Castanets are traditionally used in the lively Spanish dance known as flamenco. They provide the rhythmic baseline for the dance and are usually played by the dancers.
There are two types of castanets – those with handles, which are played by striking them against your knee, and those without handles, which are played by holding them within the palm of your hand. The castanets without handles are used most commonly.
- Castanets can be made from many different materials. Many people are familiar with the loud, plastic ones sold at carnivals, which are used mostly by children to drive their parents crazy! However, there are also very high-quality castanets made from fiberglass, ebony or rosewood. The right type for you depends upon the sound you want to achieve.
- Most castanets are shaped like two shells that have small “ears” through which a hole is drilled. A cord is looped through these holes to attach the two halves of the castanets to each other. The two ends of the cord are tied together with a slip knot, so that the loop is adjustable to the size of the player’s fingers.
- Before you put the castanets on your hands, determine which one is the “macho,” or male castanet, and which one is the “hembra,” or female. The female usually has a mark, while the male has none. Also, the male produces a slightly deeper pitch than the female.
- The traditional way of holding the castanets was with the loop over the middle finger of each hand. Although they are occasionally still played this way in some regions of Spain, most castanet players loop the cord over the thumb of each hand. Loop the castanets over your thumbs with the macho castanet in your left hand and the hembra in your right. The loop should rest on each side of the knuckle of your thumb. Keep your fingers curled loosely inward around the castanets. If you have the tension of the knot adjusted properly, the castanets should gape open slightly when at rest.
- There are five basic sounds that make up nearly all of the rhythms used in castanet-playing. The first is called “TA.” It is created by tapping the ring finger, then middle finger of your left hand quickly against the castanet.
- The next sound is called “RRI.” This sound is made by tapping the castanet in your right hand with your pinky, ring finger, middle finger and index finger in rapid succession.
- The third sound used in castanet-playing is “PI.” Make this sound by tapping the right-hand (hembra) castanet with your ring finger, and then middle finger. “PI” is identical to “TA,” except it’s played with the opposite hand.
- The fourth sound is “PAM,” also called “CHIN.” Create this sound by striking the castanets against each other.
- The fifth, and final, sound is “PAN.” This is often used to finish a rhythmic sequence, as it has a rather final sound. To play this sound, use your ring and middle fingers to strike both castanets simultaneously.
- You can also create a sound similar to a drum roll by alternating rapid clicks with the castanets, always ending with the macho castanet.
Now that you have an understanding of the basic sounds that can be created by these simple instruments, you should be ready to start playing some music of your own. Grab a flamenco CD and see what you can do!