A tambourine is a circular frame with jingles attached to it. Shaking or hitting the tambourine causes the jingles to move, creating the tambourine's sound. A tambourine may look like a simple percussion instrument, but it's used in a number of ways to get a variety of sounds. Tambourines add accents and rhythms to almost any kind of music, including pop, rock, Latin, marching bands and symphonies.
Making a windshield wiper motion moves the tambourine, rattling the jingles. This is the most common way the tambourine is played. This motion is timed to the rhythm of the music, so the motion creates the sound of eighth notes, quarter notes or whatever is desired. The looser your wrist is when holding the tambourine, the thicker and busier the sound coming from the tambourine.
Quickly shaking the wrist left to right -- or right to left -- makes quick accents and noises on the tambourine. This motion looks similar to shaking a soda can. Quick shakes of the tambourine are often followed by hitting the tambourine on the palm of the other hand. This creates a short flourish of noise, followed by an accent.
The tambourine's frame is hit using the palm of the other hand. This creates a short, punchy accent. This can be combined with waving or shaking the tambourine or played by itself. This is the type of tambourine playing often heard in pop or rock music. Sometimes the player hits the tambourine on her side, which gets a similar sound to using your hand.
Using a drumstick gives a sharper, punchier sound when hitting the frame of the tambourine. It's also easier to play the tambourine louder without potentially hurting your hand from the aggressive hit. Likewise more intricate rhythms can be played using drumsticks than are possible with just your hands. Using a stick is sometimes done out of necessity, because the player is also simultaneously playing other drums or percussion instruments that require sticks, such as a drum set.
Hitting The Drumhead
Some tambourines have a drumhead or calfskin spread across the circular frame. This creates additional percussion possibilities. The drumhead or calfskin is struck using the hand or a light drumstick. This rattles the jingles and gives a sound similar to a small hand drum being hit. Your hand can be used in multiple ways to play the drumhead or calfskin: using the palm of your hand to strike it; placing your finger on the drumhead or calfskin and quickly pushing it across the drumhead or calfskin, which rattles the jingles in a quick buzzing sound; or putting your fingers in a claw motion and hitting it down on the drumhead or calfskin to give a controlled sound.
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