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.
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.
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.