Considering the rich history of concert cimbalom repertoire, the dearth of information on how to write for the instrument is confounding. None of the standard orchestration textbooks have much to say about cimbalom, and the top Google result for “how to compose for cimbalom” is a blog post I threw together many years ago. With this new (and regularly updated) guide I hope to create the go-to source for how to compose and orchestrate for the cimbalom by using both established and recent repertoire to create a documentation of best practices. While I think the following advice is sound, it is easy to imagine exceptions to most of the guidelines outlined here.
Image from Cimbalom Tutor by Ferenc Gerencsér and Ilona Szeverényi
The cimbalom is the Hungarian member of the struck chordophone family of instruments alongside its cousins such as the hackbrett (Germany/Switzerland), hammered dulcimer (USA), santur (India), santoor (Iran/Iraq), yangqin (China), and yanggeum (Korea). While the instruments share the common performance practice of hitting metal strings with sticks, little else unites them.
The cimbalom has a standard range of C2-A6. The pitch layout is unique, but all cimbaloms have the same pitch layout. While looking at the pitch diagram, one can notice certain patterns emerging: most notably the wound strings in the bass register ascend chromatically, with the C whole tone scale on the right and the C# whole tone scale on the left. The unwound strings of the cimbalom largely avoid noticeable patterns. The chromatic scale that is simple to follow in the bass register becomes wildly complicated from G3 – A6.
Beyond the bizarre pitch layout, the pitches can be sorted into three classes: wound/unwound, bridge divisions, and strings per pitch. They are categorized as follows:
Strings per Pitch
C2 - single string
C#2 - D2 - double string
Eb2 - F#3 - triple string
G3 - A6 - quadruple string
The normal playing area of the string is between 1”-2” from the bridge. Moving closer to the bridge produces a sul ponticello effect while moving away from the bridge produces a sul tasto effect.
The cimbalom has a single pedal used for dampening. Like the piano, the dampers do not affect the high notes of the cimbalom. All pitches from G5-A6 are undampened with the exception of G#5.
- Pedal indications can be written in the same way as one would write for the piano
- Unless the pedal is to be cleared in a very specific way, one can also just indicate legato/staccato/slurs/ties with expression markings and leave the performer to intuit the pedaling
- The only way to dampen the upper register of the instrument is with the hand. For this reason, any staccato passages that include notes unaffected by the damper will ring.
- Because most pitches on the cimbalom have multiple strings and because the shafts of most cimbalom mallets are quite thin, “dead strokes” (to borrow a percussion term) are not as effective as they are on mallet percussion instruments.
The cimbalom has an enormous capacity to sympathetically resonate. With the dampers unengaged, playing a note and then immediately muting the string with the hand will reveal how many other pitches are caused to resonate.
SINGLE STAFF VS. GRAND STAFF
Owing to its nearly 5 octave range, cimbalom music is sometimes written on a single staff and sometimes on a grand staff.
This passage from Pierre Boulez’ Repons illustrates an effective use of grand staff cimbalom writing. Also notice the precise pedal notations.
C2 - F#3
G3 - A6
In this passage from later in the same piece, Boulez does away with the grand staff when it is no longer necessary.
Igor Stravinsky was an early adopter of the concert cimbalom, having featured it in Ragtime for 11 instruments, Renard, and early versions of Les Noces. Stravinsky learned to play the cimbalom and composed music for it at the instrument. His background as a pianist most likely led him to divide his music between staves with the left hand on the bottom staff and the right hand on the top staff. As a result, his cimbalom parts are very difficult to read.
Here is the same passage from my personnel version of the score. It’s much easier to decipher.
This example from Sortilegio by Hilda Paredes places the right hand on top and left hand on bottom, resulting in the bass clef being on the top staff in m84 and the treble clef on the bottom.
I much prefer the version of the same material below.
Because of the bizarre note layout of the cimbalom, it is not possible to predict if a given note will be played by the right or left hand. When using a grand staff, the range of the pitch should be the only determinative factor in staff distribution
The cimbalom is capable of playing everything from whisper quiet to extraordinarily loud. When presenting the instrument in person, people are frequently surprised by how loud the instrument can get.
