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The tambourine consists of a flat wood hoop, the so-called shell, a head stretched over it, and the jingles.

The head is either nailed onto the outside of the shell or stretched over a flesh hoop and fastened by means of a counter hoop as on the other orchestral drums. In the Middle East the head is also glued on.
Set into the 5–7 cm deep shell at regular intervals are oval apertures in each of which a pair of jingles made of sheet brass is attached with a wire pin. The jingles measure about 5 cm, are cymbal-shaped and usually have slightly turned-up rims. There is often a wood handle on the shell for holding the instrument.

Orchestra tambourines have up to 20 pairs of jingles (two pairs per aperture). In smaller orchestras and ensembles tambourines with fewer jingles are used.

Unlike the cylindrical drums (snare drum, bass drum, tenor drum) the tambourine has no mechanism for bracing the head. The sound produced by striking the head is masked by the sound of the jingles so there is no need to tune the instrument. Occasionally the head is made tighter by warming it with a cigarette lighter; but this is only done if there are great changes in temperature and humidity. (When warmed the head shrinks and thus becomes tighter, but care must be taken not to burn a hole in it :-).