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The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments
James BladesJames Blades, James HollandJames Holland, Jeremy MontaguJeremy Montagu

Cymbals (from Gk. kymbos; Fr. cymbales, Ger. Becken, Schellebecken, Teller, Tschinellen [obsolete]; It. piatti, cinelli; Sp. platillos). 

Instruments of percussion (classified as vessel clappers with everted rim), normally of indefinite pitch. The modern orchestral cymbals are a pair of large circular plates of metal (an alloy of about 80% copper and 20% tin), the exact constituents and processing of which are the makers’ secrets. The highest-quality cymbals are said to contain silver. Current manufacturers include the long-established and world-famous Zildjian family with branches in Turkey, the USA, and Canada, M.M. Paiste & Sohn of Switzerland, the Premier Drum Co. of England, and the Italian firm of Ufip; their combined output amounts to several thousand yearly.

To meet modern requirements, cymbals are made in many sizes and grades of sound. Diameters (edge to edge) range from 30 to 65 cm, a decided contrast with the cymbals of antiquity, which were considerably smaller. For standard orchestral purposes, cymbals measuring 40 to 50 cm in diameter are used, the desired tonal qualities being brilliance, resonance, and a multiplicity of overtones. In general, orchestral cymbals are ‘paired’ with a slight difference in vaguely perceived pitch. The finest-quality cymbals are cast, rolled, hand-beaten, and machine-skimmed (pared) to a predetermined thickness. Each plate is slightly convex to ensure that only the outer edges meet. In the centre of each plate is a shallow saucer-like recess forming a dome. A double strap by which the cymbal is normally held is passed through a central hole and is knotted with a crown (‘sailor’s’) knot inside the cymbal where the recess is concave. The strap is gripped between the thumb and first finger. To shield the knuckles, a circular pad of soft leather or felt covers the dome. In some cases cymbals are held by a special handle. Moderate-quality cymbals of brass serve useful purposes, but are completely out of place in the full orchestra where, with certain exceptions such as the occasional use of Chinese cymbals, only the best quality ‘Turkish’ instruments are acceptable.

China is often credited with being the oldest cymbal-making country, but cymbals might have come to China from India (for a generic discussion of South Asian cymbals, see Tāl.). Cymbals (like gongs) have long been and continue to be used in the religious and secular life of the Chinese and, as well as manufacturing gongs, China remains a cymbal-making country. The modern Chinese cymbals used in Western music differ from modern ‘Turkish’ cymbals in both shape and sound. The boss of Chinese cymbals is knob-shaped and the edge of the plate has a distinct upward curve, and though the formula of the metal is similar in each case, the casting and processing of the Chinese cymbal renders it brittle in sound and texture in comparison with the ‘Turkish’ cymbal. Consequently, Chinese cymbals are used in the Western orchestra only for special effects.

Whether or not the earliest were Chinese, cymbals are of ancient origin. Three sherds with painted relief decoration (first half of the 2nd millennium bce), from Kabakh in Hittite Anatolia, show musicians with cymbals; and on a terracotta plaque of similar date from Larsa (Old Babylonian period), a drummer and cymbal player perform while two men box or wrestle. There is much reference to cymbals in the Bible, and in Psalm cl, loud and high-sounding cymbals are distinguished: Canaanite bronze cymbals have survived from the area, and pairs of cymbals were used in the liturgy of the First Temple at Jerusalem. David’s chief musician, Asaph, was a professional cymbal player. During the dedication of the Ark, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan were all appointed to play cymbals of brass. In the last century of the Temple only one cymbal player was regularly employed, to mark pauses in the chanting or to signal the beginning of the Levitical chant.

Cymbals not unlike those in use nowadays are represented on Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs from the turn of the 1st millennium bce, and a number of actual instruments have been found at Nimrud. A Babylonian plaque dated about 700–600 bce in the British Museum shows a pair of cymbals held vertically (as in the modern orchestra) and a drum; an Assyrian bas-relief of about 680 bce depicts cymbals held horizontally (as they were in the European Middle Ages). Cymbals had their place in Assyrian military bands, where they are shown in combination with lyres and drums.

