What Are Castanets or Castañuelas?

Do you like to explore different kinds of percussion instruments as well as world cultures?

The castanets are a wonderfully unique instrument.  Although they are most often associated with Spanish music, no one knows for certain where they originated.  There are historical accounts of castanets in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy and in cultures and empires that flourished in the region such as the ancient Romans, Ottomans and Sephartic people.

What Do Castanets Look Like?

Many people think that castanets are shaped liked a shell and the two sides are joined together by a piece of string or decorative ribbon.  Originally they were made of hard wood which created a beautiful, loud sound when “clacked” together.  Modern versions of castanets can be made from plastic and fiberglass as well.  In fact, the Spanish name for castanets is castañuelas – which means “little chestnuts”.   It makes you wonder if the first castanets were two chestnuts halves clicked together or if the shape of a dried chestnut inspired the design.

How Do You Play The Castanets?

If you slip the string from a castanet onto your thumb or your middle finger, you’ll find that you can open and close the fingers of that hand and get the instrument to click.  You can do that slowly or quickly.  Then do the same with the other hand and you have two instruments that click together or back and forth, like they are talking to each other.  In castanets crafted for the serious dancer or player, one pair will sound slightly different then the other.  One is called the “male” (macho) and the other “female” (hembra), meaning that they have a slightly different pitch.   Just like maracas, each one has a different tone so the rhythms can be more complex as the two sounds are blended.

Check out this video demonstration of some of the amazing sounds that advanced played can get from castanets:

Castanets in Spanish Folklore

Although most people associate castanets with the flamenco dance style of Spain, castanets are only used in two different types of flamenco dancing – styles called “zambra” and “siguiriyas”.  Castanets are also featured in a type of Spanish balletic dance called “escuela bolera”.  In the Andalusia region of Spain, castanets are also called palillos meaning “little sticks”.  In some orchestral settings, castanets are mounted on a stick or have an attached handle and not played inside the hands, but “clacked” back and forth.

Playing With Castanets

Although castanets are two wooden or plastic items striking each other, their size and shape allows kids (or grown-ups) to experiment with how they can be played. Try placing the string over your thumb or middle finger and getting them to click.   Adjust the string or ribbon, if necessary.  Put a pair on each hand and see what rhythms can be made by playing them back and forth or at the same time.  Try creating rhythms while dancing and keeping in time with the music.  If the hand movement seems too complicated, consider using a pair of mounted castanets in place of the smaller “inside-the-hand” ones.

Want to explore more unique world music instruments?

Hear 8 Different World Music Instruments and Color Online Activities:

15 Different World Music Instruments and Lots of Coloring Pages, too:

2 thoughts on “What Are Castanets or Castañuelas?

  1. Pingback: Easy and Fun…Button Castanets! « Tiny Tapping Toes

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