What are Castanets?

If you’ve ever witnessed the thrill of Flamenco dancing, you’ve probably seen not only the performers’ bodies, particularly their feet, but also the handheld percussion instruments they use with flair to provide additional rhythm as the dance progresses. Castanets, or palillos, are percussion instruments that are played with the hands or fingers. Little is known about the instruments’ origins, though they are currently used primarily in flamenco dancing, music, and orchestral music. They were thought to have been used more extensively in Ancient Rome’s, the Ottoman Empire’s, and Moorish countries’ music.

Two small clamshells or chestnut shells make up a single castanet. The word castanet is derived from the Spanish term castanuelas, which means “little chestnuts.” They’re made of wood or fiberglass, the latter of which is a new addition. The two shells are held together a string or light rope, and occasionally a leather rope. A person who plays them in the traditional way usually has two sets of castanets, one for each hand. Castanets are clicked together in time to music or to provide syncopation, with the fingers controlling the upper shell, which is clicked against the lower shell held in the palm.

Skilled players can create incredible rhythm counterpoint with castanets, either while dancing, as in Flamenco dance, or while accompanying music. Some castanets can also be heard in orchestral music, where they are mounted and played with sticks, but this reduces the sound quality. Their distinctive tone can be heard in several operas, including Carmen and Tannhäuser.

When castanets are played in a pair, they traditionally represent male and female, with each set having a distinct male or female name. Macho is the male castanet, which is slightly larger than hembra, the female castanet. The difference in pitch is due to the pair’s different sizes. The hembra castanet is usually held in the right hand, while the macho is held in the left.

Castanets existed before zils, the metal finger cymbals used in Ottoman music and still used in belly dancing today. Although the principle is similar, zils produce a more metallic sound due to their material. The sound of wooden shells striking is more akin to two sticks being struck together, and they sound similar to many other two-stick instruments, many of which originated in Africa.

These percussion instruments are a lot of fun to play, and while mastering them can take a long time, they’re also a great instrument for kids. Consider having some castanets at home for children to learn to play if you enjoy flamenco music, Spanish-inspired music, or bands like The Gypsy Kings. They make a satisfying clicking sound, and learning how to use them can help children learn to keep time and improve fine motor skills in younger children.