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Encyclopedia > Cymbals

It is also possible that you want to know about the Cymbalum instrument.

Cymbals (Fr. cymbales; Ger. Becken; Ital. piatti or cinelli), are a modern percussion instrument. Cymbals consist of thin, normally round plates of various cymbal alloys, see cymbal making for a discussion of their manufacture. Most modern cymbals are of indefinite pitch (tuned sets have been manufactured but are rare), whereas small cup-shaped cymbals based on ancient designs sound a definite note, see crotale.

Cymbals are used in modern orchestras and many military, marching, concert and other bands. They are one of the two instrument types that form the modern drum kit, the other of course being the drum, and as such are a basic part of much contemporary music. Even the most basic drum kit normally contains at least one suspended cymbal and a pair of hi-hat cymbals.


Orchestral cymbals

Although cymbals are not often required they form part of every orchestra; their chief use is for marking the rhythm and for producing weird, fantastic effects or adding military colour, and their shrill notes hold their own against a full orchestra playing fortissimo. Cymbals are specially suited for suggesting frenzy, fury or bacchanalian revels, as in the Venus music in Wagner's Tannhäuser and Grieg's Peer Gynt suite.

One of the world's largest manufacturers of cymbals is Paiste. Other cymbal manufacturers include Saluda, Zildjian and Sabian.

Crash cymbals

A pair of clash cymbals in profile. The bell is in green and the straps are in red.

Orchestral crash cymbals or clash cymbals are traditionally used in pairs, each one having a strap set in the bell of the cymbal by which they are held. The sound is obtained by rubbing their edges together in a sliding movement rather than by clashing them against each other as laymen often suppose. A skilled player can obtain an enormous dynamic range from a pair of crash cymbals. For example, in Beethoven's ninth symphony, one of their first appearances in an orchestral work, they make their entry pianissimo, adding a touch of colour rather than an almighty crash.

Crash cymbals are usually damped by pressing them against the player's body. A composer may write "Let them vibrate"(l.v.), sec" (short) or equivalent indications on the score; more usually, the player must judge exactly when to damp the cymbals based on the written duration of crash and the context in which it occurs.

Crash cymbals have traditionally been accompanied by the bass drum playing an identical part. This combination, played loudly, is an effective way to accentuate a note since the two instruments together contribute to both very low and very high frequency ranges and provide a satisfying "crash-bang-wallop". In older music the composer sometimes provided just one part for this pair of instruments, writing senza piatti, or piatti soli if the bass drum is to remain silent. However, the modern convention is for the instruments to have independent parts.

The crash cymbals evolved into the modern hi-hat. Even in a modern drum kit, they remain paired with the bass drum as the instruments which are played with the player's feet.

Suspended cymbals

The second main orchestral use of cymbals is the suspended cymbal. This is a cymbal mounted horizontally or nearly horizontally as in a modern drum kit. These can be played with felt mallets or (cheap!) timpani beaters and give an eerie sound when played quietly. A tremelo played in this way can build in volume to a climax in a satisfyingly smooth manner.

Furthermore, the edge of a suspended cymbal may be hit with shoulder of a drum stick to obtain a sound somewhat akin to that of a pair of clash cymbals. Other methods of playing include scraping a coin or a triangle beater rapidly across the ridges on the top of the cymbal, giving a "zing" sound (as in the fourth movement of Dvořák's Symphony No. 9). Cymbals may also be dropped, intentionally or otherwise, causing a range of sounds depending on whether it hits the floor full on or spins before coming to a rest. This is not particularly good for the cymbal, however.

Ancient cymbals

Ancient cymbals or tuned cymbals are much more rarely called for. Their timbre is entirely different, more like that of small hand-bells or of the notes of the keyed harmonica. They are not struck full against each other, but by one of their edges, and the note given out by them is higher in proportion as they are thicker and smaller. Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet calls for two pairs of cymbals, modelled on some ancient Pompeian instruments no larger than the hand (some are no larger than a crown piece), and tuned to F and B flat. The modern instruments descended from this line are the crotales.


The origins of cymbals can be traced back to prehistoric times. The ancient Egyptian cymbals closely resembled our own. The British Museum possesses two pairs, 13cm in diameter, one of which was found in the coffin of the mummy of Ankhhape, a sacred musician. Those used by the Assyrians were both plate- and cup-shaped. The Greek cymbals were cup or bell-shaped, and may be seen in the hands of innumerable fauns and satyrs in sculptures and on painted vases. The word cymbal is derived from the Laitin cymbalum which itself derives from the Greek word kumbalom, meaning a small bowl.


During the middle ages the word cymbal was applied to the glockenspiel, or peal of small bells, and later to the dulcimer, perhaps on account of the clear bell-like tone produced by the hammers striking the wire strings. After the introduction of the keyed dulcimer or clavichord the spinet, the word clavicymbal was used in the Romance languages to denote the varieties of spinet and harpsichord. Ancient cymbals are among the instruments played by King David and his musicians in the 9th century illuminated manuscript known as the Bible of Charles the Bald in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

Types of cymbal

Particular types of cymbal include:

See also

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

  Results from FactBites:
Cymbal (99 words)
A percussion instrument made of a circular brass plate.
The cymbal can be played as a pair which are struck sidelong against each other to produce a crashing sound (crash cymbals) or struck with sticks or mallets to cause the plates to vibrate.
See also crash cymbals; suspended cymbal; ride cymbal; hi-hat; sizzle cymbal; splash cymbal.
  More results at FactBites »



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