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Timpani, or kettle drums, are tuned drums struck with a variety of mallets. Usually, a single player will play a set of three or four drums. In the orchestra, the Timpani player is considered to be an independent percussionist and is not expected to double on any other Percussion Instruments, except in very small ensembles in some contemporary works.


The timpani are often referred to as kettle drums owing to their distinctive size and shape. Typically the body of the "kettle" is very large and constructed of brass or copper, providing a very resonant, booming sound. The head, historically of stretched animal skin, is now typically plastic, or the material "vellum". In the classical period, a set of timpani usually consisted two drums, tuned to each the tonic and dominant of a piece, and could not be retuned owing to lack of mechanical innovation at the time. Timpani drums today are mechanically adjustable by means of a foot pedal or lever, which dynamically adjusts the tension in the head of the drum, thereby providing the timpanist with a wealth of possibilities in tuning options that can be adjusted and readjusted fairly quickly with practice. Often times a timpanist will tune their drums using a small pitch-pipe, which may resemble a small circular harmonica that can be used to quickly provide the timpanist with the pitch they need. More adventurous timpanists may trust the mechanical dial that indicates the note the timpanist will produce under the given tension, which provides for relatively significant changes in tuning in a short period of time with sufficient practice.


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Suggested ranges per drum.

Timpani may come in five basic size ranges, each suitable for a different set of notes. Although the individual drums may be tuned and used within an octave's range, it is suggested that the composer keep the ranges confined to a perfect fifth for each drum, where the tone is most centered and usable. This is due to the fact that tuning the larger drums to high pitches results in a rather dead, non-resonant tone quality, and tuning smaller drums to lower pitches significantly reduces tension in the head and as a result sacrifices clarity of articulation and yields a thin, muddy tone quality.

Multiple sets

In some twentieth-century and contemporary scores, a composer has asked for two sets of timpani, each with a separate player. This may be for practical reasons, for example that a change of pitch is required that is impractical for one player, or a passage would require too many drums for them to manage alone; or else to create a special effect such as having the two players duet with each other on opposite sides of the stage. Two sets of timpani will also create a greater volume, which may be necessary to balence a very large orchestra. Examples of works which feature this use include Nielsen's Fourth Symphony 'The Inextinguishable', Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony and Holst's 'The Planets' Suite.

Timpani concerti

Some composers have written concerti for timpani, although these are almost exclusively modern works with the exception of a few classical-era pieces. Timpani are, however, often used amongst the many solo instruments played in percussion concerti.

Extended Techniques


With a stick in each hand, a timpanist can easily play two drums simultaneously. If the player can hold two sticks in one hand and the drums are within reach, three-note chords are possible. Alternatively, two players or sets of drums can be used.

Pedal glissando

The foot pedal that is used for tuning can be manipulated whilst the instrument is being struck to produce a glissando within the drum's range, an effect that has been commonly used since the twentieth century. It is generally more successful rising in pitch then falling.

Placing objects on the drum

Cymbals, tambourines or other hand percussion can be placed on the drum skin to add a rattling effect when the timpani is struck.

Non-standard sticks

Provided they do not damage the drum skin, timpani may be played with sticks other than those made for the instrument, including maracas, vibraphone sticks and drumsticks. The timpanist's fingers are sometimes used for quiet effects as well as for rubbing over the skin to imitate the sound of a glass harmonica. Edward Elgar asked for two coins to be used during a passage in his Enigma Variations; in keeping with the sound Elgar would have expected, the timpanists of several British orchestras possess actual Edwardian pennies for this purpose.


Objects such as sponges or a handkerchief placed on the skin will damp the sound of the timpani, creating a muted affect.

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass