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Template:Spoken Wikipedia Timpani, or kettledrums, are musical instruments in the percussion family. A type of drum, they consist of a skin called a head stretched over a large bowl commonly made of copper. They are played by striking the head with a special drum stick called a timpani stick or timpani mallet. Unlike most drums, they produce a definite pitch when struck. Timpani evolved from military drums to become a staple of the classical orchestra in the 17th century. Today, they are used in many types of musical ensembles including concert, marching, and even rock bands.

Timpani is an Italian plural, the singular of which is timpano. This is rarely used in informal English speech, however, as a timpano is typically referred to as simply a drum or a timpani. An alternative spelling, tympani, is often encountered in English texts. It is derived from the Latin word tympanum, from which the Italian word descends. A musician who plays the timpani is known as a timpanist. Template:Listen


The instrument

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Walter Light pedal and chain timpani set up in three different combinations.

The basic timpano

The basic timpano consists of a drumhead stretched across the opening of a bowl typically made of copper or, in less expensive models, fiberglass. The drumhead is connected to a hoop, which is then attached to the bowl via a number of tuning screws called tension rods placed regularly along the circumference. The head's tension can be adjusted by loosening or tightening the rods. Most timpani have six to eight tension rods.

The shape of the bowl contributes to the tone quality of the drum. For example, hemispheric bowls produce brighter tones while parabolic bowls produce darker tones. Another factor that affects the timbre of the drum is the quality of the bowl's surface. Copper bowls may have a smooth, machined surface or rough surface with many small dents hammered into it.

Timpani come in a variety of sizes from around 84 centimeters (33 inches) in diameter down to piccolo timpani of 30 centimeters (12 inches) or less. A 33-inch drum can produce the C below the bass clef, and speciality piccolo timpani can play up into the treble clef. In Darius Milhaud's ballet La cr顴ion du monde, the timpanist must play the F sharp at the bottom of the treble clef!

Each individual drum typically has a range of a perfect fifth to an octave.

Machine timpani

Changing the pitch of a timpano by turning each tension rod individually is a laborious process. In the late 19th century, mechanical systems to change the tension of the entire head at once were developed. Timpani equipped with such a system are called machine timpani.

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This pedal is on a Dresden timpano. The timpanist must disengage the clutch – seen here on the left of the pedal – to change the pitch of the drum.

Pedal timpani

By far the most common type of timpani used today are pedal timpani, which allow the tension of the head to be adjusted using a pedal mechanism. Typically, the pedal is connected to the tension screws via a spider-like system of metal rods.

There are three types of pedal mechanisms in common use today:

  • The ratchet-clutch system uses a ratchet and clutch to hold the pedal in place. The timpanist must first disengage the clutch before using the pedal to tune the drum. When the desired pitch is achieved, he must reengage the clutch.
  • In the balanced action system, a spring is used to balance the tension on the timpani head so that the pedal will stay in position and the head will stay at pitch. The balanced action system is sometimes called a floating pedal since there is no clutch holding the pedal in place.
  • The friction clutch, post and clutch, or Berlin system uses a clutch that moves along a post. When the player disengages the clutch, he frees it from the post allowing the pedal to move without restraint.

Any pedal drums that are tuned using the spider system can be called Dresden timpani, though the term is most often used for drums whose design is similar to the original pedal timpani built in Dresden (see below). These drums may also be called Ringer-style timpani after Günther Ringer, who revived the original Dresden design. Dresden timpani typically have a fine-tuning handle using to make small adjustments to the head's tension.

The drums most professional timpanists use are Dresden timpani, commonly with a ratchet-clutch or friction clutch pedal. Most school bands and orchestras below the university level use cheaper, more durable timpani. The mechanical parts of these timpani are almost completely contained within the frame and bowl of the drum. They may use any of the pedal mechanisms, though the balanced action system is by far the most common, followed by the friction clutch system. Many professionals also use these drums for gigs and outdoor performances because of their durability.

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On chain timpani, a chain links the tension rods so a master handle can be used to turn them all at once.

Chain timpani

On chain timpani, the tension rods are connected by a chain much like the one found on a bicycle. All the screws can then be tightened or loosened by one handle. Though far less common than pedal timpani, chain drums still have practical uses. Occasionally, a player is forced to place a drum behind other items so that he cannot reach it with his foot. Professional players may also use exceptionally large or small chain drums for special low or high notes.

Other tuning mechanisms

A rare tuning mechanism allows the pitch of the head to be changed by rotating the drum itself. A similar system is used on rototoms.

