullroarer). Label: Music & Arts. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD-685. Track: 8.

Contextual Associations

The bullroarer is a whirled non-idiophonic interruptive free aerophone historically found widely distributed throughout the world. While it is known that the bullroarer pictured and described here originated amongst the aboriginal people of the Xingu River (a tributary of the Amazon River) in the present day Brazilian province of Mato Grosso, it is not known from which particular group it was acquired. Therefore, much of the discussion to follow focusses on the cultural and historical background of bullroarers as a type of noise-making instrument rather than on the context of this particular bullroarer. (We will feature, whenever available, information about bullroarers in the Xingu River region of Brazil, but because of the interest ethnologists and anthropologists over the past 150 years have shown in bullroarers, their theories about the ritual importance of the bullroarer to life in small-scale indigenous societies will also be presented.) The bullroarer is neither a melodic nor a rhythmic instrument, but a mimetic one the mysterious sound of which was, and in some places still is, incorporated in ritual actions (e.g., male initiations, burials, rain-making) as either the voice of a supernatural being (ancestor, deity, spirit) or of the natural world itself (e.g., thunder). In many aboriginal cultures around the world, at least in the past, the instrument itself and the hearing of it was taboo to women and/or children. But in other times and contexts, the instrument is used to scare away animals or as a plaything. Amongst the indigenous peoples of the Xingu River region of Brazil, there were times when, in the past, the women and children of a village upon hearing the sound of the bullroarer as it was being sounded as part of a men’s ritual would run and hide for fear of losing their life. However, because of centuries of encroachment by outside religious, military, and economic forces, many of these associations have been greatly attenuated or disappeared altogether. 


Bullroarers, like the one pictured here, are almost always made from an elongated slat of locally-available wood. They vary greatly in their size, shape, and decoration. This bullroarer is quite long (close to 28 inches in length) in comparison to many bullroarers found around the world, but its basic pointed elliptical shape is found in many other cultures. The edges of this bullroarer are fairly sharp, but its central spine is relatively thick (detail #1). Its hand-whittled, relatively smooth faces are sparingly decorated with paint (bands of yellow paint have faded considerably and are barely visible), but it is not known what if any symbolic meaning these decorations are meant to convey. A narrow two-inch long slot has been carved from one end of the ellipse, and another inch below it a hole has been drilled through the wood (detail #2). One end of a cotton cord string is threaded through the hole and around the bottom end of the slot and tied into a knot. The remaining length of the cord is knotted into loops with its other end tied to the loop formed around the slot and hole, producing an approximately nine-inch length of cord. It is unclear if this cord is original to the instrument or, if it is, if this was its full length (it seems rather short for a slat as long as this).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Bullroarers are in general sounded by whirling them at the end of their string, the free end of which is held in one of the operator’s hands, in a circular plane parallel to the ground. This energy input stimulates another plane of rotation along the axis of the blade itself. It is the collision of the blade in its two modes of rotation against the open air that generates audible sound waves (the blade itself does-not vibrate, which is why it is labeled as ‘non-idiophonic’). The sound that is produced at any given moment is the result of a number of factors including the speed at which the blade is being rotated around the operator and the length of the string being used. These factors, along with the design of the blade itself, influence the rate of rotation along the axis of the blade. The sonic result of this is a continuous sound the volume and relative pitch of which increases and decreases in response to the energy input of the operator. Listening to the audio #1 clip will give you an idea of the sound of bullroarers.


The exact origin or origins of the bullroarer will likely never be known with certainty, but the musicologist and organologist Curt Sachs speculates that as a type of sound-producing instrument it is a product of the earliest stratum of instrument development by humans due to it having been found in paleolithic excavations and to its widely-scattered geographic distribution (Sachs, pp. 62-63). Unresolved debates remain as to whether the remarkable distribution and similarities in ritual use of this instrument are the result of monogenesis (spread from a single point of origin) or polygenesis (originated in multiple locales but served shared needs in human life); Sachs favored a monogenesis evolutionary path for the bullroarer, but does not speculate where this point of origin was or how and when the object and its associated cultural uses were transferred between peoples who eventually came to inhabit six of the world’s continents in prehistoric times. The bullroarer remains as mysterious as its own sound.

Bibliographic Citations

Izikowitz, Karl Gustav. 1970 (first publ. in 1935). Musical and Other Sound Instruments of the South American Indians—A Comparative Ethnographical Study. East Ardsley, England: S. R. Publishers Limited (1935 printing--Götebor: Elanders Boktryckeri Aktiebolag).

Marcuse, Sybil. 1975. A Survey of Musical Instruments. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Sachs, Curt. 1940. The History of Musical Instruments. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Wachsmann, Klause (with Mervyn McLean and Bruno Nettl)/ Don Niles, and J. Richard Haefer. 2014. “Bullroarer.” GDMI v.1: 431-432.

Zerres, Otto. 1953. “The Bull-Roarer among South American Indians,” Revista do Museu Paulista 7: 275-310.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: South America

Nation: Brazil

Formation: Aboriginal

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

412.22 aerophone--a non-idiophonic interruptive agent turns on its own axis while being whirled through free-standing air in a circular plane at the end of a string

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: no standing wave cavity

Source and direction of airstream: no airstream; an interruptive agent is thrust against stationary air

Energy transducer that activates sound: sharp edge of a rotating blade that is being whipped through the open air

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: not applicable

Overblowing utilization: not applicable

Pitch production: continuous modulating tone determined by rate at which interruptive agent is moving and rotating


27.8 in. length 3.7 in. greatest width .5 in. greatest thickness

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter