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Things You Need To Know About The Timpani Drum

The Timpani Drum – Last Updated December 3rd, 2022


The Timpani Drum

The timpani drum is another musical instrument from the percussion family. It is made of vibrating skin on top of a kettle-shaped shell.

A timpani is essentially a drum and a member of the membranophone family of instruments with a defined pitch. You play the timpani drum by striking the drum head with a mallet.

The timpani drum is popularly known as orchestral kettledrums and by other names like temple drums, timp-toms, or timps.

In the same sense, it is called timpano for a single drum and is known as pauken in German. The French called it timbales, and the Spanish called it timbals.

The word timpani actually evolved from Italy, which was the largest cultural center of that era. As a result, all the people who went to Italy for their studies developed the habit of calling the drums timpani.

This trend of calling the timpani drum “timpani” broadly continued until about 1600. Afterward, it became popular in the classical era. However, it is commonly called a kettle drum in English.

The drum has been part of the orchestra since the middle of the 17th century. Besides, timpani is often used in different forms of ensembles like marching bands, concert bands, rock bands, and many others.

Brief History And Origin Of The Timpani Drum

Klassischewienerpauken™ – Classical Viennese Timpani (source)

The timpani is a very old instrument and its origin can be traced back to ancient times. The ancient people Hebrews, Greeks, Egyptians, and others were known to have used percussion instruments much the same as the timpani.

Historically, the first use of this heavy percussion instrument was registered in ceremonies that have to do with religion by Hebrews. Also, there is a frame drum called tympanon in ancient Greek. Tympanon has a loud rumbling sound like today’s timpani. This was said to be the source of the word timpani we have today.

The Early Timpani Drum

The timpani was introduced to Europe in the 13th century during the series of religious wars between Crusaders and Saracens in the medieval period around 1095 and 1271.

In particular, the early timpani of the 13th century was of Saracenic origin and was known as ‘Nakers’ (naqqâra in Arabic). Nakers were generally pairs of kettledrums of the same size with a diameter of about 20 to 22centimeter.

They were not big as much and utilized the ahead tension technique that includes tightening ropes and sometimes with snares.  Typically, they were different in size and general body structure compared to the modern timpani.

The Nakers

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani
The Nakers drum

The body of nakers also known as draped kettledrums was like a bowl and made from materials like clay, wood, or metal. Nakers were normally attached to the waist of the player with the aid of straps and played with a pair of short wooden sticks.

The nakers eventually became the official symbol for the aristocracy and were used during musical entertainment. Furthermore, the nakers and the direct forebears of most timpani were also in use for encouragement in the tournament.

These nakers from Arab countries are normally played in military contexts. And they were also played to intensify the sounds of chaos in the battle. It is majorly known as the instrument that cavalry typically mounted at the back of a horse and played. This tradition of mounting them on the horse is peculiar to the Muslims, Ottoman Turks, Mongols.

Timpani Drum in Europe

Hessische Barockpauken™ (Hessian Baroque Timpani) dating from approximately 1700 (Source)

In the 15th Century, the true kettle drums and ancestors of the orchestral timpani started to show up and later spread throughout Western Europe. In particular, it was a model for the King Ladislas V of Hungary to travel with the accompanied of the largest kettle drums known at that time. 

However, the kettle drum made a wave in Western Europe in 1457 when King Ladislaus V of Hungary sent a legation to the court of Charles VII in France. The legation he sent rode on horses with a large kettledrum mounted on their back to Charles’s court. Their kind of kettledrum has been in use since the 12th century in the Middle East.

Timpani Drum in Britain

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani
Mounted band of the Household Cavalry

The German aristocracy later adopted the drum from Hungary. And eventually, the kettle drum made its way into Britain at the request of King Henry VIII. The kettledrum actually evolved together with the trumpets to eventually become the typical instruments of the cavalry.

In fact, this practice of horse-mounted timpani continues till today in the British cavalry band. In addition, several military organizations in Europe started using kettledrum also known as timpani in the 15th century.

It was still during the 15th century that the kettledrum passed through a lot of technical improvements. Part of the improvement was the way the skin for the drum’s head is tension.