Early 20th century German travel timpani are tuned with a handle that connects to the base, which raises and lowers the bowl, adjusting the tension against the stationary head.

Timpani heads

Like most drumheads, timpani heads can be found made from two materials: animal skin (typically calfskin) and plastic (typically Mylar). Plastic heads are durable, weather resistant, and relatively inexpensive. Thus, they are more commonly used than calfskin heads. However, many professional players prefer natural skin heads because they feel that skin heads produce a warmer, better quality timbre.

Timpani sticks

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Timpanists use a variety of timpani sticks since each stick produces a different timbre.

Timpani are typically struck with a special type of drumstick fittingly called a timpani stick or timpani mallet. Timpani sticks are used in pairs. They have two components: a shaft and a head. The shaft is typically made from wood – usually hickory, cherry, birch, or maple – or bamboo, but may also be made from aluminum or graphite. The head of the stick can be constructed from a number of different materials, though felt wrapped around a wood core is the most common. Other core materials include felt and cork, and other wrap materials include leather. Sticks can also have exposed wood heads. These are used as a special effect and in authentic performances of Baroque music.

Although it is not commonly written in the music, timpanists will change sticks – often many times within the same piece – to suit the nature of the music. Thus, most own a great number of timpani sticks. The weight of the stick, the size of the head, the materials used for the shaft, core, and wrap, and the method used to wrap the head all contribute to the timbre the stick produces.

Timpani in the modern ensemble

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A standard set of timpani consists of four drums.

A set of timpani

A standard set of timpani consists of four drums: roughly 80 cm (32 in), 75 cm (29 in), 66 cm (26 in), and 61 cm (23 in) in diameter. The range of this set is roughly the D below the bass clef to the top-line bass clef A. A great majority of the orchestral repertoire can be played using these four drums. However, Igor Stravinsky writes for the B below middle C in The Rite of Spring, and Leonard Bernstein requires the timpanist to execute both a top-line bass clef A flat and the B flat above it on the same drum in the Overture to Candide. Adding a 51 cm (20 in) piccolo timpano to the standard set of four extends the range to middle C. Beyond this extended set of five, any added drums are nonstandard. Many professional orchestras and timpanists own multiple sets of timpani consisting of both pedal and chain drums allowing them to execute music that cannot be performed correctly using a standard set of four or five drums.

Many schools and ensembles that cannot afford to purchase equipment regularly only have a set of three timpani. This was the standard set until the second half of the 20th century. It consists of 75 cm (29 in), 66 cm (26 in), and 61 cm (23 in) drums. Its range extends down only to the F below bass clef.

The drums are setup in an arc or horseshoe around the performer. Traditionally, North American timpanists set their drums up with the lowest drum on the left and the highest on the right, and German and Austrian players set them up the opposite way. Over time, that distinction has blurred: German and European players have adopted the North American layout and vice versa.


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Balanced action timpani are used in outdoor performances because of their durability.

Throughout their education, timpanists are trained as percussionists, and they learn to play all instruments of the percussion family along with timpani. However, when a timpanist is appointed to a position in a professional orchestra or concert band, he is not required to play any other percussion instruments. In his book Anatomy of the Orchestra, Norman Del Mar writes that the timpanist is "king of his own province", and that "a good timpanist really does set the standard of the whole orchestra."

Most pieces of music call for one timpanist playing one set of timpani. However, occasionally composers seeking a thicker texture or a greater palette of pitches ask for multiple players to perform on one or many sets of timpani. Gustav Mahler writes for two timpanists in Symphonies 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, and 9. Gustav Holst uses two timpanists to achieve the range of notes needed to echo the main theme in "Jupiter" from The Planets suite. Two timpanists is relatively common in late Romantic and 20th century works for large orchestras, but the early Romantic composer Hector Berlioz took multiple timpanists to the extreme in his Requiem, which calls for eight pair of timpani played by ten timpanists! Template:Listen

Timpani concertos

Although it is not common, there have been concertos written for timpani. The 18th century composer Johann Fischer wrote a symphony for eight timpani and orchestra, which requires the solo timpanist to play eight drums simultaneously. In the year 2000, American composer Philip Glass wrote his Concerto Fantasy for two timpanists and orchestra, which has its two soloists playing a total of nine or more timpani.

Performance techniques

Striking the drum

For general playing, a timpanist will beat the head approximately 4 inches in from the edge. Beating at this spot produces the round, resonant sound commonly associated with timpani.

