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Subject: Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra
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"Santouri" redirects here. For the 2007 film, see Santouri (film).


String instrument (struck or plucked)
Playing range

Various (see 2.2 "The Concert Cimbalom")
Related instruments

The cimbalom is a concert hammered dulcimer: a type of chordophone composed of a large, trapezoidal box with metal strings stretched across its top. It is a musical instrument popularized in Hungary and commonly found throughout the group of Central-Eastern European nations and cultures which composed Austria-Hungary (1867–1918), namely contemporary Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is also very popular in Greece. The cimbalom is (typically) played by striking two beaters against the strings. The steel treble strings are arranged in groups of 4 and are tuned in unison. The bass strings which are over-spun with copper, are arranged in groups of 3 and are also tuned in unison. The Hornbostel-Sachs musical instrument classification system registers the cimbalom with the number 314.122-4,5.[1] Moreover, the instrument name “cimbalom” also denotes earlier, smaller versions of the cimbalom, and folk cimbaloms, of different tone groupings, string arrangements, and box types. In English, the cimbalom spelling is the most common,[2] followed by the variants, derived from Austria-Hungary’s languages, cimbál, cymbalom, cymbalum, ţambal, tsymbaly and tsimbl etc. Santur, Santouri, sandouri and a number of other non Austro-Hungarian names are sometimes applied to this instrument in regions beyond Austria-Hungary which have their own names for related instruments of the hammer dulcimer family.

The surname Zimbalist means "one who plays the cimbalom".

A "cymbalum" is not the same instrument as a cimbalom. A "cymbalum" is a part of a medieval instrument, one of a set of 4-8 small bells, made in graded sizes and hung together in a frame, aka "tintinabula" or "campanae"


See also Hammered dulcimer.

The first representation of a simple struck chordophone which we categorize as a hammered dulcimer can be found in the Assyrian bas-relief in Kyindjuk dated back to 3500 BC. The peoples of the Mediterranean all had versions this instrument under different names, as did many peoples in Asia.

The folk hammered dulcimer common amongst the Romani people (Gypsies) of Austria-Hungary was utilized by V. Josef Schunda, a master piano maker living and working in Pest, Hungary, as the basis for a concert cimbalom for which he arranged serial production in 1874.[3] The fourth edition of the first textbook for the concert cimbalom by Géza Allaga, a member of the Hungarian Royal Opera orchestra, was published in 1889.[3]

The concert cimbalom became popular within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was used by all the ethnic groups within the country including Magyar (Hungarian), Jewish,[4] and Slavic musicians, as well as Romani lăutari musicians. Use of the instrument spread by the end of the 19th century and took the place of the cobza in Romanian and Moldovan folk ensembles.[5] In Wallachia it is used almost as a percussion instrument. In Transylvania and Banat, the style of playing is more tonal, heavy with arpeggios.


Folk hammered dulcimers

Folk hammered dulcimers are usually referred to by their regional names, but throughout central and eastern Europe they are often referred to as "cimbalom" (cymbalom, cymbalum, ţambal, tsymbaly, tsimbl, ţambal, cimbál, cimbale etc.). These instruments can differ from each other in size, tuning, number of strings and method of holding and moving the hammers or "beaters". They are smaller and more portable than the concert cimbalom. In performance they were (or are) often carried by a single musician: typically using a strap around the player's neck and leaning one edge of the instrument against the waist. Like the concert cimbalom, the folk hammered dulcimer / small cimbalom is played by striking the strings with two beaters. However, these are generally much shorter than the beaters used with the concert cimbalom (usually half the length), and often without soft coverings over the area which strikes the string. These instruments also lacked damper mechanisms; therefore, the hand, fingers, and even forearms are used for damping. Tunings are often partially chromatic or even diatonic rather than the fully chromatic tuning of the concert cimbalom, and they can vary regionally. Construction of these instruments is more closely related to the particular style of music played on them than is the case with the concert cimbalom. In addition to the emergence of the concert cimbalom in Hungary, some other regions in Eastern Europe also further developed their local version of folk dulcimer and more formal schools of playing followed (see Tsymbaly).

