1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cymbals

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CYMBALS (Fr. cymbales; Ger. Becken; Ital. piatti or cinelli), a modern instrument of percussion of indefinite musical pitch, whereas the small ancient cup-shaped cymbals sounded a definite note. Cymbals consist of two thin round plates of an alloy containing 8 parts of copper to two of tin, each having a handle-strap set in the little knob surmounting the centre of the plate. The sound is obtained not by clashing them against each other, but by rubbing their edges together by a sliding movement. Sometimes a weird effect is obtained by suspending one of the cymbals by the strap and letting a drummer execute a roll upon it as it swings; or by holding a cymbal in the left hand and striking it with the soft stick of the bass drum, which produces a sound akin to that of the tam-tam. All gradations of piano and forte can be obtained on the cymbals. The composer indicates his intention of letting the cymbals vibrate by “Let them vibrate,” and the contrary effect by “Damp the sound.” To stop the vibrations the performer presses the cymbals against his chest, as soon as he has played a note. The duration of the vibration is indicated by the value of the note placed upon the staff; the name signifies nothing, since the pitch of the cymbals is indefinite. The instrument is played from the same part of the score as the bass drum, unless otherwise indicated by senza piatti, or piatti soli if the bass drum is to remain silent. 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. Damping gives a suggestion of impending evil or tragedy. The timbre of the ancient cymbals 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 in Romeo and Juliet scored 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 Britannica Cymbals Berlioz Tuning A.png and Britannica Cymbals Berlioz Tuning B.png.

The origin of the cymbals must be referred to prehistoric times. The ancient Egyptian cymbals closely resembled our own. The British Museum possesses two pairs, 5⅓ in. in diameter, one of which was found in the coffin of the mummy of Ankhhapē, a sacred musician; they are shown in the same case as the mummy, and have been reproduced by Carl Engel.[1] Those used by the Assyrians were both plate- and cup-shaped. The Greek cymbals were cup- or bell-shaped, and are to be seen in the hands of fauns and satyrs innumerable in sculptures and on painted vases. The word cymbal is derived from κύμβη (Lat. cymba), a hollow vessel, and κύμβαλα = small cymbals. 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 or invention of the keyed dulcimer or clavichord, and of 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 MS. known as the Bible of Charles the Bald in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. (K. S.)


  1. The Music of the Most Ancient Nations, fig. 75, p. 227.