Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

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.

A player of the cymbals, courtesy of Tony Morrell

A player of the cymbals

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…’

A single cymbal can be struck with a stick, courtesy of iStock

A single cymbal can be struck with a stick

The sound

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 pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Crotales pitch range

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

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?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What does a percussionist do to play a pair of cymbals?

a. Taps them in turn
b. Strikes them against each other
c. Plays them both with beaters

 To quieten a cymbal after playing it, a percussionist might hold it where?

a. Against their body
b. Against the head of a brass player
c. High in the air

 What is a hi-hat?

a. A flag for waving to the audience
b. Part of the conductor’s uniform
c. A pair of cymbals on a stand

 Crotales can do what?

a. Produce a range of different notes
b. Rattle like bones
c. Boom like drums

 As well as striking crotales, what else can you do?

a. Pluck them
b. Bow them
c. Blow down them

Play More Music!

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