Timpani or ‘Kettledrums’
Timpani are drums. Their other name is ‘kettledrums’. They relate back to ancient times: a cave-man who banged on an animal skin stretched over a wooden or bone frame wasn’t so different from a timpani player of today!
‘Timpani’ is plural. The singular is ‘timpano’, but nobody ever says ‘timpano’! People always talk about ‘timpani’ as a group – or they say ‘kettledrum’…
The drum has a copper bowl, a bit like a huge tea-cup without a handle. Across the top of it there’s a flat, smooth surface (or ‘head’) of plastic, fibreskin or calfskin. A plastic head is more reliable, because it doesn’t change when it gets hot or cold, or damp or dry, like skin does. And it doesn’t break as easily. At the bottom of modern timpani is a foot-pedal.
A timpanist uses this pedal to tune the drum before the rehearsal or concert begins. Tuning one of these drums is really difficult. You need a ‘good ear’ and plenty of patience. The pedal can also make the drum do a nice ‘glissando’. As you strike the drum, the pitch of the note slides up or down.
All drums are called ‘membranophones’. The word ‘membrane’ means a thin layer of skin. Drums have a thin layer of skin, or material pretending to be skin, stretched across the top.
To play them
You strike them with sticks or beaters. Different kinds make different sounds, and players are experts at knowing which are best in which piece.
It’s also important where the beater falls on the wide timpani head. Near the edge produces a clearer pitch than in the middle, which is more like a thud.
You need to be able to count, too. Like other percussionists, timpanists have a lot of rests, when they don’t play at all. But if they fall asleep, or think too hard about what they had for breakfast, that’s it: they’re lost. They have to follow the music and count all the time. When you have an instrument that makes a loud boom, you don’t want to come bursting in when you’re not meant to!
If a drum skin is slack, the sound is low. If a drum skin is tight, the sound is high.
Timpani go ‘boom’! They are ‘tuned’: the idea of drums sounding different pitches, or notes, might seem strange – but they can. Each drum has a range of at least five whole notes.
There might be four timpani in the orchestra, all different sizes, pounding on their own notes. They usually play in short bursts, and often add power to the orchestra’s sound.
They can sound very exciting. Beethoven knew that: he was the first to give them a proper solo, at the beginning of his Violin Concerto.
Timpani going solo
Beethoven: Violin Concerto (extract)
Takako Nishizaki, violin; Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Kenneth Jean. Naxos 8.550149
Timpani can even create particular effects, such as a heartbeat or gunfire.
Hector Berlioz, the 19th-century French composer who liked big sounds, asked for 16 timpani in his Requiem! A Requiem is written in memory of a dead person, or people. With 16 timpani, it’s as if he was trying to wake them up again…
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● What is used to tune timpani?
● ‘Timpani’ is plural, and this is always what people talk about – but what is the singular form of the word?
● Timpani feature alone at the beginning of a symphony by which composer?
● What is the other word for timpani?
● The timpani can...
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Selected Timpani Extracts
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, ‘Enigma’: Variation VII (Troyte) (extract)
The rumbling from the timpani grows…
Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; George Hurst
Taken from Naxos 8.553564
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’), Op. 30, TrV 176: I. Introduction (extract)
The timpani (in at 0.18) help to set the dramatic scene!
Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdeněk Košler
Taken from Naxos 8.550182
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61: I. Allegro ma non troppo (extract)
In Beethoven’s time this was an eye-opening way to begin a piece: five simple clear timpani notes, with another six at 0.08. The first set of notes are from one drum, at one pitch, and five of the next set are from another drum, pitched on a lower note.
Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Kenneth Jean
Taken from Naxos 8.550149
Georg Druschetzky (1745–1819)
Concerto for six timpani and orchestra: I. Allegro
There are not many concertos for timpani! The composer of this one was a good timpanist himself, and wrote several compositions for the instrument – or rather instruments, because for each pitch you need a different drum. So six are used here, and they follow the tune of the orchestra.
Performers: Alexander Peter, timpani & director; Dresden Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra
Taken from Naxos 8.557610