The small cymbalum developed from the Persian santur, which entered Europe during the Middle Ages. The instrument became popular with Romanian Gypsy 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 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.
In Hungary, a larger concert cymbalum, comparable to a piano, was first developed by József Schunda in the 1870s. It stands on four legs and has many more strings and a damping pedal. This instrument eventually found its way to Romania as well.
The instrument is known by different names in different countries, roughly:
;Hungary : cymbalum or cymbalom ;Romania : ţambal ;Ukraine : tsymbaly ;Greece : santouri