In detail, the bracing or nailing approach used to stretch the skin across the drum shell was replaced.  They used the skins lapped on by a hoop approach instead.

Reconstruction of Timpani Drum in Europe

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani
Timpani also known as Kettle drum crafted by Antonio Stradivari
Photo: DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

Some years after the appearance of timpani in Europe, the drum experienced a series of reconstructions. At the start of the 16th century, the German began the usage of screws to tension the skin of the kettle drum that normally stretched over a hoop.

Again, the method of screw-tensioning mechanism was developed around 1812 by the Munich court timpanist Gerhard Kramer. The mechanism connected all the screws to one particular screw called the master screw.  

Therefore, the skin tension and pitch of the drum could be changed by means of one handle or pedal.  This method greatly transformed the skin tension and also the instrument pitch.

As a result, the kettledrums became tunable percussion instruments of definite pitch. And this screw-tension tuning mechanism continued extensively till the latter 19th century.

Timpani Drum In Industrial Revolution Era

The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States empowered the new approach used in the construction of the kettledrums. It also established new materials used for the construction of the drum

Specifically, the new machine and pedal tuning mechanisms were established. The pedal tuning mechanisms were invented in Dresden, eastern German by C. Pittrich in the 1870s and are presently the standard for orchestral kettledrum. Thereafter, in the middle of the 20th century, the plastic heads were brought in by Remo.

Timpani in European Military Court Festivities

By the 16th century, the kettledrum, also known as timpani, had been popular in European military regiments and in court festivities and dances. In truth, the kettledrum with the trumpets simply added much colour to the different ceremonials that have to do with the monarchy.

Timpani Drum Adoption In Orchestra

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani

In the 17th century, the popularity of the instrument kept growing in Europe. Subsequently, the drums found their way to the orchestra together with oboe, horn, and trumpet. By this time, they have developed to become a more robust instrument that need not be mounted on the horseback again.

Moreover, by the following half of the 18th century, the timpani has been in a firm position as part of the orchestra instruments. As a matter of fact, timpani continued to be part of the orchestra instruments till today.  Consequently, in every Western orchestra, the European timpani is always there.

Construction of The Timpani Drum

There are different ways of constructing timpani but the mode of their sound production is the same. For instance, the construction of Vienna timpani is not the same as ‘standard’ pedal timpani. However, the mode of their sound production remains the same.

Timpani is known as a drum that produces pitched sounds. The mode of its construction is not like a normal drum. It is known that most drums have top and bottom skin for the vibration. Or sometimes a hollow body with an open bottom and covered head.

The timpani is designed and constructed to produce vibrations at integral heterogeneous frequencies. This mode of vibrations projects a pitched sound from the timpani. This is achieved by covering a large copper bowl with a unique bottom shape with a stretched skin.

Also, the shape of the timpani’s bowl or kettle is specially shaped to contribute to the drum’s timbre. For instance, it comes in a parabolic shape when a darker tone is required. On the other hand, it can be hemispheric when a brighter tone is desired.

The Timpani Drum Bowl

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani

Specifically, copper is used for the timpani bowl because it is efficient in regulating its external and internal temperature. Other materials like aluminum and fiberglass are used to produce the instrument bowl. But they are not efficient in their internal and external temperature regulation as copper.

The Timpani Drum Head

The stretched skin is known as the drum-head or timpani head. The drum-heads are made traditionally from animal hide. Typically, goatskin or calfskin are used for the timpani head. However, modern timpani heads are made from different synthetic materials. Depending on how the timpani is used, it is necessary to change the head every one to two years.

Counter Hoop And The Tension Rods

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani

The skin is first attached to a ring metal called a hoop to make a flesh hoop. The flesh hoop is then attached to the bowl head by a counter hoop. The counter hoop is used to hold the flesh hoop firm on the bowl or kettle with the help of tension rods.

The tension rods are several tuning screws at a regular interval around the upper part of the drum bowl. According to the size of the timpani, the tension rods can be six or up to eight in number.

The tension on the stretched skin is adjusted by adjusting the tension rods. The rod is tightening to increase the tension and loosening to decrease the tension.

