Because the tambourine has existed since ancient times in a variety of cultures, we have no record of who invented it. This percussion instrument has its beginnings in the Middle East, and precursors to it are mentioned many times in the Bible. Middle Eastern music has featured tambourines through all of recorded history.
The tambourine is a small drum, although some actually do not have a drum head. It has attached pairs of metal jingles or bells, and is usually held at the rim. The musician shakes it or hits the top with a hand to ring the jingles, which usually are zills, also used as finger cymbals.
Historical records show that tambourines were played throughout the ancient Middle East as well as in China and Rome. Archaeologists have unearthed small ancient figurines and large Sumerian statues representing women holding tambourines, from as far back as 2000 B.C. (Sumer was located in the Persian Gulf region.)
Forerunners of the tambourine appearing in the Bible include the tabret, which likely did not have jingles, and the timbrel, which probably was closer to the instrument we know today. Women played these instruments during celebratory events, and tambourine playing was associated with dancing.
Scholars estimate the earliest mention of the pre-tambourine instrument in the Bible to have occurred around 1750 B.C., in Genesis 31:27, "Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp?" (King James Version)
People also played the timbrel in religious ceremonies and in worship, as in 2 Samuel 6:5, "And David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals." (KJV)
Another example occurs in Psalms 68:25, "The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the damsels playing with timbrels." (KJV)
Musicians have included the tambourine in an enormous variety of music over the years. Traveling entertainers used them during the Middle Ages, and such European classical composers as Mozart and Stravinsky called for tambourines in their music.
Bob Dylan immortalized the busker of 1960s folk music in "Mr. Tambourine Man," and the Lemon Pipers had a number one hit with "Green Tambourine." In Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lookin' Out My Back Door," the singer arrives home to find a happy gala on his lawn, including tambourines and elephants playing in a band.