A timpani roll is executed simply by rapidly striking the drum, alternating between left and right sticks. Timpanists do not use multiple-stroke rolls like those played on the snare drum.

The tone quality of the drum can be altered without switching sticks or fiddling with the tuning of the drum. For example, by playing closer to the edge of the head, the sound becomes thinner. A more staccato sound can be produced by beating the drum with the heads of the sticks as close together as possible. When playing rolls, the sticks are placed farther apart to cause as much of the head as possible to vibrate. There are many more variations in technique a timpanist uses during the course of playing to produce subtle timbral differences.

Occasionally, composers will ask the timpanist to strike the drum at specific spots. [[B鬡 Bart󫝝 writes a passage "to be played at the edge of the head" in his Violin Concerto.


Prior to playing the instruments, the timpanist must clear the heads by equalizing the tension at each tuning screw. This is done so every spot on the head is tuned to exactly the same pitch. When the head is clear, the timpano will produce a beautiful, in-tune sound. If the head is not clear, the pitch of the drum will rise or fall after the initial impact, and the drum will produce different pitches at different dynamic levels.

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Tuning gauges visually indicate the position of the pedal so the performer can determine the drum's pitch without listening to it.

In performance, tuning is typically accomplished with a method called interval tuning. Timpanists who are not blessed with absolute pitch obtain a reference pitch from a tuning fork, pitch pipe, or even a note played by another instrument in the course of the performance, then use musical intervals to arrive at the desired note. For example, to tune the timpani to G and C, a timpanist may sound an A with a tuning fork, then sing (or think) a minor third above that A to tune the C, and then sing a perfect fourth below the C to tune the G. Timpanists are required to have a very well developed sense of relative pitch.

Some timpani are equipped with tuning gauges, which provide a visual indication of the drum's pitch. They are physically connected either to the counterhoop, in which case the gauge indicates how far the counterhoop is pushed down, or the pedal, in which case the gauge indicates the position of the pedal. These gauges can be useful. However, every time the drum is moved, the overall pitch of the head changes, thus the pitches must be re-marked on the gauges before every performance. Gauges are especially useful when performing music that involves blind tuning changes, or tuning changes that do not allow the player to listen to the new pitch before playing it. Many good timpanists prefer to tune by ear and will rely on gauges only if absolutely necessary.

Timpanists are commonly required to tune in the middle of a piece of music, thus all timpanists must develop techniques to tune undetectably and accurately in the midst of other music.

Occasionally, players use the pedals to retune a drum while playing it. Portamento effects can be achieved by changing the pitch of the drum while it can still be heard. This is commonly called a glissando, though this use of the term is not strictly correct. The most effective glissandos are those from low notes to high notes and those performed during rolls. One of the first composers to call for a timpani glissando was Carl Nielsen, who used two sets of timpani, both playing glissandos at the same time, in his Symphony No. 4 ("The Inextinguishable"). Template:Listen

Pedaling refers to changing the pitch of the drum with the pedal; it is an alternate term for tuning. In general, timpanists reserve this term for passages where the performer must change the pitch of a drum in the midst of playing – for example, playing two consecutive notes of different pitches on the same drum. In Samuel Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, the timpanist must play A♯–B–C♯–D in consecutive sixteenth notes. There is no way to place this passage across a common set of four drums, thus the timpanist must use the pedal to change the notes while playing. Template:Listen


Muffling or dampening is an implicit part of playing timpani. Often, timpanists will muffle notes so they only sound for the length indicated by the composer. However, early drums did not resonate nearly as long as modern timpani, so composers often just wrote a note when the timpanist was to hit the drum without worrying about the sustain. Today, timpanists must use their ear and the score of the piece to determine the actual length the note should sound.

The typical method of muffling is to place the pads of the fingers against the head while holding onto the timpani stick with the thumb and index finger. Timpanists are required to develop techniques to stop all vibration of the drumhead without making any sound from the contact of their fingers.

Muffling is often referred to as muting, which can also refer to playing the drums with mutes on them (see below).

