Scrape, Rattle, and Roll



“You can learn to play the bones,” announced my husband (Phil Passen) one day. Phil was learning to play the hammered dulcimer and was being a tad compulsive about it, practicing all day long, buying three dulcimers and dozens of hammers.

I am not compulsive. As a writer, I am orderly and even-keeled. In addition, I was steered away from music in grade school, when teachers asked me to merely mouth words without actually singing them.

This didn’t stop Phil, who handed me a pair of bones.

Bones built by Rick Fogel

Bones built by Rick Fogel

Long ago, bones were real bone. Today most are made from wood. The fact that the bones Phil gave me included a two-page instruction sheet was a touch intimidating. I could barely figure out how to hold the bones, let alone tap them, and the thought of pickup notes and triplets was beyond reckoning. After I read up on the bones (research, you know), I learned not only that they’re among the oldest percussion instruments known to humans, but also that they’re among the most difficult to play.

The bones were not for me.

But perhaps some other percussion instrument was. Hanging with Phil, I found myself frequenting vendor booths and music stores, examining percussive doodads: reed rattles, plastic eggs, sticks with bottle caps attached, heavy wooden cylinders, grooved wooden fish — percussion so provocative that strangers pick the items up and try them out.

My writer’s curiosity was aroused. What were all these noisemakers? 
Where did they come from, and what were they called? I dove into reference books to learn how these fascinating things fit into the big picture of musical instruments.

Here’s what I learned.

One method of classifying musical instruments divides percussion into two categories: membranophones such as drums, whose sound comes from the vibration of a membrane (the skin); and idiophones such as bones and shakers, whose sound comes from the vibration of the material itself. Idio as in self, phone as in sound. Self-sound.

Nobody calls them idiophones. At least nobody I’ve encountered. They’re called noisemakers, sound makers, or contraptions. But whatever they’re called, idiophones are fascinating . . . and eminently classifiable. Musicologists recognize five classes of idiophones, according to playing technique.

HIT IT — Cymbals, Gongs, Xylophones, Castanets. This group is the largest of the five. So large, in fact, that it’s sometimes divided into subclasses, according to whether one or both of the struck objects produce sound.


Dancer playing finger cymbals

Concussion When two objects are struck together and both produce sound, you have a concussion idiophone, as in castanets, claves, cymbals, and bones. While waiting for Phil to finish a music lesson one day, I spied a pair of claves in the music store. Claves are simply two cylinders of hard, sonorous wood, such as rosewood. They’re the things children are given to beat together in kindergarten, where they’re called rhythm sticks.

The claves were inexpensive enough that I bought a pair. (Most idiophones cost $1-15, with expensive ones checking in at around $50.) When I tried to play the claves, I realized what a mistake I had made. They didn’t feel right, they didn’t sound right, and — its not easy to make music by beating two sticks together. You have to know how to beat them together.

Which is why I ordered a book on claves. Yes, there are such things. But the book was far too advanced for me, dealing with eighth and sixteenth notes and polymeters. I put the claves aside for later.

Again, Phil encouraged me to learn the bones. He even bought me an audiocassette with accompanying booklet. I actually began to hold the bones correctly and click them together. Then he bought me a videotape on the subject and I learned a bit more.

The truth is, I enjoyed the sounds of sonorous objects struck together. I had bones, I had claves. Why not branch out into cymbals? Not big cymbals, of course. Small ones. Finger cymbals. I ordered two pair, one for each hand. I joked to our friends that I would become the Midwest champion finger cymbalist in about, oh . . . three weeks.


Finger cymbals are even more difficult to master than claves. After I bought a book and audiotape on finger cymbals (research, you know), I learned that I had been striking them together incorrectly. So now I’m practicing cymbals the right way. It will be a while before I enter any finger cymbal contests.

Spoons, available in your kitchen, are also hit-it idiophones. You play them by holding two spoons in the same hand, convex ends touching loosely, then bouncing them up and down on your knee, causing them to strike one another and produce sound. After I wore the gloss off our kitchen spoons, Phil bought me a metal pair just for playing. Spoons, like bones, are played in blues, Celtic, folk, Quebecois, Cajun, and other kinds of music.

Agogo Bell

Agogo Bell

Percussion This is the name given to the second subclass of hit-it objects. Here a sonorous object such as a bell is struck by a non-sonorous object such as the tongue, or clapper. If it’s cowbells we’re talking about, the bell is struck with a small wooden dowel. The xylophone falls into this category of idiophones, as does the gong.

So do the gankoqui and agogo bells. Forming the backbone of African music, the gankoqui are two attached bells (no clappers) struck with a dowel of soft wood. In Latin music similar bells are called agogo. My agogo bell is wooden, its two cylinders attached to a crossbar which is attached to a handle. I strike the “bells” with a mallet. Wooden agogo bells have the additional feature of being cut with grooves, so they can be scraped as well as struck (not at the same time).

I haven’t bought a gong, nor do I crave a xylophone, nor do Tibetan bells interest me, although I see them featured in many catalogs and websites. There’s something, though, that draws me to the cowbell. The only reason I haven’t purchased one yet is that, unlike Phil, I’m not compulsive.

PLUCK IT — Jaw Harp and Mbira The two most common examples of plucked idiophones are the jaw harp and the mbira. The jaw harp, consisting of a single tongue of wood or metal fastened to a U-shaped frame, is played throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. You place the frame between your lips, then pluck the tongue — the jaw harp’s, not your own. By changing the shape of your lips, you change the pitch of the jaw harp.