The Pedal

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani

The construction of standard timpani made use of the pedal mechanism. The pedal is the mechanical part of the timpani and is very unique. The pedal is used to change the tension of the skin or drum-head with a leg.

Normally, the construction of the pedal in standard timpani made use of the spider. The spider is an assembly of metal rods that connect the pedal to the tension rods. The diagram above shows the spider inside the bottom of the Yamaha pedal timpani.

The pedal made it very easy to adjust the tension of the counter hoop attached to the drum-head. By moving the pedal with your foot, the tension on the drum-head changes as well as the pitch of the drum.

To increase the tension of the drum-head, just press the pedal down. This movement will pull the counter hoop down and the tension on the drum-head will increase as well as the pitch of the drum.  Release the pedal to lower the tension on the drum-head as well as the pitch of the drum.

Playing Of Timpani Drum

Håkon Kartvedt playing timpani Concerto with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Playing Timpani required a lot of tough techniques and mastery. However, the player or the timpanist basically plays the instrument by striking the drum head with a mallet.

To play the instrument, the drums should be arranged properly in order to form the timpani console. This is done by arranging the drums in an arc form around the timpanist. The drum can be set up serially with the highest-pitched drum on the left and the lowest-pitched drum on the right.

This method is commonly used by Greek, Austrian, and German timpanists. Notwithstanding, the drum can be set in reverse order to have the highest-pitched on the right and lowest-pitched on the left. This is the traditional method of French, British, and American timpanists.

Mallet for playing the drum

Mallet is a special beater used for  playing timpani. It has a soft head attached to a slim shaft and is also known as the timpani stick. The mallet shaft is made of hardwood, bamboo, synthetic material like carbon fiber or fiberglass, sometimes aluminum.

A rounded head of the mallet is normally covered in felt. Notwithstanding, other materials like leather, cork, and compressed felt are sometimes used. And it comes in two basic types which are the cartwheel mallet and the ball stick mallet.

Furthermore, the type of material used for the mallet’s head has a significant effect on the quality of sound produced. For instance, the mallet covered with harder felt produced sound quality that is totally different when soft felt is used.

This is one of the reasons timpanists change the mallet during the performance to match the style in the piece of the music.

Grips in playing the drums

Timpani French Grrip

The grips are the way mallets used to play the instrument are held. This aspect of playing the drum influenced the lift and other aspects of paying.

Typically, German and French grips are the most common grips used to lay the instrument. The third and not common grip is the American grip which is the hybrid of both German and French grips.

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Using the German rip means you position the palms parallel to the drum head. The German grip is very similar to the matched grip used in snare drum playing. This grip seems to be heavy and booming because of the physical inclination to play a down stroke from that mallet position.

And with the French grip, your palms face each other while your fingers basically move the mallet shaft. Also, the thumb will face up with this grip. The French grip can serve as a possible choice to the German grip in order to produce a lighter sound. It has a very different way of using a wrist when compared to the German grip.

Sound Production Techniques In Timpani

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani
Dallas Symphony Orchestra principal timpanist Brian Jones, doing his thing. Photo by: Tracy Martin

This method of producing musical sound from the instrument is very easy. However, it takes good technique to produce a quality sound which is very essential in playing the instrument. For instance, the ability to strike the right playing spot on the timpani is very important.

Another method used to produce quality sound on timpani is proper stroke. This is also part of striking the drum but with a tossing motion and a natural bounce back. The method is actually a key concept to achieve a quality note.

The best notes are produced on well-tuned timpani by combining the proper stroke with a correct striking point on the drum-head. A good stroke is essential for proper articulation of the notes. Because a good stroke will draw the sound from the drum-head for proper articulation.

The two techniques can be achieved by either German grip also known as a matched grip or French grip. Besides the right beating spot and stroking the other techniques used to produce quality sound in timpani are tuning and muffling.

Striking The Drum

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani

Good sound quality can be achieved in timpani by striking the correct spot on the drum. This is paramount because the place at which the mallet strikes the drumhead has an effect on the quality of sound played.

The best spot used by the player is around 10cm (4 inches) from the drum’s edge. When the instrument is correctly struck at the right spot, it produces a well resonated and round sound peculiar to the drum.

