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Title: Songs and Dances of Majorca--Mateixa de Primavera; Aires de Montanya, de Selva, Antonio Galmés, director. Label: Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: F-8828. Track: 18.

Title: Albéniz-Frühbeck de Burgos Suite Española--Sevilla (Sevilllanas); New Philharmonia, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor. Label: Decca. Format: CD. Catalogue#: FIM XR24 068. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The castanets are a concussion idiophone of Spain; the English word ‘castanets’ is derived from the Spanish word ‘castañetas.’ They are used in regional Spanish folk dance traditions, such as that of Majorca island (listen to first audio clip) where they are played by the dancers themselves to accentuate their movements, and also in some styles of flamenco (e.g., Sevillanas). But most Westerners are familiar with the instrument through its use by orchestral and band composers as a coloristic device the very sound of which references Spain (listen to second audio clip). Most percussionists in orchestras and bands do not know how to play castanets in the traditional handheld fashion, yet several orchestralband, and percussion ensemble works call for the castanets. These performers typically use a mounted pair of castanets (see second gallery image), sometimes called a ‘castanet machine,’ to perform castanet parts. The two castanets of a traditional handheld pair, tuned slightly apart from one another, have gendered associations--the higher-pitched one is considered female (hembra), the lower-pitched one, male (macho).


The traditional handheld castanets (first gallery image) are carved from a hardwood, traditionally from castaña (chestnut wood), hence the name ‘castañetas.’ Each half of a single castanet is, in essence, a small bowl with a perforated ornamental handle through which runs a cord that loosely binds a pair of facing ‘bowls’ together. The two units that comprise a set of castanets are tuned relatively to one another, one slightly higher than the other. The castanet machine (second gallery image) has each castanet mounted by it handle to a wood dowel, that is securely anchored to a plastic frame. Wedged between the handles of each pair is a spring that keeps the two halves of each unit in an open position, ready to be tapped.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The traditional way of playing handheld castanets (such as in Spanish folk dancing) is to hold one castanet in each hand with their cords lapped over the thumb or index finger, both halves suspended vertically; the higher-pitched pair (hembra) is typically held in the player’s right hand, the lower (macho) in the left. By tapping on one half of each pair with their fingertips, the performer concusses it against the other half, which rebounds off their palm. A sharp but resonant sound results. Amazingly fast articulations can be produced on castanets by skilled performers. For the castanet machine used in orchestras and bands the performer uses both hands to tap on the top half of each castanet to produce the notated rhythm or effect (such as a roll.


Castanets have been used in some parts of Europe to accompany dance since Roman times. Spanish castanets were possibly inspired by finger cymbals introduced to the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim world during Moorish times (Blades 1970, p. 386). An early illustration of the instrument, basically in the same form as the instrument used today, is found in the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript. The castanet machine is likely of more recent origin, though no details were found of its invention.

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 1984. “Castanets,” NGDMI v.1: 315.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Spain

Formation: Spanish

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.141 idiophone--castanets: vessel clappers, either natural, or artificially hollowed out, are struck against each other

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: pinching

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - includes flat face with shallow depression

Sound objects per instrument: two sounded discretely

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: concussing - direct

Sound exciting agent: colliding sonorous objects

Energy input motion by performer: pinching

Pitch of sound produced: relative pitch

Sound modification: none


3.3 in. length

Primary Materials



Black Swamp



Entry Author

Roger Vetter