The cimbalom (Hungarian: [ˈt͡simbɒlom]) is a type of chordophone composed of a large, trapezoidal box with metal strings stretched across its top. It is a musical instrument commonly found in the group of Central-Eastern European nations and cultures, namely contemporary Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. It is also popular in Greece and in the Romani music. 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.

Top view and playing area of a modern concert cimbalom
Classification String instrument (struck or plucked)
Playing range
Various (see § The concert cimbalom below)
Related instruments

In English, the spelling cimbalom is the most common,[2] followed by the variants, derived from Austria-Hungary’s languages, cimbál, cymbalom, cymbalum, țambal, tsymbaly and tsimbl. 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 struck zither or hammered dulcimer family.


The first representation of a simple struck chordophone can be found in the Assyrian bas-relief in Kyindjuk dated back to 3500 BC. Since that time, widely divergent versions of this percussive stretched-string instrument have developed in many far-flung regions of the world. Struck chordophones are sometimes generically referred to as being in the "hammered dulcimer" family. They are, however, formally classified as struck zithers under Hornbostel-Sachs.

Building on the struck chordophones common to the region, the Hungarian concert cimbalom was designed and created by V. Josef Schunda in 1874 in Budapest. The impetus to create such an elaborate instrument – a more formal "concert" cimbalom – was in part, born out of a broader effort to establish a stronger 18th-century Hungarian national identity. This included a nationwide movement to "break away" from strong associations that often confused Hungarian cultural identity with that of the Romany people. This confusion between cultures extended to perceptions abroad that conflated Hungarian traditional musical identity, with that of Romani musicians, who were often seen on street corners throughout Budapest playing the more modest cimbaloms that were then common. Schunda began serial production of his concert cimbalom in 1874, manufacturing them in a piano shop located on Hajós utca, across the street from the Budapest Opera House in Pest.[3]

Thanks, in part, to attention given at the 1878 World's Fair in Paris, France, Schunda's concert cimbalom enjoyed a surge in national popularity in Hungary – being performed on regularly by cymbalists of all Hungarian ethnic groups – including folk, Jewish,[4] Slavic, and Romani musicians. The encounter and collaboration between Romani cimbalist Aladár Rácz and composer Igor Stravinsky in Geneva in 1915 gave birth to a global interest in Schunda's concert cimbalom.


Folk hammered dulcimers

Folk hammered dulcimers (struck zithers) have unique regional names around the globe. Throughout central and eastern Europe they are referred to as "cimbalom" (cymbalom, cymbalum, tsymbaly, tsimbl, țambal, 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′′′[5] (Helmholtz pitch notation). The concert cimbalom eventually found its way to other areas of the Austro-Hungarian empire, such as Romania and Ukraine, as well as Moldova. In Romania, the large cimbalom is known as the țambal 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 from the 1950s to the 1980s 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 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.[6] 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 No. 1 for violin and orchestra (1928).

More recently, other composers including Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, Peter Eötvös, György Kurtág, Miklós Kocsár, Richard Grimes, and Louis Andriessen have made a great use of cimbalom in their works. Henri Dutilleux used it extensively 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) each utilize the cimbalom. John Adams uses the instrument prominently in his large 2012 symphonic oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary[7] as well as in his 2014 dramatic symphony Scheherazade.2.[8] 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.)

Film and television

The cimbalom has occasionally been used in film scores, especially to introduce a "foreign" feel. The cimbalom appears in Christmas in Connecticut (1945) 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).

The 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 (1979) to accentuate the Arabian heritage of the majestic horse. Miklós Rózsa used the cimbalom in the main theme and throughout the score for the science-fiction thriller The Power (1968). John Barry used it in the title theme for the film The Ipcress File (1965), as well as in the main theme of the ITC TV series The Persuaders! (1971); in both examples the performer was John Leach.[9] James Horner made use of the instrument in his "Stealing the Enterprise" cue from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). In addition, John Williams has made less prominent use of the instrument in scores such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). 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 (2002). The cimbalom is also featured prominently in Hans Zimmer's scoring of Sherlock Holmes (2009). Alexandre Desplat uses cimbalom in works such as The Golden Compass (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

In television, composer Lalo Schifrin made use of the cimbalom in several scores he wrote for the original Mission: Impossible television series, from which several cues were regularly recycled throughout the series' run.

