A bell cymbal is a relatively small cymbal with a concave shape. Drummers generally distinguish this kind of symbol from the larger crash cymbal that is common on modern drum sets. By contrast, the bell cymbal is seen as an effects or accent cymbal, or a specialty cymbal that is less commonly used. Although they produce different sounds than a flat crash cymbal, bell cymbals are often used in the same way: to provide a rapidly decaying "crash" sound after a certain time frame, to help separate bars of drum music or otherwise punctuate drum rhythms.
One reason that this kind of cymbal is referred to as a bell cymbal is because of the kinds of sounds that it makes. Although musicians don’t always talk about percussion instruments in terms of tone, different cymbals can actually create different pitched tones. Some provide a higher pitched sound or a lower pitched sound depending on the construction of the cymbal.
Another reason that musicians call this cymbal a bell cymbal is because of its shape. Conventional cymbal s can be described as having two parts, the flat, broad rim and the concave or “bell” portion near the middle. The flat area on a crash cymbal is the part that drummers usually hit. On bell cymbals, there is no flat portion but only a bell shape.
Some drummers will refer to the bell cymbal as a type of accent cymbal, which is another smaller cymbal used in drum sets to augment a larger crash cymbal. Some types of bell cymbals will be mounted in stacks, or otherwise combined so that the drummer can easily strike more than one in quick proximity or simultaneously. These cymbals provide a quite different sound from the flatter crash cymbal, and many drummers who want more diversity of sound will include them in a full drum set.
In addition to being used like a crash cymbal, a bell cymbal might also be used as a "ride." The ride cymbal replaces the hi hat on some drum sets; rather than producing a sharp, quickly diminishing sound, it makes a longer sustained sound that drummers can use to create an ongoing, consistent cymbal sound throughout a bar of drum music. Although the bell cannot imitate the sound of a closed hi hat, some bell cymbals can provide effective ride sounds, and are sold as "bell ride cymbals."