Egyptian cymbals, mostly from the Greco-Roman period, have survived in three main sizes: large, flat instruments; medium-sized cymbals with comparatively deep central depressions; and small instruments often attached to long, forked handles (‘tong cymbals’). An interesting pair of beaten bronze cymbals (their date is uncertain) measure some 15 cm in diameter and are secured by the original cord. Many of the smaller instruments produce well-defined, bell-like notes of high pitch. The Egyptian cymbal found a new, religious role in the Coptic Church, where melodies in strict rhythm are accompanied by small cymbals or cymbals and triangles. The instrument is also used at Coptic burials.

The cymbal appears in many ancient Greek and Roman iconographical sources. A pair of small bronze cymbals from Greece (c500 bce) survives. The instrument is also clearly portrayed on a marble statue of the Hellenistic period (3rd century bce), and on a mosaic found at Pompeii dated 73 ce. An illustration from Herculaneum shows a pair of cymbals connected by a strap. In contrast, on an ancient Greek drawing of a female centaur and a bacchante, the centaur holds a cymbal in her left hand which she strikes against an identical instrument held in the bacchante’s right hand, to assist, it is supposed, in the musical activity concerned with an orgy. Greek cymbals were closely associated with such rites, particularly the ancient orgiastic rites of the goddess Cybele, and the raucous rites connected with the worship of Dionysus (or, in Rome, Bacchus).

In many cultures cymbals, in addition to their use in religious and secular life, have been credited with remarkable powers. This subject, and the use and properties of antique cymbals in Greek, Roman, and Jewish history, were discussed at length by F.A. Lampe in De cymbalis veterum (1700) and R. Ellys in Fortuita sacra: quibus subjicitur commentarius de cymbalis (1727).

A set of cymbals from the ruins of Pompeii (in the City Museum, Pompeii) ranges from small crotales to cymbals measuring 41 cm in diameter. These instruments are said to have been of considerable interest to Berlioz, who was certainly responsible for introducing the gentle tinkle of ‘antique cymbals’ into the orchestra. In the scherzo of his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839) two pairs of antique cymbals tuned a 5th apart to b♭″ and f ‴ are needed. Debussy scored for two antique cymbals (cymbales antiques) in e′ and b″ in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891–4). In Daphnis et Chloé (1912) Ravel scored for six pairs of antique cymbals with definite pitches sounding b’, c″, d♭″, e″, f ″, a″.

20th-century manufacturers made chromatic sets of crotales readily available. In the past the parts for these instruments were often given to the glockenspiel. (When Berlioz conducted Roméo et Juliette in London, no small cymbals were available, but with his usual thoroughness he persuaded a London metal founder to manufacture instruments in time for the performance.) Crotales vary in size, suggesting their use as metal castanets and finger cymbals.

Cymbals closely resembling those used by the Greeks and Romans frequently appear in pictorial representations from the Middle Ages. In many illustrations they are played horizontally, as portrayed for example by Matteo di Giovanni (Assumption of the Virgin, late 15th century). Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle (1636–7) illustrates cymbals with straps similar to those in use nowadays. Cymbals—both flat and hemispherical—are illustrated in 13th-century English manuscripts. In addition to their use in Christian and pagan rites and as instruments of war, cymbals (smaller than those in the modern orchestra) were used throughout the Middle Ages by dancers and to some extent in ensemble music. Cymbals (zil) were used in the mehter bands of the Turkish janissaries from at least the 14th century. These bands were known in Europe from the early 17th century and by the end of that century were being employed by East European rulers. Instruments from these bands were included in the orchestra by N. Strungk in his opera Esther and in Freschi’s opera Berenice vendicata (both 1680). The adoption of Turkish percussion (including cymbals) into European Feldmusik ensembles in the mid-18th century contributed to the growth of large military bands early in the following century. Gluck’s use of cymbals in Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) excited Berlioz. Mozart (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, 1782), Haydn (‘Military’ Symphony, 1793–4), and Beethoven (Die Ruinen von Athen, 1812, and the Ninth Symphony, 1822–4), made cunning use of cymbals with other janissary effects.

