Instruments | Timpani | Percussion

Timpani are bowl drums or kettledrums, constructed by stretching a skin across a round metal, wooden or pottery bowl. They are beaten with sticks or leather thongs. Timpani originated in Islamic countries in Africa and the Middle East, where they were used to accompany hunting and for ceremonial and military music.


Tuning a large kettledrum or timpani to produce a pitch accurately is an engineering challenge. The drum needs a mechanism to stretch a skin of consistent thickness over a perfect circle and hold it at the appropriate tension. The mechanism also needs to be able to cope with altering the tension of the head if the drum is to be retuned to another note.

The invention of the screw-tensioning tuning mechanism in Germany in the sixteenth century was the first step towards this goal. Instead of lacing the skin to the drum, as in the medieval drum, it was stretched over a metal ring, held in place by metal brackets incorporating tuning screws clamped to the side of the bowl. The tuning screws were adjusted by means of a removable key. This was later replaced by T-shaped taps set around the rim of the drum, which were easier and quieter to use.

Early Timpani

Timpani first appear in the orchestra in Thésée (1675) by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87). Until Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826) used three timpani in the overture to the opera The Ruler of the Spirits in 1811, the orchestra used two hand-tuned timpani with vellum heads of about 60–75 cm (24–30 in) diameter, played with wooden sticks. Like the trumpets, timpani music was scored in C with an indication of the key to which the player should tune the drums.

The drums almost invariably played the tonic (I) and dominant (V) notes, and rarely retuned during the music. As a result, the timpani only played in the tonic key. In Messiah by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), the timpanist only plays twice in the whole work.

Later Developments

In the nineteenth century, instrument makers began to produce machine timpani that could retune more easily, enabling players to play more chromatic parts. A master screw that altered the pitch of all the tuning screws at once was introduced in 1812. However, this model placed much of the tuning mechanism inside the bowl of the drum and impaired the purity of the tone.

A German system invented around 1850 altered the tension of the head by rotating the whole drum. Pedal-tuned drums appeared around 1880, and became the norm in orchestras from the early-twentieth century. Sir Henry Wood (1869–1944) introduced pedal timpani to England in 1905. Plastic timpani heads were introduced around 1960, providing a durable skin far less affected by atmospheric conditions than vellum, which sagged and went flat when the air was humid, and tightened and went sharp when the air was dry – thus altering the pitch of the drum after it had been tuned.

Nineteenth-Century Compositions

Following the innovations in its construction, composers began...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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