Cymbals go back thousands of years. They originated in Turkey and China.
A cymbal is a large disc made of copper with a bit of tin. In the middle of the outside is a little dome, where there’s a strap to hold onto so that you can strike two cymbals against each other.
Cymbals are often used in pairs, or a single cymbal can be placed on a cymbal stand.
In the second millennium B.C., cymbals used to be played during wrestling matches.
To play them
You stand with one cymbal in each hand and bring them together to create a wonderful whoosh of sound!
People look very important when they play the cymbals: after a dramatic ‘crash’, they hold them apart like two trophies.
A single cymbal on a stand can be struck with a variety of different sticks or mallets, or even bowed to create a strange, creepy sound.
The French composer Berlioz said that cymbals go well with ‘sentiments of extreme ferocity… or with feverish excitements…’
The cymbals make an impressive ‘whoosh’ or ‘crash’ that echoes for a long time. You can stop the echo by ‘dampening’ the cymbals. This means touching them gently against something (normally your body). They echo because they’re vibrating – so if you make them still, the echo stops.
If you strike one cymbal with a stick, the sound is less dramatic.
Sometimes, people shuffle the two cymbals together to make a mysterious sort of ‘sshh’ sound.
A hi-hat is a pair of two smaller cymbals that jump up and down, clashing together, when your foot presses a pedal. They’re used in jazz as part of the drumkit and occasionally seen in orchestras.
Crotales are tiny cymbals often laid out in a row, in size order. Each sounds a different pitch (the smallest are highest; the largest are lowest), so they are actually ‘tuned’ percussion with a ‘definite pitch’.
They make a light, crisp ‘ting’ when they’re struck and a beautiful, magical sound when bowed.
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● What does a percussionist do to play a pair of cymbals?
● To quieten a cymbal after playing it, a percussionist might hold it where?
● What is a hi-hat?
● Crotales can do what?
● As well as striking crotales, what else can you do?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Selected Cymbals and Crotales Extracts
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
The Sanguine Fan, Op. 81 (extract)
Cymbals can bring great excitement when they crash!
Performers: English Northern Philharmonia; David Lloyd-Jones
Taken from Naxos 8.553879
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (‘Prelude to the afternoon of a faun’) (extract)
If you listen hard, you will hear three single tings as this atmospheric piece draws to its end (at 0.04, 0.14 and 0.19).
Performers: Jan van Reeth, flute; BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari
Taken from Naxos 8.550262