The tambourine, let’s be honest, is the sort of instrument that tends to go unnoticed unless you are really paying attention. It doesn’t intrude much upon the overall texture of the music but adds a rhythmic element that contributes to the overall effect.
Well that, at least, is in popular music. Because, elsewhere, this percussion instrument can bring real life to a performance: in a percussion ensemble, in some parts of traditional and folk music, and even in the odd classical piece, the presence of tambourines can be felt incredibly strongly.
In fact, it is characteristic of our unsubtle culture that percussion instruments such as the tambourine get a little overlooked. And, really, they deserve more attention than they routinely receive. Because the tambourine in its many variations – from the pandeiro to the timbrel – has flourished all around the world, in many different cultures and places.
So, it might not be that the tambourine is a forgettable instrument after all. And it is certainly not the case that this musical instrument is in some sense easy. Rather, despite its humble appearance, it takes a good bit of work to master.
And now, whilst we don’t expect you to have ambitions of becoming a tambourine virtuoso, we’re going to use this article to tell you about this underrated instrument. Because, even if you had never noticed its presence, it is there – and deserves a wee bit of respect.
Let’s take a look at what the tambourine is – its history, its use in contemporary music, and how you can go about playing one.
What is a Tambourine?
Now, for all those that are wondering, what is a tambourine precisely?
A tambourine is a percussion instrument that has a frame in which can be found zills, pairs of metal jingles that strike each other as you move the instrument. Usually, across this frame is stretch a drumhead or a drum skin, a thin plastic membrane that resonates when you strike it.
This, essentially, is the tambourine. However, it has its variations: some tambourines do not have the drum head, for example, so that the only thing that you can strike is the frame.
This is important, actually. Because whilst one gives a fuller percussive effect, the other provides only the rhythm of the zills struck indirectly.
You’d find a tambourine in a few different places. Drummers, or the band percussionist, may well have a tambourine on his or her drumkit – alongside the snare, the cymbals, and the bass drum, say. Meanwhile, these instruments are probably more commonly hand-held – and shaken or struck with the hand or a beater.
A Brief History of the Tambourine.
As we said, there are a huge number of cultures across the world that have a variant on the tambourine. From the buben in Eastern Europe to the riq in the Arab world, from the Indian ganjira to the Indonesian rebana. The tambourine is not just something whacked lazily by Noel Gallagher every so often; it rather spreads across the whole length of the world.
The tambourine appears to originate in the Near East, in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where it was used in rituals by performers. And whilst, from there, it spread through ancient Greece and Rome into Europe – where, by the Middle Ages, it was common – it also popped up all across the world too.
The instrument took its name ‘tambourine’ from the French who took it in turn from the Persian would for ‘drum’.
Meanwhile, there are manuscript images of people playing the tambourine in England in the fourteenth century – whilst, in religious iconography, angels have been imagined playing the tambourine since the Bible.
All in all, it is quite an important instrument – and it still remains crucial to traditional music from southern Europe in particular, such as in the Italian tarantella.
Are There Different Types of Tambourine?
As the tambourine is an instrument that is present all over the world, there are an infinite variety of these musical instruments. And we can’t possibly discuss them all here.
However, we can give you a sample of some of the types of tambourines that are available in the shops near you. If you head to a music shop – or to a shop specialising in drums – you will still find alongside the drum sets, the snare drums and maracas, a range of different tambourines.
Let’s take a look at three of them.
The ‘headless’ tambourine is a variation on this hand drum that doesn’t have the skin head. Rather, it will just have the jingle frame and a place where to put your hand.
Without the skin, these don’t necessarily need to be struck. Rather, they produce sound merely through their own vibration. So, shake them or strike the frame to the rhythm.
The half-moon tambourine is a type of headless tambourine. However, where tambourines are traditionally circular, on the half-moon the handle is inverted so that it sits inside the circle of the instrument.
The benefit of this is that it gives you greater agility, so that it is easier to play faster rhythms.
The mounted – or mountable – tambourine is the type that is used by drummers on their drum kit. These can be mounted onto a drum stand and played with drumsticks.
This is convenient for percussionists who want to intersperse their rhythms with the tambourine’s sound.
Have you heard of the steel hang? Check out how to play it in our article, Playing the Steel Hang.
Where Have You Heard the Tambourine Played?
We said that the tambourine is pretty much ubiquitous across the world. However, we also said that it is not entirely certain that you would have noticed the tambourine playing unless you were looking out for it.
Here, though, are some tracks in which it would be pretty hard to miss the tambourine. Because it takes centre stage.
The Tambourine in Rock and Pop.
Let’s start with the tambourine in popular music.
Prince – Tamborine
Prince was awesome. And throughout this appropriately numbed track, ‘Tamborine’, the rhythm section is absolutely on fire.
It’s one of very few tracks in which the tambourine is absolutely unmissable.
Velvet Underground – I’ll Be Your Mirror.
On their debut album, the Velvet Underground mixed gorgeous song writing with innovative musical soundscapes.
But if we’re talking about the tambourine exclusively, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ rocks it. The hand percussion instrument is crucial to the song.
The Tambourine in Classical Music.
The tambourine hasn’t always been present in the orchestral percussion section. In fact, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that anyone thought to use it.
Mozart – Deutsche Tänze
One of the first composers to use the tambourine in his classical composition was Mozart – someone highly innovative with his use of new instruments.
The Deutsche Tanze adds a tambourine to the range of percussion instruments.
Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker.
In the ‘Russian Dance’ of the Nutcracker, you’ll find some of the coolest tambourine lines in classical music.
How to Play the Tambourine.
Now, it might seem like it’s easy, but the tambourine shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not quite as simple as whack and shake – particularly if you are after some more interesting rhythmic effects.
Of course, though, if you are just going Oasis, slapping it against your thigh would do – or else striking the frame with the palm of your hand.
If you want more interesting sounds, however, you can try the roll and the thumb roll.
The roll produces a drum roll sound, and it is created by rotating the wrist quickly. However, you can combine this with a strike too, as in the Tchaikovsky movement above.
The thumb roll creates a quieter roll; it is a bit like playing the snare drum with brushes. Move the thumb over the surface of the skin or the frame – and the zills will jingle nicely.
Where to Find a Percussion Teacher Who Can Teach You Tambourine.
If you want to get out of the tambourine all that it can give you, you may want to get in touch with a percussion teacher. They’ll be able to show you some more advanced techniques and help you to incorporate the tambourine into more sophisticated percussion playing.
One of the best places to find a percussion teacher is with Superprof, the platform that connects students with tutors quickly and conveniently. Just search in your area for percussion teachers or find one that is available for online lessons.
Just get in touch. The majority of our tutors offer the first hour free – so that you know exactly what you are getting!