Moreover, applying a proper stroke with a good tossing motion and a natural rebound is the key concept to achieve a quality tone. On the other hand, playing towards the edge of the drum will affect the quality of the tone. This is possible without tuning the instrument or switching the mallets.

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In addition, striking the drum on the spot closer to the edge creates a sound with thinner quality. Also, striking the drum at a spot closer to the center lessens the drum sound sustainability.

Some music scores can have a ‘tr’ marked for players to trill or roll the drum. The trill is performed with the mallet a few distances apart in order to create a more sustained sound. And at the same time varying the speed of the stroke on the instrument.

The speed of the trill stroke is influenced by the pitch of the drum pitch. The higher-pitched drum receives a quicker stroke compared to the lower-pitched drum. 

And to achieve a better staccato sound, players strike the drum closer to the center of the drum. They also adjust the speed of the stroke to achieve a more staccato sound.

Tuning The Sound

The timpanist is required to tune the drum before the performance. This aspect of timpani is very important because the instrument can only be used for performance when it is well-tuned. Therefore, to play timpani, you must be able to tune the instrument.

The first thing in tuning the drum is to clear the heads of the drum. This means that every spot on the edge of the drum must be equal in tension and known pitch. This is necessary to prevent the drum from producing dissimilar pitches at different dynamic levels.

Moreover, the timpanist should know the pitch the drum is turning to. The pitch needs to be established before the tuner can definitely match it. Thereafter, the proper drum is chosen for the established pitch. Then the pedal is adjusted to a position a bit lower than where the established pitch should be.

Thereafter, the drum is tested by using the finger to tap it lightly and consistently adjust the pedal. When the current pitch on the drum matches the established pitch, the tuner will stop adjusting the pedal.

Markus Rhoten, the New York Philharmonic Principal Timpanist, shows how to properly tune the timpani in the video.

The Tuning Drum Gauge

Timpani with the tuning gauge specifies the pitch with a visual indicator. This gauge is attached to the counter hoop and pedal mechanics and is accurate when used correctly.

But it may not be accurate if the drums are really disturbed. For example, transporting them to a distant place. The atmospheric condition can also affect the pitch of the drums as well. In particular, the temperature and humidity of the room can change the pitch of the drum and affect the gauge.

The tuning gauge is very useful for fast tuning during the performance. But the timpanist needs a technique to tune the drum accurately during the performance without making its sound known to others. First and foremost, he needs a relative pitch skill to get the job done perfectly.

Pedaling and Portamento

The two terms are used when timpani’s pedal is used to change the pitch of the drum during a performance. Pedaling is basically the usage of the pedal to change the pitch and also means tuning.

Generally, pedaling means changing of the pitch during the performance. The timpani pedaling etude here shows how player will change the pedal to adjust the tone of the instrument.

On the other hand, portamento is a performance style that asks you to slide the pitch from one note to the other. This effect of portamento can be heard during the performance. It is very similar to glissando.

Muffling Technique

Things You Need To Know About The Timpani

This is a technique used in playing timpani for stopping a ringing drum. Muffling is also known as damping and means to stop the ringing drum when it strikes. Muffling is an important technique to master in playing the timpani.

The muffling can be done by the freehand or the same hand that struck the drum. It is a good idea to do the muffling with the freehand. But it’s a best practice to use the same hand that strikes the drum to do the muffling. Learning how to do muffling both ways is required.

In the process of muffling the drum, the player’s fifth, fourth, and third fingers spread out under the stick.  And the upper part of the fingers will land on the drum-head. This will completely stop the drum from ringing or diminish it.

Also, the drum can be dampened as silently as possible by dropping the fingers on the drum-head from a position only somewhat above it.

Timpani Drum In Music Performance

Timpani is often played in groups and four sets of timpani are commonly used in most orchestras. These four sets are typically in different sizes, also tuned to different pitches, and usually played by one person known as a timpanist.

Actually, four sets of timpani are peculiar to the romantic and modern works while in the Classical period the standard is one pair. Timpani is normally played by striking the drum-head with a specially designed timpani mallet or timpani stick.

For orchestra performance, the music notes for timpani are normally written in a staff notation just like that of a piano. And the notes are written on the bass clef of the staff notation.

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