Instruments | Rattle & Shaker | Percussion

Rattles and shakers are ubiquitous untuned percussion instruments in all musical cultures. They are used in many forms of music-making, religious ceremonies, dance and other activities. They are often simple in construction and can be made from natural materials.

A rattle comprises a body housing a number of small pellets or beans, which bounce against the internal walls of the instrument when it is shaken or struck, like a maraca. A shaker is played in the same way, but the objects that produce the sound are on the outside of the instrument, like the Latin American quijada – the jawbone of a donkey or horse shaken so that the teeth clatter. A shaker may also have jingles made from metal, shell, stone or glass.

Rattles and shakers may have a handle like a baby’s rattle, or the whole body of the instrument may be shaken, like the Chilean rain stick. This is a hollowed and dried cactus branch with thorns hammered into it in a spiral pattern. It is then filled with small pebbles, and the ends are capped and sealed. Turning the stick over causes the pebbles to trickle over the thorns, making the sound of gentle rain.

Crotal Bells

Rattles are used in a range of extra-musical activities. Crotal or closed bells are worn by dancers throughout Asia and Africa and also added to animals’ harnesses. In a crotal bell, the outside of the bell encloses the clapper or pellet. They are usually small, and several can be put together and attached to a strap or handle – orchestral sleigh bells comprise 10 to 20 crotal bells. Archeological records indicate that crotal bells have been used since pre-historic times, and were also worn as talismen.


Rattles and shakers like maracas, the ganzá and the cabasa are widely used in African and Latin-American traditional music, and Latin-influenced pop and jazz. Maracas are a pair of rattles made from wood, metal or coconut shells. They are used to provide a constant pulse in a wide variety of Latin-American dance styles. Although easy to play, the player needs to develop a technique of flicking the pellets in one mass in order to create a tight sound, so the maraca rhythm can be clearly heard.

Ganzá and Cabasa

The ganzá (xique-xique, tubo) is similar to the maracas – a tube filled with pellets, which is held sideways to ensure an even distribution of the pellets when playing. A cabasa (afuche, xequebum) is a gourd with beads or small shells strung on the outside, and is a cross between a scraper and a shaker. Cabasas made from natural materials like the Brazilian xequebum normally have the beads sewn in a fine net around the gourd, whereas a metal cabasa is strung with necklaces of metal beads. It is played by resting the head of the instrument against the hand to make the beads turn one way as the handle is turned the opposite way.

Introduction | Percussion Instruments
Instruments | Scraper | Percussion

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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