The bodhrán (pronEng|ˈbɔːrɑːn or IPA|/ˈbaʊrɑːn/; plural "bodhráns" or "bodhráin") is an Irish frame drum ranging from 25 to 65cm (10" to 26") in diameter, with most drums measuring 35 to 45cm (14" to 18"). The sides of the drum are 9 to 20cm (3½" to 8") deep. A goatskin head is tacked to one side (although nowadays, synthetic heads, or new materials like kangaroo skin, are sometimes used). The other side is open ended for one hand to be placed against the inside of the drum head to control the pitch and timbre. One or two crossbars, sometimes removable, may be inside the frame, but this is increasingly rare on professional instruments. Some professional modern bodhráns integrate mechanical tuning systems similar to those used on drums found in drum kits.


There is evidence that the bodhrán was used during the "Irish rebellion of 1603," by the Irish forces as a battle drum, or that the use of the drum was to provide a cadence for the pipers and warriors to keep to, as well as announce the arrival of the army. This leads some to think that the bodhrán was derived from an old Celtic war drum.


Third-generation bodhrán maker Caramel Tobin asserts that the name "bodhrán" means "skin tray"; he also suggests a link with the Irish word "bodhor", meaning soft, or dull sounding.cite book |last= Driver |first= Nicholas |title= Nicholas Driver's Bodhran & Bones Tutor |year= 1978 |publisher= (self-published) |location= Suffolk, UK ] Another theory asserts its name is derived from the similar Irish word "bodhar", meaning deaf. A relatively new introduction to Irish music, the bodhrán has largely replaced the role of the tambourine, suggesting another possible origin for bodhrán's name from the abbreviation "'bourine".

Possible Antecedents

The bodhrán is similar to the frame drums distributed widely across northern Africa from the Middle East, and has cognates in instruments used for Arabic music and the musical traditions of the Mediterranean region (see Music of North Africa, Music of Greece etc.). Traditional skin drums made by some Native Americans are very close in design to the bodhrán as well.

There is a close similarity between the bodhrán and Spanish military drums of previous centuries, suggesting the instrument may have been introduced by Irish who had served in the Spanish military or acquired knowledge of the instrument from Spanish comrades aboard sailing ships. [ [ Holly J. Morris] ]

It has also been suggested that the origin of the instrument may be the skin trays used in Ireland for carrying peat; the earliest bodhrán may have simply been a skin stretched across a wood frame without any means of attachment. Peter Kennedy observed a similar instrument in Dorset and Wiltshire in the 1950s, where it was known as the "riddle drum", and suggested that this instrument may have originated in England.who|date=November 2007

Dorothea Hast has stated that until the mid-twentieth century the bodhrán was mainly used as a tray for separating chaff, in baking, as a food server, and for storing food or tools. She argues that its use as musical instrument was restricted to ritual use in rural areas. She claims that while the earliest evidence of its use beyond ritual occurs in 1842, its use as a general instrument did not become widespread until the 1960s, when Seán Ó Riada used it. [Hast, Dorothea E. and Stanley Scott. "Music in Ireland: experiencing Music, Expressing Culture" Oxford University press, New York, 2004. ISBN 0-19-514552-2]


There are no known references to this particular name for a drum prior to the 17th century. Although various drums (played with either hands or sticks) have been used in Ireland since ancient times, the bodhrán itself did not gain wide recognition as a legitimate musical instrument until the Irish traditional music resurgence in the 1960s in which it became known through the music of Seán Ó Riada and others. Prior to this, it was primarily used for festival processions only in the southwestern part of Ireland.

The second wave roots revival of Irish Traditional music in the 1960s and 1970s brought virtuoso bodhrán playing to the forefront, when it was further popularized by bands such as Ceoltóirí Chualann and The Chieftains.

Growing interest led to internationally available LP recordings, at which time the bodhrán became a globally recognized instrument. In the 1970s, virtuoso players such as The Boys of the Lough's Robin Morton, The Chieftains' Peadar Mercier, Planxty's Christy Moore, and De Dannan's Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh further developed playing techniques.

International Use

Although most common in Ireland, the bodhrán has gained popularity throughout the Celtic music world, especially in Scotland, Cape Breton, North mainland Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The Canadian Maritime group Great Big Sea uses a bodhrán in many of their songs. In Cornwall, traditional music sometimes uses a version of the bodhrán called a crowdy crawn ,cite book |last= cam kerewek |first= |title= Corollyn |year= 1992 |publisher= Cam Kernewek |location= Cornwall, UK ] the use of this instrument to store odds and ends led to the name also being used to mean 'miscellaneous'.