From the early part of the 19th century a more positive and extended use of cymbals as orchestral instruments is found, largely because of the pioneering of Berlioz. In his Grande messe des morts (1837) Berlioz scored for ten cymbals, certain of which he specified to be struck and/or sustained with soft sticks. His ideal ensemble included four pairs of cymbals (he frequently scored for more than one pair), and he scorned the combination of bass drum and cymbals played by one musician. Wagner’s use of cymbals is exemplary. One of the finest moments for the cymbals is their first entry in the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. There is also the truly noble effect of two loud strokes at the climax of the Lohengrin prelude. Here, as in Die Meistersinger, two cymbals are clashed in the normal manner. In Der Ring des Nibelungen Wagner used the mysterious ringing sound of a single cymbal, in some cases struck with a drumstick and in others with two drumsticks to produce a roll. In Das Rheingold a roll (‘Becken mit Paukenschlägeln’) describes the glitter of the precious metal, and a similar effect occurs in the second act of Die Walküre, when Wotan utters his mysterious blessing of Alberich. Wagner also used the two-plate roll. Here two cymbals are rubbed together or the edges agitated against each other. Bartók scored for this effect in his Second Violin Concerto (1937–8) and his Second Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra (1928, rev. 1935). It also occurs in Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony (1911–13, rev. 1920 and 1933). Players sometimes achieve the effect by holding the faces of two plates loosely together while a colleague executes a roll on them with timpani sticks.

Tchaikovsky used cymbals imitatively with short notes in the duel scene of his fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1870 and 1880). The single stroke (mf) with the well-calculated vibrating period prescribed by Dvořák in his Symphony ‘From the New World’ (1893) is a model of economy in the use of orchestral percussion.

Many late-19th- and 20th-century composers made considerable demands on cymbals (and the player). Most professional orchestras have an ‘armoury’ of cymbals, both in pairs and suspended, from which to choose. They can range in diameter from 61 cm (for a big climax in a Mahler symphony) to a tiny ‘splash’ cymbal of 15 cm. In Antigonae (1949) Orff requested ten pairs of cymbals. Peter Schat in Signalement (1961) wrote for l2 suspended cymbals of specified sizes. Composers such as Mahler, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Bliss, Hindemith, Gerhard, and Walton have requested various effects. Mahler asked for the cymbal to be struck with a steel rod in his Third Symphony (1893–6; rev. 1906). In Ein Heldenleben (1897–8) and also in Don Quixote (1897) Strauss wrote zischend, here usually interpreted as ‘hissing’. This effect is customarily produced by the brushing of the two inner faces of the cymbals, by passing the edge of one of the cymbals swiftly across the inner face of the other, or by scraping across the striations (tone-rings) with the fingernail or a coin. Debussy also used this effect in La mer (1903–5). Schoenberg wrote for a sustained note to be played by drawing a cello bow over the edge of a cymbal in his Five Orchestral Pieces (1909). Bartók, in his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), required the suspended cymbal to be struck forcibly on the dome with the heavy end of a side-drum stick and, in contrast, that the instrument be struck on the very edge with the fingernail or the blade of a pocketknife (pppp). Stravinsky frequently specified cymbal with triangle beater, for example in the Firebird Suite (1910) and Les noces (1921–3). Bliss asked for two cymbals, placed respectively on the heads of a pair of timpani, to be struck with hard beaters in Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955). Hindemith, in his Symphony in E♭ (1940), sought a sound similar to that of the ‘sizzle’ cymbal (see below) in his instruction for a cymbal to be struck with a soft stick while a thin rod is held to vibrate against the edge of the instrument.

Further unusual effects come from Gerhard and Walton. In Hymnody (1963) Gerhard scored for the edge of a large suspended cymbal to be scraped with a threaded rod. In one of Walton’s earliest works, Façade (1923), two novel requests occur: that the suspended cymbal be struck (and sustained by means of a tremolo) with wire brushes (this technique had been developed in jazz and popular music), and that a (possibly unique) effect be produced by striking the edge of a cymbal with a triangle.

