The tambourine is a percussion instrument consisting of a frame, commonly made of wood or plastic, paired with metal jingles called “zills”. These sit on the frame’s outer edge. The instrument may or may not include a drumhead, and in most cases, it has a circular form.
The tambourine’s origin is unknown. However, ancient artists in West Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and India, used it as early as 1700 BC, according to historical texts. Merchants and musicians brought the instrument to Europe.
Tambourines appeared first as such in ancient Egypt. Hebrews knew them as the “tof” and primarily used them in religious settings. The term tambourine comes from the French “tambourin“, which refers to a long, thin drum used in Provence, and is a diminutive of tambour, meaning drum.
Women were also the primary tambourine players in several early cultures. This instrument appeared also in processions, celebrations, and funerals, in addition to accompanying dances. Although the size of the instrument and the shape of the jingles have changed throughout the years, the construction has always stayed the same. For instance, the Greek and Roman tambourines looked remarkably similar to the modern designs of the instrument. The tambourine was initially known as the “tymbre” in medieval Britain, and then as the “tabret” or “timbrel” until the 18th century.
The tambourine’s popularity as a folk instrument never waned in France, Spain, or southern Italy. The instrument’s admittance into the orchestra happened around the mid 18th century by Janissary music, which enjoyed huge popularity at the courts of European princes. This brought the tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, and triangle to the attention of a wider audience. In his incidental music for Preziosa (1821), Carl Maria von Weber employed the tambourine to represent gypsy life. Aside from that, people associate the tambourine with folk music, dance, and, since George Bizet’s Carmen (1875), Spanish flair.
Construction of the tambourine
The head of the tambourine sits fixed or glued to the shell’s exterior or stretched over a flesh hoop and secured with a counter hoop, like on other orchestral drums. Oval holes are set into the 5–7 cm deep shell at regular intervals. Each of them hosts a pair of sheet brass jingles fastened with a wire pin. The jingles come around five centimeters long, cymbal-shaped, and have slightly turned-up rims. The shell usually hosts a wood grip for holding the instrument.
The tambourine, unlike cylindrical drums, has no mechanism for tuning the head. The jingles mask the sound of striking the skull, so there’s no real need to tune the instrument. Warming the head tightens it.
To play single beats, the musician holds the tambourine in one hand and strikes the head with the other. To strike they use generally the middle finger or the index finger, both supported by the thumb. The striking location is roughly 3–4 cm from the edge of the head, opposite the holding hand. The closer the performer strikes the head, the softer the desired tone.