There is a fine line between difficult and impossible on cimbalom and I hesitate to draw that line. I think the best single piece of advice I can give is to avoid writing for the cimbalom as if it were a keyboard instrument. For example, moving parallel intervals and fast chromatic scales are simple on keyboard instruments but can be extremely awkward on cimbalom. One should also avoid writing for the right and left hand as separate voices. Writing idiomatic passagework for cimbalom requires an in-depth knowledge of the pitch layout which is ultimately not logistically practical in most cases. While a few composers clearly knew/know the pitch layout (Stravinsky, Mackey, Harbison), plenty of others arguably do/did not (Kurtág, Boulez).
The above passage from Splinters Op 6c by György Kurtág is an example of difficult passagework. Particularly the measures at the end of the first and third lines are problematic. The combination of double-stops, large intervalic leaps, a necessarily awkward sticking, and a brisk tempo make note accuracy an uphill battle. In the last measure, the left hand plays the D, Ab, and high A, while the right hand has to go from the high Eb to the low E, covering almost the entire vertical length of the instrument. The version of this piece for piano (Op. 6d) is identical to the cimbalom version and is not at all difficult for that instrument.
The following passage from 5 Animated Shorts by Steve Mackey illustrates an idiomatic rapido passage. The passage can be played with an alternating sticking (starting with the left hand, LRLRLR etc) and neither hand has to move far to get to its next pitch. Especially considering the pitches played by the right hand, it seems as though the material was generated partly by the cimbalom's pitch layout. It is difficult to tell which passage is more complicated just by looking. The Kurtág example might appear to be simpler when in reality the Mackey example is much easier to execute.
TYPES OF CIMBALOM HAMMERS
The standard cimbalom hammer features a wooden shaft with an upward curve at the top, covered in either leather or cotton. While some scores specify leather or cotton hammers, there is not an enormous difference between the two. When writing for standard cimbalom hammers, no indication of the type of mallets to be used is necessary with regards to both material and hardness. It is best to leave it up to the performer’s preference and judgment.
NON-STANDARD STICK TYPES
It is necessary to indicate if a non-standard stick is required. The following non-standard sticks are commonly used.
These are just standard cimbalom hammers without any leather or cotton covering at the tip. They emphasize the “tick” sound of the stick hitting the string.
example from Etudes by Juri Seo
These are cimbalom hammers with metal wiring at the tip instead of cotton or leather. They are sometimes referred to as fémverő. They produce a similar sound to wooden hammers but with a greater ability to project over an ensemble. It is also possible to play buzz rolls with metal hammers. Kurtág frequently writes for metal hammers, as exampled below in his Scenes from a Novel.
SNARE DRUM STICKS
Many pieces require snare drum sticks on cimbalom. Because of the high tension of the strings, snare drum techniques like double strokes and multiple bounce rolls are easy to execute on cimbalom. This works best on unwound strings, as wound strings have less tension. Keep in mind that most cimbalom players outside of the United States do not have a percussion background, so results may vary. The following example from butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth by Curtis Hughes illustrates a clear explanation of general cimbalom mallet use as well as an effective use of snare drum sticks.
The e-bow, originally designed for the electric guitar, is sometimes used on piano and cimbalom. It is an electromagnetic device used to induce sustained string vibrations without attack. Since it was not designed for cimbalom, it is a somewhat fragile technique. Material written for e-bow on cimbalom should be relatively simple. It works best on the unwound strings from G3-D5, and especially well on G5, A5, and B5. On pitches lower than ~G4, it is difficult to predict whether the fundamental or the octave harmonic will sound.
example Mary Magdalen by Marti Epstein.
The same style of bow that is sometimes used on a piano can also be used on cimbalom. This involves flossing multiple strands of loose bow hair between the strings. A separate bow would be required for each pitch unless there is at least several seconds of space between notes. It takes time to prepare this technique, and time also must be allowed to remove the bows if any kind of standard passagework is to follow.
example Lunea by Heinz Holliger
The first time I recall seeing combs asked for in a cimbalom part was in George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill. I’ve since introduced this technique to other composers and the name “Benjamin combs” seems to have stuck. The first example is from Into the Little Hill. The second is from Mary Magdalen.
Various percussion implements (marimba, timpani, bass drum, triangle etc) are sometimes called for on cimbalom. Stefano Gervasoni makes extensive use of percussion beaters in his music, most notably in his concerto Gramigna.