The drum is usually played in a seated position, held vertically on the player's thigh and supported by his or her upper body and arm (usually on the left side, for a right-handed player), with the hand placed on the inside of the skin where it is able to control the tension (and therefore the pitch and timbre) by applying varying amounts of pressure and also the amount of surface area being played, with the back of the hand against the crossbar, if present. The drum is struck with the other arm (usually the right) and is played either with the bare hand or with a lathe-turned piece of wood called a "bone", "tipper", "beater", or "cipín". Tippers were originally fashioned from a double-ended knuckle bone, but are now commonly made from ash, holly or hickory. Brush-ended beaters, and a "rim shot" (striking the rim) technique for contrast, were introduced by Johnny McDonagh.cite web | title=Bodhán Players | first= | last= | publisher=Ceolas celtic music archive | url= | accessdate=2006-01-06 ] There are numerous playing styles, mostly named after the region of Ireland in which they originated. The most common is Kerry style, which uses a two-headed tipper; the West Limerick style uses only one end of the tipper.

Later players such as Robbie Breathnach, Tommy Hayes, and Damien Quinn have developed sophisticated pitch-varying techniques which allow players to follow the tune being played. This was the birth of the “top-end” style. Their breakthrough in this style has achieved local and international acclaim with many beginners now being educated in this manner. This "top-end" style, is often played on a smaller (14-15 inch) and deeper (4-6 inch) drum with a thinner resonant skin, prepared like the skin of a Lambeg drum. The tipper in this style is usually straight and most of the expressive action is focused on the top end of the drum. The concept involves allowing a greater vs. lesser amount of the skin to resonate, with the "skin hand" acting as a moving bearing edge. To this end, top end players move the skin hand from the bottom of the drum and towards the top to generate increasingly high pitches on the drum. By making a "C" shape with the skin hand, the player can help to enhance and even amplify the sound. The same concept can be employed while playing at the front of the drum (skin hand moving towards and away from the player) or in a "bottom end" style, which is essentially top end, but upside-down, with the majority of tipper strikes at the bottom of the head. In any of these styles, crossbars are most often absent, allowing a more unrestricted access for the left hand to modify the tone. This enables a more melodic approach to this rhythm instrument, with a wide range of tones being employed.

When playing the bodhrán as an accompaniment to Irish music, different beats may be used. For example, reels have a 4/4 time. the bodhrán player must stick to this rhythm but is free to improvise within the structure: most simply, he may annunciate the first beat of four, making a sound like ONE two three four ONE two three four; but he can syncopate, put in double pulses, according to the rhythmic characteristics of the tunes being played. This is the difference between sensitive and insensitive playing, a matter of much concern to other traditional musicians. Because the bodhrán typically plays 16th notes (Kerry style), a great deal of variety can be introduced by these syncopations and the use of rests. Combined with manual pitch changes and naturally occurring tonal variations in an animal skin drumhead, the bodhrán can almost sound as melodically expressive as other non-percussive instruments.

New techniques

Playing styles have all been affected by the introduction of various internal tuning frame mechanisms. Originally developed by Jim Sutherland, the system now common amongst most makers was conceived and perfected by the Glasgow maker David Gormlie, and popularised by Johnny "Ringo" Macdonagh, after David presented him with one of his drums. Kevin Conneff and Tommy Hayes both play Gormlie drums, and nearly every maker uses his system of internal rings tuned with alum key screws held in brassheads. This practice has revolutionized the making and playing of bodhrans by removing the threat of damp conditions to the tension of the drumhead; allowing drumheads to be tuned to various notes, thus permitting the instrument to be played like a double-bass; and allowing a wider variety of skin types to be used (kangaroo, emu and donkey are now common).

As world music in general has become more popular, techniques once associated with other ethnic drumming traditions have become widespread in bodhrán playing.

Lorcan Mac Muiris incorporates jazz and Ghanaian styles into his technique, often playing the drum held between his knees and mutating the sound by pressing on the outer surface of the head, and uses Indian konokkol recitation to provide counter-rhythms.

Glen Velez uses Arab, South Indian, South Italian and Central Asian finger techniques, inspiring players like N. Scott Robinson, Yousif Sheronick, Glen Fittin, and John Loose.

John Bergamo has also explored cross-techniques for bodhrán with the drum seated between his legs and using fingers in methods close to Indian drumming techniques, unlike Mac Muiris who uses a thin stick in an imitation of African Ewe drumming.


* Nicholas Driver "The Bodhran", "English Dance and Sing" 40/1 1978 p15
* [ History of the Bodhran]
* (interview with Johnny McDonagh)
* cite web
title=Styles of Playing for the Bodhrán
publisher=Ceolas celtic music archive

External links

* [ DMOZ Bodhran category]
*cite web | title=The Bodhrán | first=Josh | last=Mittleman | authorlink= | publisher=Ceolas Music Pages | url= | accessdate=2006-01-06
* - Web resource and discussion forums by and for bodhrán players
* - a popular online community for bodhrán players
* - Conor Lyons and Ronan O'Snodaigh battle it out live on The Ray D'Arcy Show, in the run up to the World Bodhran Championships 2007
* [ Bodhran as heard in the epic film TITANIC] by Aaron Plunkett

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