A semi-analytical finite element for the free vibration analysis of multi-layered composite conical shells based on a discrete layer theory is developed. Piecewise approximations for the in-plane displacements and constant transverse displacement in the thickness direction are made use of. Fourier expansions are used in the circumferential direction. Results obtained by using this element are compared with those existing in the literature for multi-layered orthotropic (thin and thick) and sandwich shells with different boundary conditions. Good agreement is found between them. © 1993 Academic Press Limited.