Special effects

  • It is typical for only one timpano to be struck at a time. Occasionally, composers will ask for two notes to be struck at once. This is called a double stop. Ludwig van Beethoven uses this effect in the slow movement of his Ninth Symphony.
  • Although timpanists only have two hands, it is possible to play more than two timpani at once. One way to do this is by holding two sticks in one hand much like a marimbist. Another is by adding the hands of more timpanists. Hector Berlioz achieves fully voiced chords on timpani in his Requiem ("Grande messe des morts") by employing eight timpanists, each playing a pair of timpani.
  • When the timpani are struck directly in the center of the head, the drums have a sound that is almost completely devoid of tone. George Gershwin uses this effect in An American in Paris.
  • Often, when one drum is struck, another will vibrate quietly. In orchestral playing, timpanists must actively avoid this effect, but many composers have exploited this effect in solo pieces, such as Elliot Carter's Eight Pieces for four timpani.
  • Sometimes composers will specify that timpani be played con sordino (with mute) or coperti (covered), both of which indicate that mutes should be placed on the head. Timpani mutes are typically small, rectangular pieces of felt or leather. The degree the head is dampened can be altered by placing the mute at different spots on the head. Barber specifies that the timpani be played con sordino in a section of Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Mutes are also often used to dampen the sympathetic vibrations generated by external factors such as the sound produced by other instruments.
  • Composers will sometimes specify that the timpani should be struck with implements other than timpani sticks. It is common in timpani etudes and solos for performers to play with their hands or fingers. Leonard Bernstein calls for maracas on timpani in both the "Jeremiah" Symphony and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Edward Elgar attempts to use the timpani to imitate the engine of an ocean liner in his "Enigma" Variations by requesting the timpanist play with snare drum sticks. However, snare drum sticks tend to produce too loud a sound, and since this work's premiere, the passage in question has been performed by striking the timpani with the edges of coins.
  • Another technique used primarily in solo work is striking the copper bowls of the timpani. Timpanists tend to be reluctant to use this effect at loud dynamic levels or with hard sticks, since copper can be dented easily.
  • Occasionally a composer will ask for an upside-down cymbal to be placed upon the drumhead and then struck, usually rolled while executing a glissando on the drum.


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In the 15th century, timpani were used with trumpets as ceremonial instruments in the cavalry.

Pre-orchestral history

Timpani were brought to 13th century Europe by Crusaders and Saracens. These drums, which were small (around 20–22 cm or 8–8½ in in diameter) and mounted to the player's belt, were used primarily for military ceremonies. This form of timpani remained in use until the 16th century.

In 1457, a Hungarian legation sent by King Ladislaus V carried larger timpani mounted on horseback to the court of King Charles VII in France. This variety of timpani had been used in the Middle East since the 12th century. These drums evolved together with trumpets to be the primary instruments of the cavalry. This practice continues to this day in sections of the British Army, and timpani continued to be paired with trumpets when they entered the classical orchestra.

Over the next two centuries, a number of technical improvements were made to timpani. Originally, the head was nailed directly to the shell of the drum. In the 15th century, heads began to be attached and tensioned by a counterhoop that was tied directly to the shell. In the early 16th century, the bindings were replaced by screws. This allowed timpani to become tunable instruments of definite pitch.

Timpani in the orchestra

The composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was the first to use timpani in the classical orchestra in his 1675 opera Thésée. Other 17th century composers soon followed suit. In music of this time, timpani are almost always tuned to the tonic and dominant notes of the piece – a perfect fourth apart. Interestingly, timpani are often treated as transposing instruments in the music of this period: the notes were written as C and G with the actual pitches indicated at the top of the score.

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Although by the early 19th century, timpani were most commonly found in orchestras, ceremonial trumpet and timpani ensembles still existed.

Ludwig van Beethoven revolutionized timpani music in the early 19th century. He not only wrote for drums tuned to intervals other than a fourth or fifth, but he gave a prominence to the instrument as an independent voice. For example, his Violin Concerto opens with five unaccompanied timpani strokes, and the scherzo of his Ninth Symphony pitches the timpani against the orchestra in a sort of call and response.

The next major innovator was Hector Berlioz. He was the first composer to indicate the exact sticks that should be used – felt-covered, wooden, etc. In several of his works, including Symphonie fantastique, he demanded the use of several timpanists at once.

Until the late 19th century, timpani were hand-tuned; that is, there was a sequence of screws with T-shaped handles, called taps, which altered the tension in the head when turned by players. Thus, tuning was a relatively slow operation, and composers had to allow a reasonable amount of time for players to change notes if they wanted to be sure of a true note. The first pedal timpani originated in Dresden in the 1870s and are called Dresden timpani for this reason. However, since vellum was used for the heads of the drums, automated solutions were difficult to implement since the tension would vary unpredictably across the drum. This could be compensated for by hand-tuning, but not easily by a pedal drum. Mechanisms continued to improve in the early 20th century.

