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What is a Tambourine?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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)

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.

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.

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