The mbira I built from a kit

The mbira I built from a kit

Traveling under a number of names such as kalimba, marimbula, sanza, and thumb piano, the mbira is an African instrument consisting of a box of wood or a gourd onto which are fastened eight to twelve metal tongues. A player plucks the tongues, each of which is tuned to a particular pitch. At one music festival I took a class in mbira-making and built my own from a kit.

As the mbira illustrates, idiophones can be of definite or indefinite pitch. Because of my grade-school experiences, I shy away from instruments with definite pitch, so there is only one jaw harp and one mbira in the cabinet in which I store my idiophones. At first I needed only a small drawer for that initial set of bones. But then the egg shakers and claves and cymbals and other idiophones began to take up space. To say nothing of the various instruction booklets and audio and video tapes and DVDs. I still have a bit of room in the cabinet to display a music box — which is, yes, an example of a plucked idiophone.

RUB IT — Glass Harmonica, Musical Saw I stay away from rubbed idiophones, too: not only because they have a definite pitch, but because they’re, well . . . kinky. Take the glass harmonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. In size and appearance it looks like a piano, not a harmonica. Running the length of its cabinet are dozens of glass bowls on their sides, nestled into one another. When the player pumps a treadle, a spindle rotates the bowls. The player then wets her fingers, or dips them in chalk (depending on preference and level of kinkiness) and touches them to the rims of the revolving glass bowls, producing tones of different pitch.


Glass Harmonica, photo by Vince Flango

No, I’m not making this up: the glass harmonica really exists, Franklin really invented it, and the instrument was so popular during the late 18th century that Mozart, Beethoven, and Martini composed for it. Around 1830 the glass harmonica fell into disuse — possibly replaced by the rotisserie.

The glass harmonica is ludicrous but harmless. The musical saw, on the other hand, is not. The musical saw is simply a handsaw that the player, for whatever perverse reasons, holds with the non-dominant hand, placing the blunt front end between his/her legs with saw teeth facing inward, where they can do the most damage. Bending the saw in and out via pressure on the handle, the player rubs it with a bow (violin or cello type) or strikes it with a soft mallet, producing tones of definite pitch. The tones of the musical saw are haunting and somewhat ethereal, as if ghosts of maimed players were hovering in the air.

SCRAPE IT — Washboard and Guiro A scraped idiophone sounds like the condition I would be in after attempting to play the musical saw. However, what is meant to be scraped is the instrument, not the player. A washboard is a prime example of a scraped idiophone, and jug band music is a popular haven for thimble-clad players and their washboards. Actually, I’ve always loved the sound of the washboard — far better than I liked using it to scrub socks, for example. At a recent folk festival I saw one of the old-fashioned wooden-edged washboards for $10. The only reason I didn’t purchase it was because I secretly coveted the deluxe model: stainless steel, no wooden sides. The top of the deluxe version is curved so you can drape it over your shoulders and move around while playing. Or washing socks.



Around the world the most popular scraped idiophone is probably the guiro, which originated as a hollow gourd notched in concentric circles. To play the guiro you rub a stick back and forth across the notches. Highly popular in Latin American music, guiros are used more and more in folk music. In a moment of weakness I bought a fish-shaped red-and-green guiro. I have no idea what possessed me to purchase this: I’m not compulsive in any way.

RATTLE IT — Egg Shakers, Maracas, Woven Rattles, Sistrums In addition to the ubiquitous egg-shaped shakers, maracas are a well-known example of rattle-it idiophones. The percussion world is populated with a host of other rattled things. For $6 I purchased a lovely reed-woven rattle filled with stones, and for $5 I purchased a double rattle: two painted wooden cylinders attached by a curved handle. The woven rattle has a soft sound, suggesting rustling as well as rattling. The sound of the wooden one is more assertive.

The sistrum is a type of rattle that’s been around for 5,000 years, used by the ancient Egyptians. Generally speaking, a sistrum consists of a handle with a U-shaped frame projecting from it (think of the shape of a slingshot). A crossbar of wire is wrapped around the top of the two prongs, and things that rattle are strung from the wire. Usually these things are metal, cut in circles or in strips. Some players make their own sistrums by splitting willow branches halfway down, threading wire across the top and stringing it with flattened beer bottle caps with holes pierced through them. Instead of making my own sistrum, I bought an African one for $12. A bargain, really, because nickel silver ones sell for $125 or more — which, no matter how you listen, is a lot of money for the rattle.

Various shakers

Various shakers

In music there’s room for a wide variety of crazy percussion instruments: instruments that have been used for thousands of years. Instruments that even a klutz like me can learn to play. Almost any music store, from rock to jazz to folk, will have on display a basket of plastic egg-shaped rattling instruments.

In my wanderings through music stores, I purchased a white egg-shaped rattle. Then a black one. Then another black one, so I had a pair. Then a green one. Then pink. Then I investigated wooden rattles. And then I became enamored of the Remo fruit rattles, shaped like oranges, pears, apples, potatoes, bananas, plums. All to improve my sense of sound recognition, of course, there being subtle differences between all the colors and materials.

In a corner of our living room, next to where Phil keeps his hammered dulcimers, his hammers, his music stands, his scores of books and videos, is a huge wicker basket filled with my idiophones . . . and a shelf filled with my audios and videos and DVDs and books . . . and another spilling over with instruments I can’t squeeze into the large basket.

All this is research, of course. I refuse to be compulsive about it.


Barbara Gregorich’s love of idiophones spilled over into her mystery Sound Proof, in which the suspects play jaw harps, bones, washboards, musical saws and other suspicious and dangerous contraptions.

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