Tremolos on one or two pitches are standard on cimbalom. Some strings on the high register have very small beating areas (e.g. F#6, G#6, A6) and are thus difficult to tremolo on. Moving tremolo lines on cimbalom can be challenging because notes that are close together intervalically can be far apart physically (e.g. C4-C#4) and vice versa (e.g. Eb4-G6).
This passage from Mary Magdalen appears to be simple, but it is tricky to maintain a soft tremolo across pitches that are physically so far apart.
Pizzicato is possible on cimbalom with the fingers or with plectrums (typically guitar picks). It is possible to hold mallets and plectrums at the same time, or to pizz with the fingers while holding mallets. Care must be taken to ensure the notes of a chord are reachable. There is no intervalic rule as to which notes can be reached with one hand (C4 and C#4 are very far apart, while C#4 and G6 are relatively close to each other). A single hand has a comfortable reach of 5 pegs (e.g. G3-B3) or an extended reach of 6 pegs (e.g. G3-C#4). Double stop pizzicatos with one hand should be restricted to parallel notes on across registers (e.g. C4-G4, not C4-A4). Pizzing non-parallel notes across bridges with one hand is extremely uncomfortable. Rapid pizzicato passages should be avoided.
Four mallet percussion technique was developed for keyboard instruments with horizontal note layouts using round-headed mallets which could rotate freely without affecting the sound. Because of the vertical note layout, and because the orientation of cimbalom mallets must remain constant, four mallet percussion technique is all but useless on cimbalom. There are some workarounds for this however. Because cimbalom strings cross each other at an angle, it is possible to play two neighboring strings with one mallet. This is an especially fragile technique. The following one-mallet double stops are hypothetically possible on cimbalom. A rapid passage involving many of these would be impossible.
Chart courtesy of Joshua Webster
In Bartók's First Rhapsody for violin and orchestra, he uses a double-stop on the cross strings G3/D4.
In addition to cross-string double stops, it is possible to play double stops on adjacent strings (e.g. C4/D4). Here is this technique in practice from Stravinsky's Renard using the adjacent strings Bb4/G5.
It is possible to actually play with four mallets on cimbalom, but the technique is very awkward. This is sometimes used for four note chords, as in the example below from Alessandro Solbiati’s Quaderno D’immagini. Notice the slow tempo and long note lengths, allowing ample time to prepare each chord.
Glissandi on cimbalom are typically executed with fingers or plectrums. Because of the note layout, a precise “map” of the pitches in a glissando must be provided. Glissandi that only indicate range are ambiguous. Chromatic glisses are only possible from C2 - F#3. The following example from Juri Seo's Etudes illustrates the ideal way to notate for glisses on cimbalom. The collection of pitches might seem arbitrary, but referencing the note chart reveals all of these pitches to be adjacent to one another.
Harmonics work best on strings that are not bridge divided. The resonance of the instrument tends to overpower higher harmonics especially on bridge divided strings.
Harmonics should be notated with a solid note-head on the string to be used, and a diamond note-head for the sounding pitch.
Ex. Mary Magdalen by Marti Epstein
The recording below is from a 2017 performance I did of an improvisation based on Myrkur's Vølvens Spådom. It features extensive use of pizzicato and harmonics using the following pitch material:
ALTERNATE TUNINGS AND STRING PREPARATIONS
As a general rule, avoid doing either of these things. If you require quarter tones, limit yourself to a handful of notes. It is best not to tune strings sharp. Strings that are bridge divided cannot be individually tuned (i.e. if C4 is tuned down a quarter tone, G4 is also tuned down a quarter tone). In the United States, it is very difficult to find replacement parts for cimbalom. For this reason I would personally be very hesitant to insert screws or similar items between the strings. Blu-tack can be used to mute strings or prepare harmonics.
Example of harmonic preparation from Epicadenza by Stefano Gervasoni
When composing for extended techniques on the cimbalom, a general rule of thumb is that anything you might consider writing for the inside of a piano is easier to execute on cimbalom. Also, new extended techniques for cimbalom are being invented all the time. Essentially every extended technique in Gervasoni's cimbalom concerti are used for the first time in those pieces, so one can be imaginative. Many of the aforementioned techniques are expertly utilized in Juri Seo's Etudes which can be perused here. And, if you are writing for cimbalom and I’ve glossed over an area that needs further explanation, please let me know! I will be regularly updating this article as new information becomes available.
Last updated February 2020