General information

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 commonly found throughout the group of East European nations and cultures which composed Austria-Hungary (1867?918), namely contemporary Greece, Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 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. 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, followed by the variants, derived from Austria-Hungary's languages, cimbal, cymbalom, cymbalum, tambal, 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.
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".


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 taken 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. The fourth edition of the first textbook for the concert cimbalom by Geza Allaga, a member of the Hungarian Royal Opera orchestra, was published in 1889.
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, and Slavic musicians, as well as Romani lautari 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. 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, tambal, tsymbaly, tsimbl, tambal, cimbal, 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.

The concert cimbalom

The concert cimbalom developed by Jozsef 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.
Modern concert cimbalom with a range of AA to a''' made by Kovacs Balazs.
Concert instruments from Schunda onward are fully chromatic. The Schunda tuning system established a standard pitch range of four octaves plus a major 3rd (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 tambal 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.
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.


The material from Wikipedia.