What Are The Differences Between Clave & Cowbell?

The percussion world is filled with various instruments that are vastly different from one another but may work together in various musical contexts. Two of these instruments are the clave and the cowbell.

What are the differences between clave and cowbell? These are some of the most relevant differences:

  • Claves are (mostly) wooden, while cowbells are metallic.
  • The cowbell has a distinctive bell shape, while claves are essentially wood sticks.
  • The cowbell has a more resounding tone than the clave.
  • The cowbell is utilized in more genres.

In this post, we'll be covering these differences between claves and cowbells. However, let's first consider their backgrounds to get a more encompassing view.

The Background Of Clave & Cowbell

Both the clave and cowbell may coincide in genres such as Latin music, but their histories are, not surprisingly, quite dissimilar from one another.

Let's explore their development. We'll start with the cowbell, which has a much older history.

The Background Of The Cowbell

As its name might give out, the cowbell is a bell originally fitted to a cow's neck. Hence, the instrument's origin is heavily related to the history of cattle raising.

According to some historians, cowbells were introduced roughly 5,000 years ago in Africa for tracking animals, though they were pottery bells rather than metal.

The first metal bells would be made in China approximately 1,000 years later, and they would arrive in Europe in around 500 AD. For the record, these bells would serve as models for the modern European church bells.

During the Renaissance, the usage of cowbells in music started to be explored, beginning with Belgian brothers Francois and Pierre Hemony, who devised cowbells capable of delivering five pitches.

With time, these pitches would denote different types of animals, with the smallest animals wearing higher-pitched bells and the lead cow sporting the largest and deepest bell.

However, the widespread use of cowbells in music will have to wait until the turn of the 20th century. At this point in time, various composers began experimenting with the instrument and incorporating it into their musical offerings.

Tuned cowbells (Almglocken in German) caught the attention of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. The former would grant a slot to the cowbell for his Symphony No. 6, while the latter would use these idiophones in his Alpine Symphony.

In jazz, these bells would begin to be utilized parallel to modern drum kits and percussion tables in the 1920s. They received a boost in popularity in the 1940s, courtesy of Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban cowbell players he included in his gigs. Since then, they have been rapidly integrated into other popular musical genres.

The Background Of The Clave

Despite being one of the most basic percussion instruments, the clave was not developed until relatively recently. The clave is Afro-Cuban in origin, and it was created almost entirely by accident.

During the Spanish conquest of Latin America in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, the Spaniards would send cargos via ships made in Seville from trees found in the wilderness.

Soon after, they had to look for alternatives as the tree population in the nearby region was being decimated. At that point, they decided to build their ships in Cuba using Cuban hardwood, which was proven superior to Spanish wood.

The enslaved Africans in shipwright labour were forbidden at that time from using drums, so they had to look for other objects with which they could play their music.

At one point, one enslaved person grabbed two pieces of discarded hardwood and struck them together, delivering a sound that soon the Africans in the area found fitting for their ceremonies. This led them to design round sticks out of these hardwood pieces to be used for various rhythmic purposes.

Since then, claves have become an important component in Afro-Cuban music and Latin American music in general, particularly Salsa, Merengue, Bata, Guaguanco, and many others.

The Similarities Between Clave And Cowbell

The differences between both instruments are numerous, but so are their similarities. Let's quickly go over their main resemblances:

  • Claves and cowbells are primarily percussion instruments.
  • Both instruments are idiophonic instruments that are struck with another object.
  • Both are used in Latin and Latin jazz music.
  • To a greater or lesser degree, both instruments have African roots.

The Differences Between Clave And Cowbell

Analyzing both instruments' backgrounds, we may already discern big distinctions between them. Nevertheless, we could also find contrasts in many other areas.

Let's dive deeper into these differences, paying special attention to those outlined at the beginning of this article.

Difference 1: Build Material

The difference in build material will also impact how both instruments sound due to the nature of these instruments. Hence, this is more than merely an accidental or cosmetic difference.

Cowbells are traditionally made out of metal sheets. Some of the most utilized metals for cowbells include steel and brass. Occasionally, you may find cowbells made of synthetic materials, particularly more recent models.

On the flip side, the clave is originally made of wood, such as rosewood, white wood, and ebony, among others. However, more recently, claves have been manufactured with plastic and fibreglass, emulating the feel and sonic qualities produced with wooden claves.

Difference 2: Shape

Apart from the materials utilized, the shapes of these instruments are very distinct from one another.

The cowbell is shaped just like many other bells. It's a semi-opened broad tapered parallelepiped tube with a handle or post at the top.

Some cowbells (especially those used in classical music) may include a clapper on the inside, which is a pendulum with a heavy tip that strikes the inner walls.

Clapperless bells are heavily employed in more popular music genres such as rock or Latin and are incorporated into different drum sets.

The clave's shape is not very elaborate. It's basically comprised of two separate hollow sticks shaped cylindrically. Their hollowness gives them a rich cracking sound as they're struck. They are always held in the hands as they're played, contrary to cowbells which may or may not be held.

Difference 3: Sound

As said earlier, both the clave and the cowbell are idiophone instruments. Idiophones produce sound via their own vibration, and they don't rely on strings or membranes for this purpose, in contrast to chordophones and membranophones.

The difference in sound is quite noticeable. This is heavily correlated with the materials utilized. Owing to their metal construction, cowbells produce a brighter and more reverberating tone, while the wooden clave produces a more staccato sound that's still strong and penetrating enough.

Cowbells also have a much wider dynamic range, with the tone able to be modulated by hitting the instrument at different spots or dampening with the holding hand. The claves can be dampened or amplified depending on the way they are being held, but, apart from that, there's very little tonal variety to be attained during performance.

Difference 4: Genres

In this regard, there may be certain overlaps.

While it's true that, as stated numerous times, cowbells and claves often coincide, the reality is that both instruments are part of very different musical traditions.

Assessing the historical background of both instruments, it is moderately clear that the cowbell's association with specific musical genres is largely accidental and doesn't necessarily have any direct link with their roots. Therefore, its widespread utilization in Latin music was essentially owed to its inclusion in standard drum sets, making it a convenient tool for adding more dynamic rhythmic sounds.

Meanwhile, the clave is intrinsically connected to the genres wherein it is played, as it was designed expressly for these contexts. Furthermore, the clave is hardly included in other types of ensembles that are not specifically Afro-Cuban or similar.

However, separate instances of claves played in popular or classical music may be found, albeit sparsely. For example, the Beatles made use of these in their recording of the track “And I Love Her”, with George Harrison being credited as the player. Moreover, drumsticks are sometimes struck together in the manner of claves by various rock and jazz drummers.

Meanwhile, the cowbell's use case is far more versatile. It caters to many more genres and styles due to its universally approved sound profile but, more importantly, its worldwide historical significance.

The cowbell is one of the few percussion instruments developed across three continents, perhaps in light of its original purpose in animal husbandry or breeding. This, along with its much older history, has made the cowbell a suitable instrument in Western and Eastern musical expressions.

For this reason, we may find a wide variety of cowbells that could even serve as chromatic melodic instruments, such as the Almglocken, which, as stated earlier, is heavily used in contemporary academic music.

Read How Clave Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Cowbells Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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