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Finger cymbals.jpg
A close-up of a person holding zills incorrectly (thumb is correct, the other should be on the middle finger instead of the pointer, and above the last knuckle)
Other nameszils, finger cymbals
Classification Percussion
Hornbostel–Sachs classification111.142
(Concussion or percussion vessels)
Related instruments
crotalum, cymbals
Dancing girl playing Zills from Qajar Era.
A Video by a YouTube channel show playing of Darbuka, Bendir and Zill (right person) and Belly Dancing.

Zills or zils (from Turkish zil 'cymbals'), also called finger cymbals, are small metallic cymbals used in belly dancing and similar performances.[1] They are called sājāt (صاجات) in Arabic.[2][3] They are similar to Tibetan tingsha bells. In Western music, several pairs of zills can be set in a frame to make a tambourine.


Zills are part of a family of musical instruments known as clappers. Clappers are musical instruments made of wood, bone, metal, and other substances that are played by being struck against each other. Clappers come in pairs and are often held in the hands, fastened together, or strapped to the fingers of the performer. The clapper family of instruments also include spoons, bones, and castanets.[4] One of the earliest forms of the zill is known as the krotalon. Krotala are early wooden clappers that date back 520 BC. Ancient Greek pottery depict men and women celebrating at a Dionysian festival, with the later using krotala to create music for the event.[5] This tradition would continue as krotala evolved to a smaller, metallic form over the following centuries and would later become essential to the tradition of belly dancing.

Zills share a close history with middle eastern belly dancing, serving as one of the main percussive elements within a belly dance performance. Zills have become synonymous with middle eastern belly dancing due to their crucial role in several rituals pertinent to Egyptian culture.[6] Most of the zill's origins within belly dancing can be traced back to a single line of hereditary dancers known as the Ghawazi. The Ghawazi tradition of belly dancing is theorized to date back even to the time of the pharaoh, with the culture being passed down through generations.[7] One of the most important Ghawazi traditions is that of the zaar. The zaar is a healing ritual that relies on rhythmic songs and dances meant to soothe Jinn, a form of magically empowered spirit beings. The zill is used by dancers to find a rhythm that best soothes the spirits, which then becomes the rhythm that is performed by the rest of the ensemble.


A set of zills consists of four cymbals, two for each hand. Zills come in a range of sizes, the most common having a diameter of about 5 cm (2 in). Different sizes and shapes of zills will produce sounds that differ in volume, tone and resonance. For instance, a dancer performing with an orchestra will use a larger zill with more volume, whereas many belly dancers may use a zill with a more delicate sound, depending on the venue and whether their music is live or recorded, amplified or acoustic. American Tribal dancers typically use a much larger zill with a more mellow tone.

Zill manufacturers commonly use brass rather than the bronze used for larger cymbals, and may design their own brass alloys specifically to achieve particular sound qualities. They may plate some zills in order to give a specific color to them. Zills vary in appearance and may be shiny, dull, plain or engraved.

Before the invention of elastic, zills were tied onto the fingers with leather strips. Modern cymbalists use elastic to secure the zills, one to the thumb and one to the middle finger of each hand. Many zills have two slots to allow the threading of the elastic through the zill, allowing greater control of the instrument. Others have a single hole, allowing greater wobble and creative use with speed.

Zills played as idiophones (two on each hand) can be played in many ways to produce a wide and subtle range of sound, from quiet clicking, bell-like ringing, muted cupped sounds, loud clacks, and even a small range of pitch change.

Zills belong to the family of instruments used in Ottoman military bands, and also occasionally appear as part of Western orchestral or other musical performances. In these cases, musicians usually just call them finger cymbals and use them to obtain a ringing sound with "Middle Eastern" associations. Percussionists who are not exclusively cymbalists sometimes play finger cymbals by striking one cymbal with a drumstick, or by holding one cymbal in each hand by gripping the strap between the thumb and the index finger, and striking the rims together. They tend to use zills for occasional flourishes in the music rather than for complex rhythms and sounds. For more intricate rhythms, an orchestral player might attach a cymbal to both his thumb and first finger. Then, placing that hand between his other hand and knee, the player will alternate between striking the knee and the opposite hand. Each of the motions produce one articulation of the cymbals.[8]

There are many rhythms in belly dancing music that can be spelled out in finger cymbal playing.[9] The style of playing varies from one style and era of dance to the next.

  • Triples, not to be confused with triplets: left/right/left/pause – “giddyup, giddyup, giddyup”)
  • Quads: L/R/L/R (no pause)
  • Beledi: dum/dum/tek-a-tek/dum-tek-a-tek
  • Chiftatelli: dum/dum/tek-a-tek/dum/dum/dum – “John went to the sea; caught. three. fish.”
  • Ayoub: dum/a-tek-tek – “buy more shoes, and…buy more shoes, and . . .”
  • Bolero: dum/tek-a-tek-tek/dum/dum/dum/dum – “I want to be a belly dancer”
  • In the count of the beat, the gallop is played as "and a ONE, and a TWO..." It can also be played as right/left/right/rest. Many teachers recommend thinking of it as dominant hand / non-dominant hand / dominant hand / rest.

Zills are also used in Sufi music, and may be played arrhythmically in a lyrical flow of sound for meditations and sound healing.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zill 2017.
  2. ^ Sawa, George Dimitri (2015-04-30). An Arabic Musical and Socio-Cultural Glossary of Kitāb al-Aghānī (in Arabic). BRILL. ISBN 9789004279094.
  3. ^ Koskoff, Ellen (2008). The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia. Routledge. ISBN 9780415994040.
  4. ^ "Clapper | musical instrument". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-09-14.
  5. ^ Dimitrios., Yatromanolakis (2009). An archaeology of representations : ancient Greek vase-painting and contemporary methodologies. Institut du Livre, A. Kardamitsa. ISBN 978-960-354-250-6. OCLC 670122007.
  6. ^ Bakan, Michael B. (2012). World music : traditions and transformations (2nd ed.). New York. ISBN 978-0-07-352664-5. OCLC 689858598.
  7. ^ author., Lane, Edward William, 1801-1876 (15 December 2012). An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians : the definitive 1860 edition. ISBN 978-1-61797-562-2. OCLC 893685780.
  8. ^ Peinkofer & Tannigel 1988, p. 145.
  9. ^ Cymbal Symbolism http://bellydancingdiva.com/2009/09/cymbal-symbolism/


  • "The American Heritage Dictionary entry: Zill". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017.
  • Peinkofer, Karl; Tannigel, Fritz (1988) [1976]. Handbook of percussion instruments : their characteristics and playing techniques, with illustrations and musical examples from the literature. Mainz / London: Schott. OCLC 604102910.

Further reading[edit]

  • Foreman, Kelly Marie (1994). Zills, the idiophone of the Middle Eastern belly dancer : their history, pedagogy, techniques of playing, and role in the context of bodily expression (MA thesis). Kent State University. OCLC 32361787.

External links[edit]