If you’ve seen the excitement of Flamenco dancing, then you have likely witnessed not only the skill of the performers’ bodies and especially feet, but also the handheld percussion instruments they use with flare to provide additional rhythm as a dance occurs. These instruments are called castanets, or palillos, and are essentially hand or finger percussion. Little is known about the origin of the instruments, though they currently are used more specifically in flamenco dancing, music, and in some orchestral music. They were thought to have been used in a more widespread fashion in the music of Ancient Rome, the Ottoman Empire, and in Moorish countries.
A single castanet looks like two small clamshells or chestnut shells. In fact the word castanet comes from the Spanish term castanuelas, which translates as "little chestnuts." They are made of wood or fiberglass, though the latter is a recent addition. A string or light rope, and sometimes a leather rope, hold the two shells together. A person playing them in a traditional manner usually has a pair of castanets, one set for each hand. In time to the music, or to provide syncopation, castanets are clicked together, with the fingers controlling the upper shell, which is clicked against the lower shell held in the palm.
Skilled players may be very quick with castanets, creating incredible rhythm counterpoint, either while dancing, as with Flamenco dance, or while accompanying music. You can also hear some castanets in orchestral music where they may be mounted, and played with sticks, but this sacrifices some of the sound value. You will hear their distinctive tone in several operas, including Carmen and Tannhäuser.
Traditionally, when castanets are played in a pair, they symbolically represent male and female, and each individual set has a specific male or female name. The male castanet is called macho, and is a little larger than its female counterpart, hembra. The differing size of the pair accounts for different pitch. Typically the hembra castanet is held in the right hand, and the macho in the left.
Castanets were in existence before zils, the metal finger cymbals used in music of the Ottoman Empire, and seen today in belly dancing. The principal is much the same though, but zils create a more metallic sound, given their material. The sound of wooden shells striking is more like two sticks being hit together, and in this sound they resemble many other instruments that utilize two sticks, many of them originating in Africa.
These percussion instruments are great fun to play, and though mastery can take many years, they’re also a terrific instrument for children. If you enjoy listening to flamenco music, Spanish inspired music, or bands like The Gypsy Kings, consider having some castanets at home for children to learn to play. The clicking sound they make is very satisfying; moreover, learning how to use them can help children learn to keep time and may improve younger children’s fine motor skills.