The concert cimbalom

The concert cimbalom developed by József Schunda in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary was closer in its range of pitch, dynamic projection and weight to the proportions of a small piano than the various folk hammered dulcimers had been. The Schunda cimbalom was equipped with a heavier frame for more stability and dynamic power. It included many more string courses for extended range and incorporated a damper pedal which allowed for more dynamic control. Four detachable legs were added to support this much larger instrument. The concert cimbalom continues to be played primarily with beaters although other playing techniques are used.

Concert instruments from Schunda onward are fully chromatic. The Schunda tuning system established a standard pitch range of four octaves plus a major 3rd; extending from C to e′′′[6] (Helmholtz pitch notation). The concert cimbalom eventually found its way to other areas of the Austro-Hungarian empire such as Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. In Romania, the large cimbalom is known as the ţambal mare (literally "great cimbalom"). The cimbalom has continued its development and modern concert instruments are often further expanded and have numerous refinements beyond Schunda's design. These instruments can now have a pitch range that extends five fully chromatic octaves from AA to a′′′.

Contemporary cimbalom makers also create smaller instruments. These run the gamut from less weighty versions of Schunda's original concert layout to truly portable fully chromatic cimbaloms (which use Schunda's signature tuning pattern and note layout but with reduced range in the bass). Modern makers also continue to craft new and traditional folk style instruments.

A smaller more portable version of the concert cimbalom was produced in Ukraine during the 1950-80s that came with detachable legs and dampers, but could be carried more easily than the larger concert instrument. These instruments were produced by the Chernihiv factory and the Melnytso-Podilsk folk instruments workshop which also produced many types of other folk instruments.

Experimental cimbaloms

Harry Partch made a series of zithers called Harmonic Canons. Glenn Branca made electric hammered table zithers which he called Mallet Guitars, and Yuri Landman built electric hammered 24-string zithers for Liam Finn and the band The Dodos that he called Tafelberg drum guitars. The Boredoms also have a stage instrument which is used as a Cimbalom. Most conventional cimbaloms have groups of strings tuned to one unison tone per section. However, the instruments of Branca, Landman and Boredoms use a tuning system in which the individual string groups are tuned in octaves instead of a simple unison. This is a departure from the unison tunings of the triple and quadruple string groups on normal cimbaloms and also from the piano's unison tuning within its string groups. (Partch's instruments use a different tuning and temperament scheme altogether). Sonic Youth learned about the new tuning from Branca and translated it to electric guitar. This produced what became their typical guitar timbre.

Compositions for cimbalom

Classical and contemporary music

Many composers have written for the cimbalom. Zoltán Kodály made extensive use of the instrument in his orchestral suite Háry János which helped make the cimbalom well known outside Eastern Europe. Igor Stravinsky was also an enthusiast. He owned a cimbalom which he purchased after hearing Aladár Rácz perform on the instrument. He included the cimbalom in his ballet Renard (1915–16), his ''Ragtime'' for eleven instruments, his original (1917) scoring for Les Noces, and his Four Russian Songs.[7] Franz Liszt used the cimbalom in his Ungarischer Sturmmarsch (1876) and in the orchestral version of his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Béla Bartók used it in his Rhapsody #1 for violin and orchestra (1928). Other composers including Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, Peter Eötvös, György Kurtág, Miklós Kocsár and Louis Andriessen have made a great use of cimbalom in their works. Henri Dutilleux used it in Mystère de l'Instant for chamber orchestra, and L'arbre des songes for violin & orchestra. Elvis Costello's orchestral ballet score Il Sogno includes several extended cimbalom passages. Harrison Birtwistle's operas Gawain (1991) and The Minotaur (2008) require a cimbalom as well. Cimbalom is used in a popular arrangement of Debussy's La plus que lente which the composer approved but did not actually score. (La plus que Lente with cimbalom saw renewed popularity with its inclusion in world tours of the Hundred Gypsy Violins starting in 1985.). Kiev-trained Australian composer Stephen Lalor has composed extensively for the instrument as performed by The Volatinsky Trio in their CD "Troika" (2011).


