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What is a Tambourine?

A tambourine is a musical instrument that belongs to the percussion family. It's a handheld frame drum with pairs of small metal jingles, known as zills. When shaken or struck, it produces a bright, rhythmic jingle that complements a variety of music genres. Curious about how this simple instrument can elevate a song? Let's explore its vibrant history and uses.
Jane Harmon
Jane Harmon

A tambourine is a small hand drum made by stretching a thin animal skin or parchment over a wooden ring. The frame has several pairs of metal discs set loosely in it so that when shaken, the disks clash together like cymbals, making a pleasant jingling noise. Striking the drumhead with your knuckles will give you both the sound of the drum and the jingle of the disks. Rubbing your hand briskly across the drumhead will produce a whisking noise.

The tambourine's origins are lost in antiquity; it is mentioned often in the Old Testament as an instrument of celebration, as here: "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing." (Exodus 15:20)

A woman dressed as a gypsy playing a tambourine.
A woman dressed as a gypsy playing a tambourine.

It is typically thought of as a 'woman's instrument', since it is light and can be played while dancing, so that a dancer can provide her own accompaniment. Thus the stereotypical image of the 'gypsy dancing girl', with swirling skirts, dangling earrings and a tambourine held over her head as she twirls in the firelight of a gypsy encampment.

Ancient shamans used an instrument very much like a tambourine to invoke altered states of awareness and speak to spirits; these did not employ metal disks to jingle but would have beads of various materials attached to the frame with strips of leather or twine. The frame could be shaken to cause the beads to strike the drumhead.

Striking the drumhead of the tambourine with your knuckles will give you both the sound of the drum and the jingle of the disks.
Striking the drumhead of the tambourine with your knuckles will give you both the sound of the drum and the jingle of the disks.

Tambourines today are mainly associated with folk and ethnic music; almost every culture has had an instrument very similar to today's tambourine. It is less prevalent in so-called 'classical' music; that is, the popular music of the previous few centuries.

Wooden rings with inset 'jingles' that do not have a percussion skin are also called tambourines. Their sound is invariably upbeat; it is difficult to imagine a dirge with tambourines.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a tambourine and how is it used in music?

A tambourine is a musical instrument in the percussion family that is typically round and covered with a drumhead on one side, with small metal discs called jingles set into its frame. It is played by shaking, striking, or thumb rolling to produce a combination of percussive tones from the head and bright, shimmering sounds from the jingles. Tambourines are used across various music genres, from classical and folk to pop and rock, adding rhythm and embellishment to compositions.

Can a tambourine be played as a solo instrument?

While commonly used as an accompaniment, the tambourine can indeed be played as a solo instrument. Skilled players can elicit a wide range of sounds and rhythms, making it suitable for solo performances, especially within folk and classical music settings. Solo tambourine pieces often showcase complex techniques like shaking, striking, and finger rolls to create intricate musical passages.

What are the different types of tambourines available?

There are several types of tambourines, each with unique features suited to different musical styles. The most common include the classic concert tambourine, often used in orchestras; the crescent or half-moon tambourine, popular in rock and pop music; and the tunable tambourine, which allows for changing the tension of the head. Ethnic variations like the Brazilian pandeiro or the Italian tamburello also exist, reflecting cultural musical traditions.

How do you maintain and care for a tambourine?

Maintaining a tambourine involves keeping it clean, dry, and stored properly. Wipe the head and frame with a dry cloth to remove dust and moisture, and avoid exposing it to extreme temperatures or humidity, which can warp the frame or damage the head. Periodically check the tightness of the jingles and the integrity of the head, and replace them if necessary to ensure the best sound quality.

Are there any notable musicians known for their tambourine playing?

Several musicians are renowned for their tambourine skills. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac is famous for incorporating the tambourine into her performances, while Davy Jones of The Monkees often played the instrument on stage and in television performances. In the realm of classical music, tambourine players within prestigious orchestras, although not typically household names, are highly skilled at executing complex rhythms and techniques integral to orchestral pieces.

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    • A woman dressed as a gypsy playing a tambourine.
      By: Wisky
      A woman dressed as a gypsy playing a tambourine.
    • Striking the drumhead of the tambourine with your knuckles will give you both the sound of the drum and the jingle of the disks.
      By: Stocksnapper
      Striking the drumhead of the tambourine with your knuckles will give you both the sound of the drum and the jingle of the disks.