Virginia Cave Is The Largest Musical Instrument In The World

Hit something with a hammer, and it makes a sound. If you’re lucky, it might even make a pleasant sound, which is the idea behind the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia. The organ was created in 1954 by [Leland W. Sprinkle], who noticed that some stalactites (the ones that come down from the ceiling of the cave) would make a nice, pure tone when hit.

So, he did what any self-respecting hacker would do: he picked and carved 37 to form a scale and connected them to an electronic keyboard. The resonating stalactites are spread around a 3.5 acre (14,000 square meters) cave, but because it is in a cave, the sound can be heard anywhere from within the cave system, which covers about 64 acres (260,000 square meters). That makes it the largest musical instrument in the world.

We’ll save the pedants the trouble and point out that the name is technically an error — this is not a pipe organ, which relies on air driven into resonant chambers. Instead, it is a lithophone, a percussion instrument that uses rock as the resonator. You can see one of the solenoids that hits the rock to make the sound below.

This is also the sort of environment that gives engineers nightmares: a constant drip-drip-drip of water filled with minerals that love to get left behind when the water evaporates. Fortunately, the Stalacpipe Organ seems to be in good hands: according to an NPR news story about it, the instrument is maintained by lead engineer for the caverns [Larry Moyer] and his two apprentices, [Stephanie Beahm] and [Ben Caton], who are learning the details of maintaining a complex device like this.

Thanks for the tip, [Stephen Walters]

22 thoughts on “Virginia Cave Is The Largest Musical Instrument In The World

    1. They rarely actually play it the actual stone- many of the original notes have broken- most were cut to “tune” it. If you go, you will notice speakers all over the cave- they are where the sound comes from except on special occasions.

    2. We (the humans) have a talent to change this planet, mostly in harmfull ways. I also got an unpleasent feeling seeing the sawed stalactites.
      Seeing this is like seeing an orca swimming in an aquatic park, fin bent forever as a mark from the humans. Like the chopped stalactites.

      However, I wander how many undiscovered caves have beautiful features that will not be touched by light or seen by a human eye and will go with the crust to get melted in the earth’s core next milions of years?

    3. Even the people who the run cave are conflicted about it. All of laws protecting places didn’t exist back then; even the idea of keeping spaces “as they were” wasn’t popular. Even the Smithsonian Institute tried creating a cave organ.

      But also, these is very little historic in these cave systems. There was one skeleton found, thought to be 500 years old (at that time). But there will be no fossils or anything else.

      That part of these mountains are older than bones. Than trees. Than even leaves.

      An aside, I was there as a kid; either a family trip or a school field trip. It is gorgeous. The organ was slightly off-key, but haunting. If you could sneak away from a tour group, or walk at your own pace and dim the lights, you could see why the previous explorers were in awe of the cave system. But it was very commercialized back then, and that’s been many years.

  1. I’ve been to this place. At the time they were not operating the organ device out of concern that the sonic vibrations may have been damaging some of the more delicate features of the cave system. A little too “touristy” for my tastes nowadays, as well. But beautiful, nonetheless.

  2. My dad took me to this place in the early 1970’s and back then they did play the organ, just not for a long period of time. For a 11 year old kid, it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

  3. OK…pretty sure this is a joke, or a scam, depends of the fee you must pay to hear this !

    37 stalagtites were carved ?

    That makes for a 3 octaves keyboard, which is a bit more than the size of the pedal keyboard alone. Then you have the four standard keyboards with four octaves each. Looks like they put that church-organ console only to impress the audience, when a single three octaves keyboard would be enough but far less impressive.
    There are also a bunch of registration keys which are useless because…there is only one set of stalagtites, all delivering…a stalagtite sound !

    Then there is the problem with the sound unity as the stalagtites will not deliver the same sound level, not to mention they must be placed at very different locations.

    Plus the problem with a stalagtite not surviving a long time to vibrations and hits, even soft hits.

    1. It’s not quite as bad as you assume. They used an off-the-shelf solution for the keyboard and it was overspecked for the purpose. In some circumstances we would applaud that sort of thing.

      It’s a tourist attraction. They’re going to show it in the best light they can. And to be fair there isn’t a separate fee to see the organ, it’s just one stop on a large tour of an amazing cave system.

  4. The caves are cool, when i went the first time in the late 80’s there were guided tours that lasted about a half hour so you could not stop and really look at anything. But they did play the organ for about a minute for every tour group. When i took my family in 2010 they just let you loose in the cave for as long as you wanted which was much nicer. But they were playing recordings of the organ. I think you could purchase a cd of the recordings as you exit thru the gift shop. The transportation museum next to the caves was worth the extra $5 to see also.

  5. It’s horrible.
    I have been doing caving since 1982. Been to many caves. Russia, Ukraine, Abkhazia, Turkmenistan. I descended into the deepest cave in the world: the “Snezhnaya cave” system.
    But. But I have never seen such an attitude towards nature anywhere.
    Caves take many, many thousands of years to form. And so. A “MAN” came and decided to play music. Sounds bad? Let’s cut off a piece of stalactite! Now you can play: “Stairway to Heaven.” Hooray!
    I wonder how much the entrance ticket costs?

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