The cimbalom has occasionally been used in film scores, especially to introduce a "foreign" feel. The cimbalom appears in Christmas in Connecticut in a scene in Felix's (S.Z. Sakall) Hungarian restaurant in Manhattan. It was also featured in the films Captain Blood (1935), The Divorce of Lady X (1938), and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943). Cimbalom was used in the film score for the movie In the Heat of the Night (1967). Composer Carmine Coppola made heavy use of the cimbalom in his soundtrack for The Black Stallion to accentuate the Arabian heritage of the majestic horse. Miklós Rózsa used the cimbalom in the main theme and throughout the score for the 1968 science-fiction thriller The Power. John Barry used it in the title theme for the film The Ipcress File, as well as in the main theme of the 1971 TV series The Persuaders!. James Horner made use of the instrument in his "Stealing the Enterprise" cue from 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In addition, John Williams has made less prominent use of the instrument in scores such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Howard Shore used the cimbalom as well to express Gollum's sneaky nature in Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The cimbalom is also featured prominently in Hans Zimmer's scoring of Sherlock Holmes. Alexandre Desplat uses cimbalom in works such as The Golden Compass and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.


The cimbalom was used by Alan Parsons on his "I Robot"[8] and "Tales of Mystery and Imagination"[9] albums and is included in the guest musician acknowledgments. The experimental rock group Mr. Bungle made use of the cimbalom on the "Disco Volante"[10] and "California"[11] albums. It is included in the guest musician acknowledgments. The experimental performance organization Blue Man Group has used prepared cimbalom in its productions.[12] New York multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger used a cimbalom on album L'Entredeux (2008) by Tucson chanteuse Marianne Dissard.

Popular music

Mary Hopkin's recording of "Those Were the Days", arranged by Richard Hewson, featured a cimbalom played by Gilbert Webster, a professor at London's Guildhall School of Music.[13]

Occurrence and names

The instrument is known by different names in different countries and when played in different styles. A partial list follows:

Schools of performance


In Belarus a cimbalom school was established in 1948 by J. Zynovych. The Belarusian musicians however play on small portable folk style instruments.


The cimbal today is a rare instrument found in folk groups (Međimurje and Podravina regions/parts of Croatia near Hungarian border).

Czech Republic

In Moravia, one of the three historical Czech lands, the instrument is used as a basis for folk music ensembles.


In Athens, a cimbalom school was established in 2004 by M. Papadeas. The Greek musicians play on small portable folk style instruments.


Besides the main cimbalom centre in Budapest, there is a very strong school of performance in Debrecen in Hungary.


In 1952, cimbalom classes were opened at the Chişinău conservatory in Moldova.


A strong performance school was established in Bucharest.


The cimbal is a very popular instrument found in folk groups, particularly in the ethnically Slovak/Hungarian mixed southern regions and among Romani folk ensembles.


In Ukraine, the concert Cimbalom was first formally used in the Orchestra of Ukrainian Folk Instruments organized and directed by Leonid Haydamaka from 1922 by Oleksandr Nezovybatko. In time it was replaced by 2 smaller-sized instruments in order to facilitate transportation. Music for the cimbalom has been published in Ukraine from 1930 on. With the serial manufacture of tsymbaly by the Chernihiv Musical Instrument Factory cimbalom playing became popular in Eastern Ukraine in the post war years. Textbooks for the tsymbaly were published in 1966 by O. Nezovybatko, and initially players played on semi-concert instruments manufactured by the Chernihiv Musical Instrument Factory. In recent times most professional performers have switched over to the Schuda system of playing on concert-size instruments. Classes for the instrument exist in the Lviv, Kiev and Kharkiv conservatories. Currently most Ukraine folk instrument ensembles and orchestras such as the Orchestra of Ukrainian Folk instruments and the State Bandurist Capella usually have 2 concert cimbaloms.

Cimbalom players

Some notable cimbalom players are:

  • Márta Fábián, classical and contemporary cimbalom player, soloist and guest artist of many European festivals
  • Toni Iordache: Famous Romani-Romanian cimbalom (ţambal) player, nicknamed The godfather of the cimbalom
  • Kálmán Balogh: contemporary Romani-Hungarian cimbalom virtuoso[14]
  • Joshua Horowitz: American tsimbl player; founder of the Klezmer group Budowitz[15]


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