Instruments | Cymbals | Percussion

Cymbals are thin metal discs played by being struck together or placed on a stand (suspended) and hit with sticks or beaters. They are made from beaten metal and so are distinct from crotales or antique cymbals, which are tuned cast metal discs.

Turkish and Chinese Cymbals

Suspended and crash cymbals used in western orchestral music, rock, pop and jazz are developed from Turkish cymbals and have a central boss or bell falling to convex shoulders. They are designed so that only the outside edges touch when they are crashed together, and the fundamental note is difficult to hear when they are played. Cymbals used in traditional Southeast Asian music are generally played as crash cymbals and are developed from the Chinese cymbal (bo or jingbo), which have either no bell or a squared-off bell, falling to convex shoulders and a wide flat rim. The edge of the cymbal may also be turned up. Turkish cymbals make a smooth, round sound, and Chinese cymbals make a short and abrasive sound.


Cymbals and metal clappers have been played in central Asia and ancient Egypt since around 1200 BC, from where they migrated into India and China. Cymbals appear frequently in the Bible, and are also found in ancient Greek and Roman art and literature. Early cymbals varied in size and were bowl- and funnel-shaped in cross-section, as well as the flatter cymbals like those found today. They were generally played as crash cymbals, often by dancers. Small brass finger cymbals (6 cm/21⁄2 in diameter) attached to the thumb and first finger – called zagat in Arabic and zills in Turkish – have been used by dancers across the Middle East, North Africa and India since AD 500.

Cymbal Sounds

The cymbal is cast from an alloy of copper, silver and tin into a metal disc, which is reheated and passed several times through a rolling mill; and then tempered in water and hammered to straighten it into a circle. The bell of the cymbal is formed and the individual sound of the cymbal is created by hammering the shoulders or bow of the cymbal by hand, and shaving and cutting grooves or tone rings along the edges and underside.

The sound of a cymbal should be brilliant and give a quick response when struck. Although an unpitched instrument, the thickness, weight and diameter of a cymbal and the curvature of the bell and the bow contribute to its timbre. Typically, a symphony orchestra would have four or five suspended cymbals, and pairs of crash cymbals ranging from 30–60 cm (12–24 in) diameter to provide a suitable range of tone colours.

Playing Technique

Orchestral crash cymbals are played by passing the face of one cymbal against another at a slight angle with a brushing action, and then damping them against the chest. Different dynamics are achieved by allowing more or less of the face of the cymbals to strike, and by applying more upper-body strength to...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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