The timpani, also known as kettledrum, is an established member of the symphony orchestra and probably one of the percussion instruments with the longest tradition.

In the 13th century, the Crusaders and Saracens brought the first timpani to southern and western Europe. From here the instrument quickly spread to the north. These small drums, or draped kettledrums, remained in use until the 16th century, primarily in military contexts such as triumphal marches and processions.

The timpani found its way into ensembles later on and started to appear at court ceremonies and dances. Also, during this century, it began to be used in church music in addition to the organ and choirs. This was especially prominent for trumpet and kettledrum flourishes as a ceremonial glorification in masses. In addition, both instruments appeared more and more frequently as consorts in ballet and stage music. In keeping with their character, they symbolized warlike moods and aristocratic power.

Jean Baptiste Lully became the first composer to use the timpani as an orchestral instrument in the modern sense, in his 1675 opera Thérèse.

About pitch

The Munich court timpanist Gerhard Kramer designed a special mechanism for the instrument around 1812. It attached all the screws to a master screw in order to alter the skin tension by means of a single handle or pedal. This would develop to become the tuning pedal.

The timpani is the loudest of all orchestra instruments. As such, it requires tremendous precision in order to get the pitch right. It’s also the only membranophone with a definite pitch in the orchestra, and the timpanist needs extremely sensitive hearing to find it. Additionally, the volume and pitch of the timpani are far more influenced by atmospheric conditions, like temperature and humidity, than other instruments.

The middle of the compass produces the purest tone. That’s why timpanists allocate pitches required in the score to the available drums, for optimized execution.

Timpani materials and construction

The largest part of the timpani in the bowl, or pan, is made of sheet copper. Its shape ranges from hemispherical to funnel-shaped, depending on the period it dates from, the size, and the acoustic demands made on it. Large kettledrums have a deeper bowl, which is the resonator. Calf or goatskin covers the open top of the bowl and stretches across a countertop.

The most sensitive part of the timpani is the vellum. This is an evenly surfaced calfskin, smoothed during its production with a scraper or pumice-stone. To attain a pure tone it’s vital that the skin tension is absolutely even over its entire surface. The tuning pedal operates the pull rings with rods outside or sometimes inside the shell. Activating the pedal increases the tension of the vellum, which raises the pitch.    

A pull ring joins the countertop to the bowl, while a screw mechanism that presses the pull ring against the vellum alters the skin tension. On the underside of the shell, there is a small aperture. Its function is not to project the sound but to maintain even air pressure inside the bowl. A closed bowl would hinder the free vibration of the vellum after it is struck.