The small cymbalum developed from the Persian santur, which entered Europe during the Middle Ages. The instrument became popular with Romanian Roma musicians (lăutari) around the 19th century; by the end of the century was quite widespread, taking over from the cobza.  In Wallachia and Muntenia it is used almost as a percussion instrument. In Transylvania and Banat, the style of play is more tonal, heavy with arpeggios.
The santur (also called santoor in India) spread throughout the world. It was not only modified by nomadic Roma people and brought to Eastern Europe and The Balkans, but it also appeared in many other cultures:
The small cymbalum is usually carried by the musician, using a strap around the player's neck and leaning one edge of the instrument against the player's waist. The cymbalum is played by striking two beaters against the strings.
In Hungary, a larger concert cymbalum, comparable in pitch range (and weight) to a small piano - but still played in the normal way with beaters - was first developed by József Schunda in the 1870s. It stands on four legs, has many more strings, and the later models had a damping pedal. [Prior to this, the player damped the strings by using his coat sleeves]. This instrument eventually found its way to districts of Romania because these were all part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
A small cymbalum was also later produced in Ukraine during the 1950's that came with attachable legs and dampers but could be carried more easily than a concert instrument. These instruments were produced by the Chernihiv factory which produced many types of folk instruments.
Players and places
One composer to make use of the cymbalum was Zoltán Kodály. His orchestral suite, Háry János, made extensive use of the instrument and helped make the cymbalum well known outside Eastern Europe. Stravinsky was also an enthusiast, and he owned one.
The instrument is known by different names in different countries and when played in different styles, roughly:
- Hungary: cimbalom
- Slovakia: cimbal
- Romania: ţambal
- Belarus: tsymbaly (цымбалы)
- Ukraine: tsymbaly (цимбали)
- Russia: tsymbaly (цимбалы)
- Greece: sandouri
- Klezmer & Jewish music: tsimbl