Ceng-ceng are pairs of thick brass cymbals with a large dome, about 20 cm in diameter, used in certain Balinese gamelans. Britten used these to great effect in his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1956).

Several types of suspended cymbal were first developed for the drum kit in jazz and popular music in the 1920s and 30s, and were also adopted by the orchestra. The ‘sizzle’ or rivet cymbal is a suspended cymbal with loose rivets inserted in holes drilled close to the edge at regular intervals around the circumference (or by draping a chain or other device across a normal cymbal). As the cymbal vibrates the rivets rattle, producing a ‘sizzling’ sound. Other types associated with the drum set include the small ‘splash’ cymbal, the ‘crash’ (about 36 cm, used for accents rather than steady timekeeping), the large ‘ride’ (44–66 cm), and ‘bounce’ cymbals. The hi-hat or ‘choke’ cymbals are two suspended cymbals, about 35 cm in diameter, suspended face to face on a stand and brought together by means of a pedal mechanism.

In orchestral scores the part for the cymbals is written either on a staff or on a single line. At times the cymbal part is combined with that of the bass drum, and is signified by the use of ‘tails up’ (cymbals) and ‘tails down’ (bass drum).

For the normal two-plate stroke (naturale, a 2) the cymbals are held vertically and clashed together with a swift up-and-down or across movement. Maximum brilliance is obtained by the almost full circumference of the two plates meeting simultaneously, with the player relaxing hands and wrists as far as is practicable. To obtain the fullest sound the instruments are turned outwards after impact and held at arm’s length. Long notes are indicated by the direction laissez vibrer (‘let ring’), in which case the plates ring freely. Short notes are also indicated by notation, or by the terms sec, étouffé, and so on. To stop the sound the player presses the cymbals against the clothing. Since composers are generally lax in notating cymbal parts, a great deal is left to the discretion of the player, who in many cases must judge by ear (and musical acumen) rather than eye the appropriate length of the note.

The observance of note values and dynamics is a major part of orchestral cymbal technique. For pianissimo the two cymbals meet as in the full clash, the degree of movements being adjusted to ensure the required volume. In certain circumstances the cymbals are played edge to edge to produce a pianissimo effect. Occasionally, to produce the minimum sound or a particular effect, one cymbal is lightly brushed across the other, or the two plates merely pulled apart. Among the many recent improvements in cymbal equipment is the insulated rack to hold one or more pairs of cymbals upright during tacet periods.

Single cymbals can be suspended and struck with a variety of beaters. Formerly in the orchestra, one of a pair of hand cymbals would be held in one hand and struck with a beater held in the other. Nowadays one cymbal is suspended on a stand so that both hands are free to operate beaters. On a suspended cymbal, tremolo is normally executed in the same way as a roll on the timpani: by a series of reiterated single strokes. To keep the cymbal horizontal during a tremolo, the beaters operate on the two opposite edges. The playing spot, unless otherwise requested, is about 3 cm from the edge. Where a single stroke with hard stick is indicated, the cymbal is normally struck on the edge. A less common effect is a roll with snare-drum sticks. Note values on the suspended cymbal are usually observed by the method of ‘hand-damping’.

The combination of cymbals with bass drum (one performer) as a measure of economy is very largely obsolete. The effect produced by a player striking a cymbal affixed to the bass drum with a held cymbal simultaneously with a stroke on a bass drum is, however, effective, particularly in a military band and when requested for a particular reason (as by Mahler in his First Symphony, 1891: Türkische Becken and grosse Trommel; and by Stravinsky in Petrushka, 1910–11, rev. 1946).


J. Blades: Percussion Instruments and their History (London, 1970, rev. 3/1984)Find this resource:

L. Picken: Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey (London, 1975)Find this resource:

N. Del Mar: Anatomy of the Orchestra (London, 1981)Find this resource:

J. Montagu: Timpani and Percussion (New Haven and London, 2002)Find this resource:

James Blades/James Holland/Jeremy Montagu