(Tip no. 63 from 100 MORE Orchestration Tips, to be released in 2018)

Sometimes composers treat the choice between suspended cymbal and hand cymbals as an arbitrary one, as if either might be used in the same situation. Or even more confusingly, the technique assigned to one actually would be better on the other. But both instruments, though essentially identical in basic construction, have very different techniques and applications.

Notice my precise nomenclature in the title and first paragraph of this tip. A single cymbal fixed on a stand and struck by one or two beaters is a “suspended cymbal.” Two cymbals held in either hand, one striking the other, are “hand cymbals.” These names are the clearest and least confusing way to differentiate between the two, at least in English – and the terms with which instrument manufacturers describe them. Not so successful are the terms “cymbal” and “cymbals” to indicate singular and plural, as these can be confused with one another when the percussionist is in a hurry changing between instruments. So can the terms “crash” versus “clash.” It might seem perfectly logical that a “crash cymbal” is something hit with a snare stick, and “clash cymbals” are two cymbals clashed together – and yet the difference of usage is so arbitrary that there are two separate Wikipedia entries both defining “clash” and “crash” as hand cymbals. So my recommendation is to cut the confusion and exactly describe each instrument by design, shortening the names to “susp.” and “hand” in the parts. (I sometimes use the term “cymbal pair” in my tips and scores, which is also very clear).

This precision of terms is essential, because often both parts will be written on the same staff, and simply marked “cymbals” on the first page of the piece. Since both instruments will almost never be played at the same time (as they have a similar sound with a different quality of attack), composers and engravers will leave the cymbal part as a general line on which suspended cymbal and hand cymbals may be alternately scored. However, this doesn’t mean that both instruments will automatically be played by the same percussionist. The position on the stage of instruments and players often dictate which part goes to what player. For instance, in the percussion score below, notice that the suspended cymbal player at rehearsal mark A may choose to play snare drum at reh. mark B rather than the hand cymbals. This is because the suspended cymbal is frequently mounted in a group of stationary instruments, all mostly played by snare sticks and beaters; while the hand cymbals have their own separate stand, from which another percussionist may easily pick them up after having struck the bass drum. (This illustrates the advantages of having a master percussion score containing all parts, with which the players freely switch from one part to another at their own convenience rather than the composer’s possibly awkward plan.)

Of course, if your piece uses nothing but hand cymbals, and it’s obvious by the nature of the scoring, then percussionists will know what to do if the part is simply marked “Cymbals.” You only need to mark “hand cymbals” if you are using them alongside suspended cymbal. By the reverse token, if you’re using only suspended cymbal in your piece, then you should mark the part as such so the percussionist is clear on your choice.

In Tip 57 of 100 Orchestration Tips, I explore the more scientific basis of cymbal technique; while in Tip 64 of the upcoming book 100 MORE Orchestration Tips, I discuss quality of tone and special effects. In this tip, let’s contrast differences between the two types of cymbals in their technique and timbre, so you can make the most informed decision about scoring either.

The first and most obvious difference is between the physical demands of either instrument. A percussionist can strike a suspended cymbal with a beater for an entire concert without really tiring their arm, but the same is not the case with hand cymbals. Even if it were possible to score hours of hand cymbal collisions without exhausting the listener’s patience, the weight of two solid dishes of metal being held in midair would eventually win out over the percussionist’s arm. Of course, this depends on the size and mass of the dishes. A huge, isolated crash with a long sustain is best achieved by a larger, heavier cymbal – whereas the constant tishing of cymbals in the overture to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio is usually executed on smaller, lighter cymbals. In the latter case, one cymbal is held over one arm, while the other repeatedly strikes from above in an easy motion.

It’s safe to say that any of the repeated rhythms above could be easily replicated by suspended cymbal – except that the stroke of a stick on the cymbal wouldn’t have the same metallic tish as hand cymbals. On the other hand, the faster the stroke with a hand cymbal (as in the highlighted bar 272 of Fig. 63c), the more the air between the cymbals flexes in and out, creating a slight vacuum effect. With a suspended cymbal, there is zero problem with that phenomenon. In fact, for any long passage of paced, repeated notes, the suspended cymbal is ideal – as it is for complex rhythms and nuanced dynamics.

Hand cymbals can achieve similar results; but the orchestrator has to ask themselves if the slight difference in the sound of attack makes it worth putting the percussionist through the trouble of playing a series of minutely controlled strokes with two heavy pieces of handheld metal, as opposed to just hitting the rim of a cymbal with a snare stick. Usually, the simplest approach yields the best result, and the most capable and happy percussionist. Those simple approaches involve using the wrist with a stick for complexity and nuance; and the upper body for more deliberate clashes, at whatever dynamic level.

What’s more, the quality of suspended cymbal timbre changes dramatically depending on which beater is used, as I detail in the following tip in 100 MORE Orchestration Tips. Softness, hardness, and mass of beaters all play a role in shaping the exact resonance, as does the location of the cymbal which is struck, whether at the bell, the bow, or the rim. Though hand cymbals are capable of enormous subtlety and variation of tone (as I’ll also explore), they cannot match the sheer diversity of tone that a suspended cymbal and a well-stocked tray of beaters can provide.

All the same, there are some things that a suspended cymbal cannot do. Big-budget orchestral soundtracks often use the convention of a big cymbal crash at the end of a suspended cymbal roll. What the orchestrator needs to understand is that this effect is close to impossible from single instrument. When a suspended cymbal is rolled into a crescendo, the beaters are already hitting the cymbal quite hard. Tacking an accent onto the end of a roll won’t sound like an extra crash – instead, you’ll just get that flaring swoosh sound as the vibrations are allowed to sweep across the cymbal without being tied down by the roll. If you really want a crash at the end of a cymbal roll, then you have to add a second player on hand cymbals. That will give you the best of both worlds; though this effect is so striking that it should occur sparingly, so that it doesn’t become an instant cliché in your music.