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What is a Bodhran?

The bodhrán is an enchanting Irish drum, central to traditional Celtic music. With its distinctive, deep resonance, this frame drum is played with a tipper, inviting listeners into the heart of Ireland's cultural heritage. Its rhythmic beats are a storyteller's companion, echoing tales of history and folklore. Curious about its origins and how to play? Let's explore the bodhrán's captivating world together.
Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

The bodhran is a round frame drum played in Irish traditional music. Most bodhrans are approximately one foot (30cm) in diameter. A skin is stretched tightly across one side of the instrument to be struck to create sound, while the other side is left exposed to change the pitch with ones hand. This skin was traditionally made from goat, but is more often made from synthetic materials in modern times.

The origins of the instrument are open to some debate, as the first written records of a bodhran date from the early twentieth century, while many claim it originated much longer ago than that. One commonly accepted idea bout its origin is that it migrated to Ireland from either Asia or Africa, arriving with the Celtic migrations to Ireland from Europe. It was then relegated to a life as an instrument of war, used in much the same way as other war drums in various cultures around the world.

The skin on a bodhran was traditionally made from goat.
The skin on a bodhran was traditionally made from goat.

Eventually, the bodhran began being used as a simple noisemaker, with little or no rhythmic aspect, at harvest festivals and other celebrations. It wasn't until the 1960s that it made its way into traditional Irish music, when the musician Sean O'Riada of the Chieftains began using a bodhran in traditional arrangements. The instrument quickly gained popularity, and by the 1970s was appearing in many traditional musical groups, as well as informal music sessions.

Bodhrans can be played with three main hand styles and five main stick styles. In each of the hand styles, the right hand is used to strike the head of the drum, while the left hand is spread across the back of the skin to modulate the resulting pitch. The hand styles differ in how the striking is achieved, which parts of the hand — knuckles, fingers or palm — are used, and how many fingers are used.

In the stick styles of playing, a stick is used to produce the sound. A stick may have one or two heads, and may be struck straight or rolled on to the surface of the drum skin. The most common playing style, called Kerry style, is played with a two-headed stick. The bottom head is used to produce the rhythmic beat of the tune, while the top head produces ornamentations and rolls.

The etymology of the word bodhran is a bit contested, given the uncertainty as to the instrument's origins. Those who believe it has a history dating back not much further than the twentieth century often hold that it is a shortening of the word tambourine to bourine, later shifted to bodhran. The word is properly pronounced BOW-rawn, though different dialects have slightly different pronunciations (BORE-on, boh-RAHN, and BOH-rahn, for example). A commonly accepted etymology for this word links it to the Gaelic word bodhar which means deaf or dull sounding, alluding to the dulled sound the instrument makes when struck.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a bodhrán and where does it originate from?

The bodhrán is a traditional Irish frame drum that dates back at least to the 17th century, though its origins may be even older. It consists of a circular wooden frame, over which an animal skin is stretched. The player uses a beater called a tipper to strike the skin, producing a deep, resonant sound that is integral to Irish folk music. The bodhrán is deeply rooted in Irish culture and has become a symbol of Celtic music worldwide.

How is the bodhrán played?

The bodhrán is played by holding it vertically with one hand and striking the skin with the tipper held in the other hand. Skilled players can produce a variety of tones and rhythms by varying the strike technique, pressure, and position on the skin. Some players also use their hand to apply pressure on the inside of the skin to control the pitch and timbre, adding to the instrument's expressive capabilities.

What differentiates the bodhrán from other frame drums?

While the bodhrán is a type of frame drum, it is distinguished by its deep shell and the playing technique involving the tipper. Unlike many frame drums that are played with the fingers or palms, the bodhrán's use of a beater allows for a unique range of rhythmic patterns and dynamics. Additionally, the ability to modulate the pitch by applying pressure on the inside of the drumhead sets it apart from other frame drums.

Can the bodhrán be used in music genres other than Irish folk?

Yes, the bodhrán has transcended its traditional roots and is now used in a variety of music genres beyond Irish folk. Its rich, earthy tones and versatile rhythmic potential have found a place in world music, fusion genres, and even in some contemporary pop and rock music arrangements. The instrument's adaptability has allowed it to become a favorite among percussionists looking to add a unique sound to their palette.

What should I look for when choosing a bodhrán?

When choosing a bodhrán, consider the drum's size, frame depth, skin type, and tunability. A typical size ranges from 14 to 18 inches in diameter, with deeper frames providing a lower pitch. Goatskin is a traditional choice for the skin, known for its warm tone, but synthetic options are available for greater durability and weather resistance. Tunable bodhráns allow you to adjust the skin tension for different sounds, which can be beneficial for playing in various environments and climates.

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    • The skin on a bodhran was traditionally made from goat.
      By: LittleSteven65
      The skin on a bodhran was traditionally made from goat.