Tambourine: What is a Tambourine? (Definition and History of Tambourine Musical Instrument)

Tambourine Definition, Information, and History of Tambourine Musical Instrument
Tambourine Definition, Information, and History of Tambourine Musical Instrument

What is a Tambourine?

The tambourine is probably one of the easiest and most fun musical instruments to play anywhere in the world. If you have any rhythm at all, and sometimes even if you don’t, you, too, can play a tambourine. The instrument’s name actually comes from “tambourin” which is a French derivation of the word “tambour” which means “drum”. Accordingly, the tambourine belongs in the percussion family. The instrument itself typically consists of a frame, generally made from plastic or wood, with several pairs of small metal pieces that are made to jingle called zils. Classically speaking, the term tambourine usually refers to an instrument which has a drum head. However, some varieties have no head at all, having only the frame and zils.

Tambourines can be played by either being held in the hand and hitting or tapping the instrument or they can be mounted on a stand like cymbals in a drum set. When mounted, the instrument can be played by hitting it with drumsticks. When held, a tambourine can be tapped against the body, jingled, struck, or shook in order to produce sound. It is typically played by either the drummer or lead singer in modern music, depending on how it is played.

A tambourine can come in a variety of shapes, but the most common shape for it is circular. This particular instrument is actually quite popular and can be found in a multitude of different genres of music, such as rock, pop, gospel, samba, Persian, classical, as well as many types of folk music, including Italian, Greek, and Turkish. The tambourine is used in a variety of music styles all over the world and in many cultures; in fact, it has been even around since back in ancient times.

Introduction and History of Tambourine


Tambourines originated in the Far East and can be traced back as far back as Mesopotamia, the Middle East, India, where it was referred to as the Hebrew tof, and even Ancient Greece and Rome, referred to there as typanum or tympanon, where they were used for religious functions in cults dedicated to goddesses, such as Cybele, Isis, and Astarte. Large framed versions of the tambourine were used in temple rituals in Ancient Sumer as well.

Today tambourines still remain popular in Middle East folk music, often used as an accompaniment for Quran recitations. Several varieties of the instrument exist, such as the da irah, tar, bandir, and duff. These instruments are still typically played by women in religious and temple ceremonies as well as at funerals, during festivities, and in processions.

In the thirteenth century, Crusaders brought the tambourine to Europe. There it was referred to as a tymbre, and it was still largely played by women, using the instrument to accompany their songs and dances. During the Middle Ages the instrument was fairly common all over Europe, including France, Spain, where the instrument was called a pendereta, and Italy where its importance as a folk instrument has endured over the years.

The tambourine’s popularity during the Middle Ages wasn’t confined to just Europe, however. The instrument has been found to have been popular in a variety of other cultures as well, such as Asia, Greenland, Peru, India, and China.

The medieval version of this instrument generally consisted of either a round or rectangle shaped flat wood frame consisting of a single head with the underside open. At regular intervals, pairs of jingles were spaced out in the shell with a total of four or more pairs. The jingles which were used back then were quite a bit larger than those used today and were thicker as well. Additionally, some tambourines would have small bells instead of the jingles or, at times, would be added in addition to the jingles for extra sound. Other objects were often fixed on the frame as well to produced a rattling noise.

The medieval instrument was played pretty much the same as its predecessor was played, by either striking it with the flat of the hand or with the fingers. In carvings and paintings from the medieval period, tambourines were often depicted to have been played by angels and other religious beings. In addition, the instrument was a favorite of wondering entertainers, ballad singers, and troubadours.

Reentering Europe during the eighteenth century, the modern tambourine was used in Turkish Janissary musical bands which where in vogue at the time. The instrument was know as a tabret or timbrel at this time. However, the tambourine wasn’t the only instrument to be referred to as a timbrel at this time.

The name “timbrel” was also applied to other types of framed drums as well, for instance, a framed drum with either one or two heads in addition to a model with a closed wooden bottom. These types of timbrels were struck with either wooden sticks, such as drum sticks, or with the hand. Some illustrations also show timbrels with a single snare crossing the head, suggesting that the string may have been plucked to produce another tone/sound.

In The Orchestra

The tambourine was already being played in concerts in conjunction with other instruments, specifically during special occasions, during the Middle Ages. However, during the eighteenth century, the tambourine found a new genre and a new stage when it was admitted into the orchestra by Janissary music.

