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Title: demo: tambourine; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Title: The Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance; Music Reservata of London. Label: Vanguard Classics. Format: CD. Catalogue#: OVC 8093/8094. Track: I-54.

Contextual Associations

The tambourine is a single-head frame membranophone with cymbals (these concussion idiophones function both as a secondary sound modifier and as the primary sound source when the instrument is used as a shaken idiophone-see separate entry for jingle ring). An ancient instrument of Middle Eastern origin (see riqq), it was introduced to Europe sometime during the Middle Ages. The European tambourine was transplanted to many parts of the world during the Age of Exploration (see pandeiro). Today it is used as an auxiliary percussion instrument in some works for orchestra and concert band, and is also utilized in solo mixed-percussion works and in percussion ensemble works. The tambourine can also be found in many folk music traditions and popular music styles, and is used as a rhythmic instrument in introductory musicianship classes for children. Equivalent instruments in the Middle East are sometimes associated with women, but no such association is found with this instrument in Europe or elsewhere in the cosmopolitan world. Other associations carried by this instrument are with the Salvation Army and with Roma culture (gypsies).


The three tambourines pictured in the gallery have circular cylindrical shells made of wood with diameters between 7.9 and 12 inches. On each drum, one shell opening is covered with a tensioned head made of mammal skin (calfskin, sheepskin, and pigskin are used on these three drums, respectively; synthetic/plastic heads are also commonly used) the edge of which is either tacked (first and third drums) or glued (the middle drum) to the shell. The depth of their shell walls ranges from 1.8 to 2.4 inches, and located around these walls are several elongated slots--from five to nine--arranged in one or two parallel rows. In these slots pairs of cymbals (from five to seventeen in number, ranging in diameter from 1.7 inches to 3.6 inches) are mounted, held loosely in place by a vertical pin.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The tambourine is held and can be sounded in a variety of ways. It can be struck on either side of the membrane with the player’s fingers, open palm, or fist, or with a stick beater. A wetted thumb can be rubbed across the edge of the membrane to produce a roll-like effect. Or the drum can be shaken vigorously with a wrist motion, or the bottom edge of the shell can be tapped with the fingertips--both these actions bypass the membranophonic potential of the instrument by using it as an idiophonic jingle (see jingle ring). For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on percussion [skip to 15:15 in the video for the segment pertaining specifically to the tambourine].


The tambourine was used widely throughout Medieval Europe and much of what is known about its early history comes from iconographic sources. In these sources it is seen in the hands of all sorts of performers, from angels to wandering minstrels to jugglers. One present day context of usage that attempts to capture some of the instrument’s Medieval associations is the early music ensemble, for which tambourine parts are sometimes arranged or improvised (the tambourine heard in the second audio example was recorded by an early music group and their instrument was likely similar to the final tambourine pictured in the gallery).

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Tambourine [timbrel].” NGDMI v.3: 511-513.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.311 membranophone--single-skin frame drum (the depth of the body does not exceed the radius of the membrane)

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - frame

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: unframed

Membrane attachment: unframed membrane nailed to shell

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with one hand

Sound modifiers for membranophone: concussion cymbals built into shell


10 in. diameter (rim of first instrument) 2 in. depth (shell of first instrument) 1.7 in. diameter (jingles of first instrument) 7.9 in. diameter (rim of second instrument) 2.4 in. depth (shell of second instrument) 1.7 in. diameter (jingles of second instrument) 12 in. diameter (rim of third instrument) 1.8 in. depth (shell of third instrument) 3.6 in. diameter (jingles of third instrument)

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
metal - sheet


Grover (first instrument))

Entry Author

Roger Vetter