Timpani, or kettledrums, are percussion musical instruments. A type of drum, they consist of a skin, called a head, stretched over a large hemispherical bowl generally made of copper. Unlike most drums, they have a definite pitch when struck.

Timpani is an Italian plural, the singular of which is timpano. This is rarely used in English speech, however, as a timpano is typically referred to as simply a drum. An alternate spelling, tympani, is commonly encountered in English texts, but timpani is the preferred spelling, as the letter y does not exist in the Italian language.

A musician who plays the timpani is known as a timpanist.

The Instrument

The Basic Timpano

The basic timpano consists of a hemispherical bowl witha drumhead stretched across the opening. The drumhead is connected to a hoop, which is then attached to the bowl via a number of tuning screws placed regularly along the circumference. The head's tension can be adjusted by loosening or tightening the screws. Most timpani have six to eight such screws.

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

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

Machine Timpani

Changing the pitch of a timpano by turning each screw individually is a laborious process. Timpani with a system that adjusts the pitch of the entire head at once are called machine timpani. Machine timpani were developed in the late 19th century.

Pedal Timpani

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

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

  • The ratchet-clutch (often called Dresden or Ringer) 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 he arrives at the desired pitch, he must reengage the clutch. The drums most professional timpanists use have Dresden pedals.
  • 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. Timpani used by school bands and orchestras typically have balanced action pedals. Many professionals also use timpani with balanced action pedals for gigs and outdoor performances because they tend to be more durable.
  • The friction clutch (sometimes called Berlin) system consists of a clutch, which moves along a post, attached to the pedal. When the player presses his toe forward, he frees the clutch from the post and the pedal moves freely. This system is much less common than either the ratchet-clutch or balanced action systems.

Chain Timpani

On chain timpani, the tuning screws 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 mechnism allows the pitch of the head to be changed by rotating the drum itself. A similar system is used on roto-toms.

Timpani Heads

Like most drumheads, timpani heads can be found made from two materials: animal skin (typically calfskin) and plastic. Plastic heads are durable, weather resistant, and cheap. 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

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. Hickory and bamboo are the most common. 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 performences 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 in 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 Orchestra

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 the operetta 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 of five drums.

It should be noted that many schools and less fortunate ensembles only have a set of three timpani. This was the standard set until the second half of the 20th century. A standard set of three timpani 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.


Throughout their education, timpanists are trained as percussionists, and they learn all instruments of the percussion family along with timpani. However, when the timpanist is appointed to a position in a professional orchestra, 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 to play a standard set of four (sometimes five) timpani. However, occasionally composers seeking a thicker texture 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.

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, noted 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 rim. 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.

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 variations.

Occasionally, composers will ask for specific beating spots. Béla Bartók writes a passage "to be played at the edge of the head" in his Violin Concerto.


Clearing Timpani Heads

To produce the best sound possible, the timpanist must clear the head by adjusting the pitch at all of the screws. 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.

Tuning in Performance

Tuning is typically done by a method called interval tuning. Timpanists who are not blessed with absolute pitch typically use a tuning fork to get a reference pitch, then use musical intervals to arrive at the correct 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 rim, in which case the gauge indicates how far the rim 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. Good timpanists prefer to tune by ear and will only rely on gauges 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.

Special Tuning Techniques

A glissando can be performed by changing the pitch of the drum while it can still be heard. 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 glissandi at the same time, in his Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable).

Pedaling refers to playing two consecutive notes on the same drum, using the pedal to change the pitch. For example, in Samuel Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, the timpanist must play A sharp–B–C sharp–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.


Muffling is an impilicit 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 length of the note. 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 on the back of three fingers against the head while holding onto the timpani stick with the 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.

It should be noted that muffling is often referred to as muting, which can also refer to playing the drums with mutes on them (see below).

Special Effects

Double Stops and Chords

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 most 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 by employing eight timpanists, each playing a pair of timpani.

Playing in the Center

When the timpani is struck directly in the head, the drum has a sound that is almost completely devoid of tone. George Gershwin uses this effect in An American in Paris.


Often, 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 (i.e. ensemble playing). These vibrations often are more apparent when the pitch of nearby sounds matches that pitch which a timpano is tuned to. For instance a trombone playing a G at forte will cause a timpano tuned to C or G to resonate by it's own accord.

Unconventional Beaters

Often, composers will 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 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.

Sympathetic Resonance

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, most notably Elliot Carter in Eight Pieces for Four Timpani.

Playing the Bowls

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.

A Brief History

Timpani evolved from military kettledrums. They made their first appearance in the orchestra in the 17th century, but did not become an orchestral mainstay until the 18th century.

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