September 21, 2021   Read time 2 min
Rattles go far back into prehistory. Clay vessels containing pellets have been found from many early cultures, and because the vessels often replicate the shapes of natural containers such as gourds or seed pods, it is obvious that rattles of such materials that do not survive long burial in the earth must have been used in far earlier times.

So various are their forms, so many are their types, that rattles almost defy description. Even the bestknown system for classifying musical instruments (for which, see the afterword on Classification of Instruments) becomes almost incoherent when dealing with them. We may define them as instruments that are shaken, but we shake them in many different ways, for instance, attaching them to horses and carriages, tying them to our legs and arms, stitching them to our clothing, leaving them out in the wind or water, placing them where our enemies may trip over them, and, of course, holding them in our hands.

Equally variable are their uses. Many are used for ritual; others for dances and other musical occasions; some for protection (see interlude A); many just for fun, especially by children; and almost all for more than one, or indeed for all, of these purposes. Many appear today in our and other peoples’ orchestras and bands.

Some rattles shake against themselves, some slide to and fro, some knock together or are knocked by something else. Many are hollow, often with seeds or other pellets inside them or with a network of beads outside them. Some are scraped by something. And many combine two or more of these methods of sounding, which is why classification systems become incoherent.

Those that shake against themselves are often called jingles, although this term can also be used for such things as pellet bells, causing confusion, and those that are shaken to slide back and forth against their bodies include the sistra. There are gray areas, for example, because as the disks of the sistrum slide to and fro, they are striking against each other as well as against the frame. On the whole, however, we consider that the jingles are clusters of things, for example, deer hooves or nutshells that we find in Africa and in South America, or small pellet bells, as we find in India, whereas the sistrum has a set of plates or jingles that slide on bars, or bars that slide in a frame.

The clusters of jingles are normally attached to dancers’ anatomy or costumes and are seldom used as a separate instrument—they sound in response to body movement. The sistrum and the Javanese and Balinese angklung that is also a form of sistrum, on the other hand, are separate instruments. The anklung is made in tuned sets and is used in villages as an orchestra or gamelan instead of the sets of tuned gongs and other instruments more familiar to us. The sistrum was important in ancient Egypt and was associated with the Isis rite that was also popular in Rome in the days of the empire. It survives today in the Ethiopian Coptic Church.

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