Despite these problems, composers eagerly exploited the opportunities the new mechanism had to offer. By 1915, Carl Nielsen was demanding glissandos on timpani in his Fourth Symphony – impossible on the old hand-tuned drums. However, it took Béla Bartók to more fully realize the flexibility the new mechanism had to offer. Many of his timpani parts require such a range of notes that it would be unthinkable to attempt them without pedal drums.

From 1960, plastic heads have been available. These are much more reliable than the traditional vellum or calfskin heads since they do not vary much with temperature and humidity. Plastic skins also give a greater range of pitches since they will take higher tensions. However, detractors say that the tone they produce is less rounded and certainly less authentic when playing period music. In recent years, manufacturers have started producing heads made from traditional materials for use on modern pedal timpani in an attempt to recapture an authentic sound.

Timpani outside the orchestra

Later, timpani were adopted into other classical music ensembles such as concert bands. In the 1970s, marching bands and drum and bugle corps, which evolved both from traditional marching bands and concert bands, began to include marching timpani. Each player carried a single drum, which was tuned by a hand crank. Marching timpani were heavy and awkward to play, as the drumhead was almost at the player's chest. Often, during intricate passages, all the timpani players would put their drums on the ground, and they would be played more like conventional timpani. In the early 1980s, Drum Corps International, a drum corps governing body, allowed timpani and other percussion instruments to be grounded. This was the beginning of the end for marching timpani: Eventually, standard concert timpani found their way onto the football field as part of the marching band's front ensemble, and marching timpani fell out of common usage.

As rock and roll bands started seeking to diversify their sound, timpani found their way into the studio. In 1964, Ringo Starr played timpani on the song "Every Little Thing" from The Beatles album Beatles for Sale. Beginning in 1969, John Bonham employed timpani both in the studio and onstage with the release of the debut Led Zeppelin album Led Zeppelin 1. Early in the next decade, progressive rock bands began utilizing all sorts of percussion instruments, including timpani. Mike Oldfield's 1973 album Tubular Bells featured timpani along with other percussion instruments that were traditionally part of the orchestra.

Jazz musicians also experimented with timpani. In 1964, Elvin Jones incorporated timpani into his drum kit on John Coltrane's four-part composition A Love Supreme.

As of 2005, Jonathan Haas is one of the few timpanists who is solely a soloist – he does not hold a regular seat with an ensemble. Haas, who began his career as a solo timpanist in 1980, is notable for performing music from many genres including jazz, rock, and classical. In fact, he released an album with a rather unconventional jazz band called Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing.

Related topics


  • Adler, Samuel. The Study of Orchestration. W. W. Norton & Company, 3rd edition, 2002. ISBN 039397572X
  • Del Mar, Norman. Anatomy of the Orchestra. University of California Press, 1984. ISBN 0520050622
  • Peters, Mitchell. Fundamental Method for Timpani. Alfred Publishing Co., 1993. ISBN 073902051X
  • Tafoya, John. Letter to Flamurai. February 4, 2005.
  • Thomas, Dwight. Timpani: Frequently Asked Questions (http://members.cox.net/datimp/timpani.html). Retrieved February 4, 2005.
  • Zoutendijk, Marc. Letters to Flamurai. February 8, 2005.
  • "Biography" (http://www.aboutjonathanhaas.com/bio.html). About Jonathan Haas. Retrieved February 17, 2005.
  • "Credits: Beatles for Sale". All Music Guide. Retrieved February 18, 2005.
  • "Credits: A Love Supreme". All Music Guide. Retrieved February 18, 2005.
  • "Credits: Tubular Bells". All Music Guide. Retrieved February 18, 2005.
  • "Early Timpani in Europe" (http://www.vsl.co.at/english/instruments/drums/timpani/History.htm). The Vienna Symphonic Library. Retrieved February 4, 2005.
  • "Frequently Asked Questions" (http://www.adams-music.com/international/faq.html). Adams Musical Instruments. Retrieved February 4, 2005.
  • "Historical DCI Scores" (http://www.soundmachine.org/dci/dcihistory.htm). The Sound Machine Drum Corps Scores Archive. Retrieved February 17, 2005.
  • "Schnellar Timpani" (http://www.malletshop.com/museum_detail.cfm?prod=256). Malletshop.com. Retrieved February 10, 2005.
  • "Timpani General Information" (http://www.americandrum-w-light.com/html/body_timpani_general.html). American Drum Manufacturing Co. Retrieved February 6, 2005.

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