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What is a Bodhran?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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