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also: rainmaker, pau de chuva

gallery #1
audio #1


Contextual Associations

The rainstick is an indirectly-struck tubular rattle idiophone generally associated with Latin America. It is a sound-effects instrument the sound of which indexes rain falling on leaves, possibly in a tropical setting. It is heard most frequently today in commercial popular music from around the world, not just from Latin America, to establish a particular mood. It has also come to be used in recent decades in the setting of drum circles and also in compositions mostly for percussion ensembles. Audio #1, an excerpt from a chamber music work by the avant-garde American composer John Cage, is a rare example of the rainstick’s use in academic music. The rainstick can also simply be a novelty instrument, used as a child’s toy. Some speculate that the instrument was at one time associated with rain making rituals, but this conjecture has never been substantiated.


The rainstick pictured in gallery #1 is constructed from a long, dried cactus spine, its ends closed with disc-shaped plugs. The core of the spine is hollow, but thorns removed from the exterior of the tube are pounded through it like nails, their sharp tips imbedded into the inside wall across from where they enter. These natural “nails” are inserted in a spiral pattern along the length of the tube (and can be seen in gallery #1 when magnified to its fullest extent) and produce a helix-like structure in the tube’s interior. Hundreds of dried seeds bounce randomly against these obstructions as they move, under the force of gravity, from one end of the tube to the other when it is held in a vertical position.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player holds the rainstick with one or both hands. Making sure that all the internal seeds are at one end and lower than horizontal before sounding, all that is necessary to sound the instrument is to tip it so that the end with the seeds is above horizontal. How far above horizontal the full end is lifted effects how long it will take all the seeds to reach the other end, and also subtly effects the volume of sound produced. The instrument is not, to our knowledge, player rhythmically.


The history of the rainstick is unclear, but some speculate it originated in West African and was brought to the New World by slaves (Libin, p. 219). We have not found ethnographic reference to the rainstick in Africa. “Pau de chuva” is the name for the rainstick in Brazilian Portuguese, although sources do not claim the instrument as indigenous to any Brazilian peoples. Some unsigned and citation-less Wikipedia articles place the origin of the instrument variously with the ancient Aztecs or Incas, or with the indigenous Diaguita or Mapuches peoples of Chile. Perhaps the only conclusion to be drawn from this above information is that there does not appear to be any clearly documented association between the rainstick and the traditional music making of any particular Latin American country or countries.

Bibliographic Citations

Holland, James. 2005. Practical Percussion. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Libin, Laurence. 2014. “Rainstick.” GDMI v.4: 218-219.

“Pau de chuva.” Wikipedia article accessed 1/19/18:

“Rainstick.” Wikipedia article accessed 1/19/18:

“Where do rainsticks come from?” Wikipedia article accessed 1/19/18: