History of the timpani


Overview of the timpani

The timpani are a percussion instrument, also known as the kettledrum.  It is a kind of drum that has three main parts to it: 

  1. A head, made of animal skin that is stretched over the top of the instrument
  2. A bowl that is usually made of copper, and finally
  3. A timpani mallet that is used to strike the head of the drum 

A percussionist who plays the timpani is called a timpanist. 

History of the timpani

The oldest timpani were used as European military drums.  They were about 16”-17” in diameter and about as deep as they were wide.  The military orchestras that played these drums were small.  The timpani were also small.  These small drums were used in many different classical orchestras during the 17th century.  Bach and Handel’s early orchestras had drums that copied the sound of these early, small old-style timpani.

As time went by, orchestras were beginning to add more wind and brass instruments.  Also, the string section grew as different types of new instruments were being added.  All of these changes in the orchestra affected the way the timpani were being made and played as well.  Instrument makers were creating timpani that were bigger in size and sound.  This matched the “growing” sound of the music that was being played in the bigger orchestras of the romantic period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Along with the historical changes in the size of the timpani, musicians were also using bigger spaces between the drums when they played.  For example, the spaces increased from 1” between the drums to 3” from the baroque period and Beethoven’s later symphonies.  Composers also wanted to hear more different note combinations being played.  So, instead of the original pair of timpani became three and four drums.

Composers Wagner and Strauss thought of more changes for the timpani.  They wanted to be able to change the sound of each drum in very little time.  In the middle of the 20th century, the timpani had changed so much and had become a standard size.  However, they became more complex because of the addition of special pedals to change the tuning and to create special sounds.  Also, instrument makers were making the drums from different types of skins.  The timpani was made in a bigger variety of ways than ever before.

Then, in the middle of the 20th century, something changed.  People began to be interested in the sounds of the original timpani.  They no longer wanted to hear the sounds that came from the larger timpani that modern orchestras were using.  So, over the past 500 years, instrument makers have been building timpani smaller and smaller so that they look and sound more like the original drums that were made for classical orchestras hundreds of years ago.

Today, the different kinds of timpani are played as part of several kinds of music ensembles and bands.

Published: 7 January 2005

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