Sound is produced on the tambourine either by striking the head with the hand (occasionally with sticks) or by shaking (or rubbing it with the fingers). The tambourine is therefore both a drum (when it is struck) and a rattle (when it is shaken).
To play single beats the player holds the tambourine in one hand (usually the left) and strikes the head with the other, normally with the middle finger, but on occasions with the index finger, both supported by the thumb. The striking spot is opposite the holding hand about 3–4 cm (depending on the size of the instrument) from the edge of the head. The quieter the desired tone, the nearer the rim the head should be struck. Pianissimo beats are sometimes played using the fingertips very near or even on the rim. In fast passages (up to mezzoforte) the tambourine rests on the player’s knees.
If required in the score it is also struck with sticks which must have an attack that is hard and brisk enough to agitate the jingles with precision: wood drumsticks, small hard or soft felt beaters, cymbal sticks, xylophone or triangle beaters are suitable.
The sound of the head and the jingles
The pairs of jingles hang loosely from the wire pins and jangle against each other producing a high-pitched rattling sound that carries well. The pitch that results from striking the head is of no consideration since it is masked by the sound of the jingles.
If the tambourine is held horizontally a short, precise and dry sound results, because the jingles now lie one on top of the other so they damp themselves. If the tambourine is struck when held vertically the sound of the head is more prominent; the jingles sound weaker but resonate longer. The sound of the head can also be emphasized by striking it with the palm of the hand or a fist, or by beating the tambourine against an elbow or a knee.
Many percussionists in the orchestra hold the tambourine at an angle of between 40 and 50 degrees, because it is in this position that the best balance is achieved between the sounds of the head and the jingles, the tambourine does not sound too dry and there is no obtrusive reverberation.