Cymbals are one of the oldest musical instruments, played by many cultures during their migration across Asia and into the west over the last 3,000 years. Small hand cymbals were used in Hindu music as early as 1500 B.C., and these spread via trade routes into modern-day Turkey, Israel, and Egypt by around 800 B.C.
The Crusades brought cymbals to Europe, but they didn’t catch on until modern Turkish cymbals were introduced in the 19th century. Today, examples of three ancient types of cymbals are found in a modern drum kit, each contributing a unique sound.
Chinese cymbals differ from Turkish cymbals, having a bell shaped like a truncated cone, an outer rim turned upward, and almost no taper in their thickness from bell to rim. A cymbal’s taper determines its tone—high taper leads to “crash” sounds; less taper leads to a Chinese cymbal’s “trash.” Cymbal making in China is claimed to be the oldest example of the art, and it is said the most common cymbal alloy, called bell bronze (20% tin, 80% copper), was ﬁrst discovered in China. Traditional Chinese cymbals include chung, jing, and water cymbals.
Many drummers incorporate at least one Chinese-style cymbal in their set-up, either a “thin crash” cymbal or a “China” cymbal.
Now the most common type used in orchestras and bands, the Turkish cymbal (or “zil”) has a very specific origin. Around 1600 A.D. an Armenian metal smith named Kerope migrated to Constantinople to be chief cauldron maker for the Ottoman empire. There he began making cymbals, and, in 1623, the ﬁrst Turkish cymbal factory opened when Kerope’s son, Avedis, discovered a unique cymbal alloy of silver, tin, and copper. Avedis was honored with the Armenian surname Zildjian (literally, “family of cymbal smiths”). In 1851 Avedis Zildjian II began to travel throughout Europe, popularizing a now indispensable sound in Western music.
Examples of Turkish cymbals include “ride,” “crash,” and “splash” cymbals.
Turkish cymbals are either played in pairs or alone. Egyptian cymbals, by contrast, have been paired from the time of their origin around 800 B.C., when Egyptian music began to absorb musical inﬂ uences from Europe and Asia. The British Museum owns a pair of ﬁ ve-inch diameter cymbals found with the mummy of Ankhhape, a sacred musician. Originally consisting of a pair of slightly concave metal plates with a vibrant sound, today small, bell-like Egyptian cymbals (or “sagat”) are most commonly found on the ﬁngers of belly dancers.
You’ll ﬁnd Egyptian-style cymbals in drum kit accessories, such as the bells of mounted tambourines or jingle rings.