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Title: Percussion in Concert Vol.2--Concertino for Strings, Brass and Timpani, by Franco Donatoni; Peter Sadlo, timpani. Label: Koch. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 3-1811-2. Track: 3.

Contextual Associations

A timpani (also referred to as a ‘kettledrum’) is a single-headed vessel membranophone of European origin that is used in sets (also called timpani) of 2-5 drums in graduated sizes. It is designed in such a way as to produce a definite-pitched sound. Inspired by Turkish horse-mounted kettledrums (kös), timpani were being used in some European military (cavalries in particular) and royal bands as early as the 15th century and were introduced to the orchestra in the early 17th century. They soon became a standard instrument of the orchestra and have remained so to the present day. Wherever the Western orchestra has spread throughout the cosmopolitan world, the European timpani will be found. In the course of the 19th century, as concert bands with newly developed chromatic brass instruments developed, the timpani increasingly became incorporated into this idiom, and today in the U.S.A. the timpani is a standard instrument in secondary and tertiary school concert bands. In the course of the 20th century a small repertoire of solo timpani works accrued as well as a number of percussion ensemble compositions requiring timpani. In conservatories and university music departments offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in performance, timpani is often treated as a specialization within percussion programs, and in the professional orchestral world the timpanist is considered a separate position from those of the general percussionists. Amateur timpanists find performance outlets in school and municipal bands.


The large bowl-shaped shells of these drums have a slightly parabolic profile and are made of spun copper. While they vary in size (in both their diameter and depth), the drums are otherwise identical in design. Their rims are folded outwards so that they are rounded and smooth, and there is a small pressure hole at the bottom of the bowl. The shell fits inside a heavy metal frame with a pedal mechanism at its bass and a circular metal band at its top that is supported by six or eight vertical struts. The rim of the shell rests on top of the stand’s circular band. Each shell provides a resonating space for the single plastic membrane that covers it. The drumheads are themselves stretched over a flesh hoop with a slightly larger diameter than that of the shell's opening. A flanged metal ring or counter-hoop, the diameter of which is also slightly greater than that of the shell's opening, fits around the opening of the shell while catching the flesh hoop of the membrane. The counter-hoop has equidistantly spaced eyelet assemblies around its circumference, the same number as its frame’s struts. At the top of each strut is a pivoting lug assembly one end of which is linked by a short threaded tension rod to one of the eyelet assemblies on the counter-hoop. The other end of each pivot is attached to a cable that runs through its strut and connects up to the edge of a common disc beneath the frame’s base (called the ‘spider mechanism’). A complex pedal mechanism controls the vertical movement of the disc (see detail #1), which in turn applies balanced changes to the tension on the counter-hoop and head through the above described cables and assemblies. Another cable that connects the pedal mechanism to a tension gauge mounted near the top of the frame provides the performer with a rough idea of the pitch to which the timpani is tuned (detail #2).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

In the pictured set of five timpani arranged in a semicircle the performer would stand in the middle with their back facing the camera, giving them access with their arms to the horizontally positioned heads and with their feet to the tension pedals. Each constituent drum in a set of timpani has a narrow range of about a fifth and, depending on the needs of the work being performed, two to five timpani (four is today considered standard) of graduated size and overlapping ranges will be used. The manufacturer of this timpani set gives the following ranges for each drum (left to right): D2 - B-flat2; F2 - C-sharp3; A2 - F3; C3 - G-sharp3; E3 - C4. This set’s total range is therefore just under two octaves, D2 - C4. While the tuning gauge attached to the side of a timpani informs the performer of the drum’s approximate pitch as determined by the position of the pedal, timpanists fine tune it by ear. The drum heads are struck with sticks, one held in each of the player's hands. A variety of timpani sticks are manufactured, ranging from ones with large balls of felt (very soft, resulting in a soft attack) to ones with wood balls (very hard, resulting in a sharp attack and greater volume). The timbre of the instrument is also determined in part by where on the drumhead's radius the player strikes it. A player must also work into their technique the ability to damp the sound of a ringing head. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the timpani.


Historically, it is generally believed that the inspiration for the European timpani came from the Middle East in the form or horse-mounted kettledrums associated with military units, which Europeans began incorporating into their own martial music as early as the 15th century (see detail #3, in which two pairs of horse-mounted timpani are positioned in front of an early 20th century British cavalry band; by this period cavalry bands around the world, whether horse-mounted or seated, icluded a pair of timpani [detail #4 (Morocco), detail #5 (Turkey), detail #6 (Mexico)]). In the course of the 16th century depictions of kettledrums using flesh hoops, counterhoops, and screw-tensioning mechanisms become more frequent. Timpani begin to be used in orchestras around the beginning of the 17th century, usually in tandem with the natural trumpet, and by the latter half of the 18th century the timpani became an established member of the orchestra. Until the end of the 19th century a pair of timpani would suffice for the vast majority of orchestral works, although by then a number of composers had written works that required a greater number. The early 19th century was a period during which timpani makers began experimenting with mechanical tuning devises, but it was only in 1881 that the German maker Carl Pittrich patented a pedal mechanism and a tuning gauge. By 1920 the American makers William Ludwig and Robert Daly had developed a balanced-action pedal system using cables that is basically the same as the system found on the timpani pictured on this page. Innovation in pedal tensioning system design has continued right up to the present day. Throughout most of its history the timpani has been outfitted with calfskin heads. Plastic/synthetic heads were introduced in the 1950s and dominate the market today.

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Timpani.” NGDMI v.3: 586-597.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.11 membranophone--separate vessel drum, the single playing head encloses a body in the form of a vessel that is curvilinear or rectilinear in profile

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: variable number of drums

Shell design: vessel with opening

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: counterhoop, lapped over framed membrane hoop, connected by lacing to a disc independent of shell

Membrane tension control: foot-operated tensioning system

Sounding for membranophone: striking with two handheld beaters

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


32 in., 29 in., 26 in., 23 in., 20 in. diameters of heads (l. to r.)

Primary Materials

membrane - synthetic
hydraulic clutch




TP 6023/26/29/32 and 6120

Entry Author

Roger Vetter