What are Timpani?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Timpani are large, bowl-shaped orchestral drums, also known as kettledrums. Because the bowl of the instrument, which serves as the resonator, is formed from copper, even people who can’t identify many orchestral instruments, may recognize these ones.

Handel used six timpani in Music for the Royal Fireworks.
Handel used six timpani in Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Timpani are membranophones, instruments that produce their sound through the vibration of a membrane that is often actually made of skin and stretched over an opening. The first percussion instrument to become standard in a symphony orchestra, they are often covered with vellum, although plastic skins are also used. The timpanist tunes the timpani by using the tuning pedal to tighten or loosen the vellum, altering the pitch.

Beethoven used timpani in his final three symphonies.
Beethoven used timpani in his final three symphonies.

Although only two timpani were generally found in the orchestra in the Classical period, it is now standard to have four, or even five. The common sizes are 32-inch (81-cm.), 28-inch (71-cm., 25-inch (63.5-cm.), and 23-inch (58.5-cm.), and if there is a fifth, it will likely be a 21-inch (51-cm.) “piccolo” timpano. If the piccolo timpano is called for but not available, it is usual to substitute with a roto-tom. These drums have overlapping ranges, and from lowest to highest are typically given as D2 to A2, F2 to C3, Bb2 to F3, D3 to A3, and F3 to B3. There are two schools of drum placement, with some timpanists placing the largest drum to their right and others placing it to their left.

Timpani are played with mallets, and while there are standard mallets in hard, medium, and soft varieties, it is not unusual to play these drums with drumsticks, felt mallets, cork or flannel headed mallets, mallet handles or even the fingers, which is called con la mano. Timpani are capable of producing strokes, rolls, and both glissandos and glissando rolls.

They are used for both ensemble playing and, since Beethoven, for solos. One of the most famous timpani solos is the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, used in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. George Frideric Handel calls for six of these drums in Music for the Royal Fireworks, Ludwig van Beethoven uses them in his last three symphonies, and Elliot Carter’s Recitative and improvisation for four kettledrums is for solo timpani. Famous timpanists have included Louis Charbonneau, Vic Firth, Timothy K. Adams, Jr., Fred Hinger, Richard Miller, and Wolfgang Schuster.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@stl 156 - I agree with you. Playing the timpani drum can be a fairly difficult thing to do and the percussionist has to have good coordination in order to do so. In the band I was in my band director only trusted one of the drummers to play the timpani drums, because he was the only one that could adjust the foot pedal quick enough in order to play the appropriate notes. One reason for this was problems that came about using the timpani drums, which forced this drummer to think very fast on his feet.

The biggest problem that we had with the timpani drums that if the pedals went bad the drum was almost worthless and would cause the player to have to either have a very quick foot or be able to make an adjustment mid song, which is not at all easy when keeping the beat for the band. This is why it is important to check when someone buys a used timpani and keep the maintenance recent on it considering we had used timpani drums that were bought at a store.


@Emiliski - I am glad you pointed that out. The way the foot pedal works on a timpani drum is fairly complex. On the side of the timpani drum is an attachment that has notes listed on it and an arrow. The arrow moves when someone presses down on the foot pedal and this plays whatever note on the drum that the arrow corresponds to. So for example, say someone wants to play a B note the percussionist will step on the pedal and adjust the arrow to play a B. What is difficult is when the notes change, that is when the percussionist has to adjust to play a series of different notes. However, this is one of the beauties of this instrument as it is a drum that can be adjusted in the middle of a song to make different sounds.


I have also noticed the sound that a kettle drum makes. I was a brass instrument player and know little about percussion and assume that drums are instruments that just require a hit on the drum head. However, although this may be true for a base drum the kettle drums actually play notes. There is a foot pedal on the kettle drums that is adjusted to play certain notes. This is why the kettle drum is allowed to make the sounds it does, it is because despite it being a drum notes can actually be played on it.


I went to a small high school and we had some timpani drums but rarely used them. When we did use the timpani drums we only used them for concert band and the band would get very excited when we played a song in which they were utilized. The drums were a unique part of the band and their sound was very interesting and really added to the concert songs we played. One of the great things to hear was a drum roll on those drums, something which I have not heard a instrument similar to and can really make the song.

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