Janissary music, which was hugely popular in European courts, was also referred to as Turkish music. This was because the Turkish military established musical Janissaries, which were elite corps of royal bodyguards. Janissary music brought, along with the tambourine, a great variety of drums and bells, such as the cymbals, triangle, and bass drum, to the attention of a much wider audience when the instruments were introduced into the orchestra.

It was at this time that the instrument which was basically a small drum became known as the tambourine. Some of the first orchestral works to include the tambourine were Echo und Narziss by Christoph Willibald Guck in 1779 and Deutsche Tanze by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1787.

Unfortunately, the inconsistency of the tambourine’s spelling led to confusion in several scores of music where the instrument was mistaken for the tambourin. The tambourin was actually a tubular drum made out of light wood with a single head which was played with one hand and is still used in the south of France in their brand of folk music.

Other orchestral uses of the tambourine were such as Carl Maria von Weber’s Preziosa where he used it to represent the life of gypsies. Additionally, the tambourine was used to epitomize Spanish flair in Carmen by George Bizet in 1875. It is because of this exact function, accentuating the rhythm while creating a bright, musical background, for which the tambourine has been used in a variety of orchestral works since the mid nineteenth century.

Techniques – Mounted

There are basically two ways to play and/or hold a tambourine; you can simply hold it or you can mount it, like a drum or cymbal, on a stand.

Mounting can be easily achieved; the tambourine is simply mounted as part of a drum set, playing it with drum sticks as the other mounted instruments, such as drums and cymbals. Most drummers who use a tambourine have it mounted to the high hat stand so that it can be used anytime without having to hold it.

A mounted tambourine can also be used for keeping time or can be used in conjunction with or intermittently to the high hat, depending on how the drummer wishes to play it. The mounted tambourine can be played exactly the same way as a high hat but with different effects and sounds.

Most tambourines are already designed to either screw to another piece of hardware or to be mounted and to be held in the hands, being played traditionally, as well. However, when purchasing a tambourine, be sure to get what you want; check for the ability to mount it if that’s how you’ll be playing.

Will you want to mount your tambourine and play it with drum sticks or will you want the versatility of being able to both mount it and play it by hand? Decide first before you shop for a tambourine; it’s really best to have the versatility of both if you’re not sure you’ll always wanted it mounted.

Techniques – Hand Playing

There are a variety of techniques with which to play a tambourine if you choose to play it by hand. The following are three of the most common methods of playing:

  • The standard striking technique consists of striking the instrument with your hand. This technique can also be achieved by striking the tambourine against your body.
  • The thumb-roll technique consists of the thumb, or finger, moving over the rim or skin of the instrument in order to generate a quick roll from the jingles. This method takes a little more practice, experience, and skill. In addition, the middle finger or thumb of the opposite hand is used to run around the drum of the tambourine about a half inch from the rim while applying pressure. When performed properly, the thumb bounces along quickly, generating the roll. Those who master this technique can achieve a continual roll by moving their thumb in the pattern of the figure eight around the drum.
  • The shake-roll technique simply consists of rapidly rotating the hand holding the instrument back and forth while pivoting the wrist.

However, in order to play the tambourine with any of these methods correctly, you will need to hold the instrument properly.

The proper way to hold a tambourine is by placing it in your non-dominant hand, which may seem like the opposite of how you should hold it, but not for this technique. If you’re right-handed, put in your left and vice versa. Wrap your fingers around the instrument’s frame, resting your thumb easily against the head or along the top edge if there’s no head, striking the tambourine with your other hand, the dominant one (now you see why.)

Another common technique, however, is to place the instrument in your dominant hand tapping the instrument against your leg, hip, or even the heel of your other hand. Whichever way feels more natural to you is probably the best technique for you. Just remember, applying pressure on the instrument can mute the sound, so to get the best sound, the loudest sound, out of your tambourine, be sure to hold it gently and stay aware as to not tighten your grip while playing.

The Modern Tambourine

The modern tambourine has been used in a variety of popular music. In rock and roll, the instrument is most often played by a band’s lead singer who shakes it while they play. Many famous musicians have played a tambourine while singing, such as Davy Jones, Taylor Momsen, Tim Booth, Roger Daltry, Stevie Nicks, Ray Thomas, Gene Clark, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Jim Morrison, Mike Love, Freddie Mercury, and Mick Jagger, just to name a few.

Lead singers aren’t the only ones to play the tambourine, either. Many drummers and percussionists have also played the instrument, having mounted in their sets, such as Tre Cool, Don Henley, Neil Peart, Sheila E, Lenny Castro, Mick Fleetwood, Maureen Tucker, Phil Collins, Roger Taylor, Ringo Starr, and Larry Mullen of U2 who mounts his above his cymbals.

