Timpani, also known as kettledrums, are a set of percussion instruments. They consist of large bowl-shaped drums with a membrane stretched over the top. The pitch of the drum can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the membrane. Timpani are commonly used in orchestras and provide rhythm and tonal depth to musical compositions.
History of the Timpani
The timpani is a musical instrument with ancient origins. Historical records show that the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians used skin stretched over a drum head that could resemble timpani. The oldest drum artifact with a metal plate ever found is over 2,000 years old. The distinctive kettle shape and a tuned skin that could sound pitches such as C or D or E are a more recent innovation. The word “timpani” has been used to describe these kettle drums in orchestras at least since the 16th century. Many composers used them to add depth and drama to the performances. Those include English baroque composer Matthew Locke who wrote a timpani part for his operas including Psyche (1673) The works of composers such as Ludwing Beethoven and French composer Berlioz brought new ways of using timpani drums in more expressive and dynamic ways. Some of which required up to 16 tuned drums. Dramatic crescendos, muted notes, stresses and glissandos were among the new techniques by percussionists by the 19th century. This era also brought about technical changes including rods and pedals to change the pitch of the drums. These kettle drums were constructed of copper and brass with a synthetic material drum skin. Today, timpani are regarded as essential instruments in orchestras around the world.
Inventor: Unknown

Where to Buy

$1,500 - $10,000 (per drum)

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How to Play

A set of large, tuned kettle drums played with mallets, typically used in orchestral music.

In Popular Music

Timpani are staple instruments in orchestras all over the world and thus they have been featured in thousands of popular music recordings. They can be heard in many scores by American composer John Williams but feature heavily in the main title theme of George Lucas’ film ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ (1977).

Famous Players

Evelyn Glennie, Stefan Blacher, Richard Hochrainer

Close Relations

Orchestral Bass Drum, Kettle Drums
Video Credit: Freer Percussion
Understanding the Timpani




17th century






Instruments of Music

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