Composer Debbie Wiseman used the cimbalom, played by Greg Knowles, in her score for the BBC television series 'Dickensian' (2015–16).


The cimbalom was used by Alan Parsons on his "I Robot"[10] and Tales of Mystery and Imagination[11] albums and is included in the guest musician acknowledgments. The experimental rock group Mr. Bungle made use of the cimbalom on the Disco Volante[12] and California[13] albums. It is included in the guest musician acknowledgments. The experimental performance organization Blue Man Group has used a cimbalom in its productions.[14] American progressive chamber group, cordis, uses electric and acoustic cimbalom as a centerpiece in their music.[15] Romanian rock group Spitalul de Urgenţă has frequently used cimbalom, including a full-time player in some line-ups of the band. New York multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger used a cimbalom on the album L'Entredeux (2008) by Tucson chanteuse Marianne Dissard. Alternative rock band Garbage incorporated cimbalom into their track "The Trick Is to Keep Breathing" from their 1998 album Version 2.0.[16]

Similar instruments

Similar instruments in the same family vary by country. The tuning layout, range, and sound they produce varies, sometimes drastically. A partial list follows:

Schools of performance


In Belarus a cymbaly school was established in 1948 by J. Zynovych. The Belarusian cymbaly differs from the concert cimbalom in timbre and size -- it is smaller and produces a sweeter, more mellow tone. Also, pedal dampers are not typically used. Instead, hands and fingers are used to dampen the strings.


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

Czech Republic

The instrument is used foremost in the historical region of Moravia as a basis for Moravian traditional music ensembles. Foremost in regions of Moravian Slovakia and Moravian Wallachia.[17]


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.[17]


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 Schunda system of playing on concert-size instruments. Classes for the instrument exist in the Lviv, Kyiv 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. Roman Kumlyk was a famous player from Hutsul area. After his death, a museum was named for him and is now run by his family.


  1. Baran, Taras (1999). The Cimbalom World. Lviv: Svit. p. 15. ISBN 5-7773-0425-7.
  2. The Norton Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, Macmillan Press Ltd. London, Stanley Sadie, Alison Latham, eds., ISBN 0-333-43236-3, 1988, p. 156.
  3. Baran, Taras (1999). The Cimbalom World. Lviv: Svit. p. 21. ISBN 5-7773-0425-7.
  4. Sapoznik, Henry; Pete Sokolow (1987). The Compleat Klezmer. Tara Publications. pp. 11–12. ISBN 0-933676-10-7. OCLC 249103651.
  5. Tóth, Ida Tarjáni; Falka, Jószef. Cimbalomiskola 1. Editio Musica Budapest, Z. 2528, 1958, p. 101 (chart)
  6. "Igor Stravinsky". Retrieved 2009-09-05.
  7. Alex Ross (June 18, 2012). "John Adams's The Other Mary "Sacred Dissonance"". The New Yorker.
  8. Anthony Tommasini (March 27, 2015). "Review: John Adams Unveils "Scheherazade.2", an Answer to Male Brutality". The New Times.
  9. Jon Burlingame "John Leach, English Cimbalom Player, Dead at 82", Film Music Society, 14 July 2014
  10. Arista records ARCD 8040
  11. PolyGram records 832 820-2
  12. Warner Brothers 9 45963-2
  13. Warner Brothers 9 47447-2
  14. "Blue Man Group: Blue Man Instruments". Archived from the original on March 30, 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-03.
  15. Landspeed Records 9 47447-2
  16. Massey, Howard (1998-10-01). Talking Tech and Trash. Musician (magazine).
  17. Johnston, Jesse A. (2010). "The Cimbál (Cimbalom) and Folk Music in Moravian Slovakia and Valachia". Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society. 36: 78–117.
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