The tambourines used in today’s rock music are generally drumless. Instead, they’re just a ring of jingles with no head. There’s a popular brand called the Rhythm Tech and their crescent shaped tambourine is one of the most commonly used in today’s rock, but the brand has been around awhile. In fact, the very first one made is on display in the Museum of Modern Art.

Tambourines were also made popular by some of the bands who used them, like the Beatles. Some of the most influential percussionists of all-time, such as Glen Velez who won multiple Grammy’s, was fond of the tambourine as well. It’s versatility, ease of playing, and unique sound combine to bring songs to life. Velez became so popular, that his performances and teaching inspired a drum company to develop a line of tambourines named after him.

The Tambourine in Ancient Art

Although there’s not a whole not known about the tambourines of the ancient past, what is known is that they existed. Ancient Greek pottery has been found depicted a young girl playing the instrument. In another Ancient Greek piece dated back to 320 BC, a woman is depicted holding both a tambourine and a mirror. The instrument seems to be decorated with colorful woven strips of cloth. Perhaps it’s a custom that lived on because there are some who play the tambourine today who have colorful cloth strips or feathers hanging from their own instruments.

A Roman mosaic from the third century AD shows Maenad playing a type of tambourine. A most famous painting hangs in the Library of Congress is that of a girl playing the instrument painted by Charles Sprague Pearce in 1896. There’s no doubt that tambourines, or a form of the instrument, have been around since the earliest civilizations. There’s no reason to think they won’t continue to have a place in music long into the future as well.

Tambourine Facts

The following are some random facts about tambourines. Some may have been mentioned already and some haven’t. These are what’s generally considered to be most important about the instrument. There’s some facts about the instrument itself, its sound, and how to use it.

  • Traditionally, the tambourine is made up of a hoop made of wood to which jingles are attached, referred to as zils.
  • A head or soft shell is optional, but is often part of the instrument as well. It’s stretched over a hoop which is then attached to the wooden hoop.
  • An orchestral tambourine traditionally has twenty pairs of jingles, or zils. This number may be smaller for other ensemble tambourines.
  • Tambourines typically don’t require any type of tuning due to the sound of striking it is drown out by the sound of the zils.
  • There have been few changes made to the tambourine since its first inception; in most regards, the instrument is still very much like the original.
  • The tambourine is actually considered to be a drum when it’s struck, such as with a drum stick, and considered a rattle when it’s shaken by hand.
  • When striking a tambourine, the player must know how and where to strike it in order to produce the desired effect.
  • If your tambourine is mounted, you can actually use a variety of tools to strike it with, such as triangle beaters, felt beaters, and, of course, drum sticks. Other tools can be uses as well to create different sounds and effects.
  • The sound a tambourine makes has been described as festive, rattling, sparkling, jingling, rustling, and chattering.
  • Today, tambourines can be found in a variety of musical styles, such as pop music, marching bands, classical, rock and roll, and almost every other genre around the world and almost every culture.
  • The instrument has been used in many different cultures from Ancient until now in religious ceremonies and/or for entertainment.
  • The most common music type in which to find tambourines is folk music. This instrument has been an important part of European folk music for many years.
  • The tambourine is so easy to learn to play that it is often used for teaching music to children, teaching them to keep a beat or rhythm, or simply for their entertainment.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the earliest composers to add the tambourine in his compositions.
  • Another famous composer, Tchaikovsky, actually included the instrument in The Nutcracker Suite, which is a very famous ballet.
  • Often combined with other percussion instruments, the tambourine has been played along with a variety of stringed instruments, such as an acoustic guitar or banjo, tremolos, castanets, wood blocks, marimba, bass drum, tenor drum, triangle, and the snare drum. The tambourine proves itself to be an extremely versatile instrument.
  • Many famous modern day musicians have used the tambourine as well, such as Jim Morrison, Stevie Nicks, Roger Daltry, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, and Freddy Mercury.

Initially, the tambourine was just a frame drum, having no bells or zils, but as they become more and more popular, bells, rattles, and jingles were attached and the instrument became what we know it as today. A tambourine is a fun instrument and just about anyone can play it. The music a tambourine can be played in is generally fun and upbeat. As mentioned before, it’s a great way to learn to keep a beat or rhythm as well as being a great way of introducing music to kids, showing them that music can be fun and entertaining. The tambourine has survived for a very long time and, most likely, will survive well into the future.

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