Castanets are pairs of shell-shaped clappers that are hinged together with string. A Spanish dancer holds a pair in each hand, clicking the clappers together rapidly to produce rhythmic patterns of sound to accompany the dance movements. Castanets are not used in flamenco dancing, however, as the rhythmic accompaniment is produced by stomping the feet.
The word castanet comes from castaina, the Spanish word for chestnut. Besides castainuelas, there are several other Spanish words for castanets, including pulgaretes (because some dancers attach them to their thumb, or pulgar) and platillos (saucers).
The classical technique for playing castanets is to let one clapper rest in the palm, with the string looped around the thumb. Striking the other clapper with the fingertips knocks it against its mate, producing a tone. Rapidly striking the clapper with a succession of different fingers on the dominant hand produces trills that embellish the sound and provide counter rhythms. The pair in the other hand (e.g., the left hand of a right-handed person) is played with single strokes to mark the basic rhythm of the music. An alternative technique, used by folkloric dancers, consists of looping the string around one or more fingers in the middle of the hand and flicking the wrist to throw the two clappers toward the palm, where they strike each other.
A pair of castanets should fit comfortably in the dancer's hand, so the diameter is about 1.5-2.75 in (4-7 cm). The smaller sizes, usually used by women, produce a higher tone that is crisper in quality; the larger sizes, usually used by men, produce a lower tone that is richer and more mellow in quality.
Mass-produced castanets made of poor-quality wood or plastic cost less than $10 a set. Custom-made sets that are handcrafted from high-quality material, such as hard-woods and composites, to suit an individual performer cost $100-400.
Musical instruments similar to castanets have been developed in many parts of the world. Ancient versions of small, wood or metal clappers were used by Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Moorish, and Chinese dancers, for example. It is not known whether such instruments were brought to Iberia (the region now known as Spain and Portugal), perhaps by the Greeks, or whether they developed independently in that region. Archaeological evidence indicates that Iberians made small clappers from sticks, shells, flat stones, and bone.
Novelty castanets have been made from ivory, marble, crystal, gold, silver, bronze, and aluminum, but few of these are musically useful. The traditional material used for good castanets has been very hard (but not brittle) wood such as granadillo, rosewood, ebony, pomegranate, or oak. The best hard-woods come from equatorial forests, and they are becoming quite expensive; some people prefer not to use them out of a sense of environmental consciousness.
Most professional-quality castanets are currently made from a synthetic, laminated material such as Micarta. Called tela de musica (cloth of music) by castanet makers, this material is made by applying heat and pressure to many layers of paper, cotton cloth, or glass-fiber cloth that have been impregnated with a phenolic resin. For the purposes of castanet making, this material is quite similar to high-quality ebony or granadillo.
Cotton strings are generally used to hinge together the two clappers of a pair of castanets. Nylon string can be used, especially by an orchestra musician; however, a dancer who keeps his or her arms up in the air while playing the castanets may find nylon strings too slippery.
Castanets are commonly shaped like a clam shell that is circular or slightly oval, with an extension on one side for the hinge holes. Occasionally, however, castanets are made in more novel shapes like squares, rectangles, or triangles.
Besides the overall size and the material from which they are made, another factor that influences the tone and sound quality of a pair of castanets is the size and depth of the hollows on the insides of the clappers. Also important is a good area of contact at the tips of the castanets, where the two clappers strike each other. Although some dancers prefer the two pairs of a set of castanets to have the same tone, it is traditional for one pair to produce a tone one-third lower than the other. This bass pair, called the macho or male pair, is played with the left hand to mark the beat of the music. The treble pair, called the hembra or female pair, is played with the right hand in a way that embellishes the music.
Several factors influence the degree of control a dancer has over the castanets when playing them in the classical manner. One is the exterior slope of the clappers—a steeper slope makes proper finger action easier. Other factors are the angle of the string holes and the curvature of the wood between the holes, where the bases of the two clappers rotate against each other when being played.
Castanets are sometimes used as a percussion instrument by orchestras rather than dancers. In this case, castanets may be mounted on wooden handles rather than being attached to the player's fingers or thumbs. The musician can pick them up quickly by the handle and flick them in the air or strike them against his or her knees. Elastic cords are used to connect the clappers so they remain open while at rest. Sets of castanets can also be mounted on a base; the musician plays them by tapping on the upper clappers, sending them down against the lower clappers.
Castanets may be either mass produced or individually hand crafted. The following steps describe the manual method, although a few comments compare this to mass production techniques.
- A block of material approximately the size of the intended pair of castanets is sawed in half lengthwise to produce a blank for each shell. After placing a sheet of paper between centers of the halves, the pieces are glued back together.
- Using either a standard pattern or one derived from a tracing of the intended user's hand, an outline of the shell-shaped clapper is traced on the block.
- Using a bandsaw, the clapper is cut to the desired shape.
- Two holes are drilled to accommodate the cord that will join the finished clappers together.
- The two halves are separated, somewhat like opening an oyster.
- Using hand tools and sandpaper, the outside of each shell is smoothed to its final shape.
- The hollow is cut out of the inside of / each shell. Depending on the preferences of the castanet maker, various tools may be used, such as a Carborundum wheel or a sanding ball.
- Additional shaping involves sloping the faces of the clappers so that they contact each other only at the base and the lips. The base of the hinge area must also be rounded to allow the clappers to pivot properly.
When the two shells are practically finished, the maker tests them for sound quality. If necessary, they can be tuned by making the hollow deeper or broader.
In mass production, steps one through nine are largely automated. For example, a mechanical duplicator or a computer-programmed cutting tool may be used to create uniform exterior and interior curvatures according to a master design. Individual tuning is not necessary.
- When the shaping has been finalized, the castanets are polished with jeweler's rouge. Depending on the preferences of the maker and the user, wood castanets may be treated with olive oil. Future oiling will not be necessary, as the castanets will be continually conditioned by the natural oils of the user's hands.
- If the set of castanets consists of a bass pair and a treble pair, it is customary to mark the treble pair. The mark is characteristic of the castanet maker—some use a notch, and some use a particular color and shape of paint marking.
- A pair of clappers is joined with a 12 in (30.48 cm) length of cord thick enough to barely fit through the holes. The cord is threaded through the four holes so that both ends of the cord are on the outside of one of the clappers. Both ends of the cord are knotted separately to prevent fraying. A slipknot is formed in one end of the cord, and the other end is drawn through it. The user is able to adjust the tightness of the cord for proper operation of the castanets.
Where to Learn More
Lalagia. Spanish Dancing: A Practical Handbook. London: Dance Books, 1985.
La Meri [Russell Meriwether Hughes]. Spanish Dancing. Pittsfield, MA: Eagle Print and Binding Co., 1967.
LP Music Group. http:/www.bongo.com/ (June 7, 1999).
cas·ta·nets / ˌkastəˈnets/ • pl. n. small concave pieces of wood, ivory, or plastic, joined in pairs by a cord and clicked together by the fingers as a rhythmic accompaniment to Spanish dancing. ORIGIN: early 17th cent.: from Spanish castañeta, diminutive of castaña, from Latin castanea ‘chestnut.’