IT: timpani – FR: timbales – GER: Pauken


Also called kettle drums, the timpani has a parabolic body of copper alloy or fiberglass. A calfskin or plastic head is stretched over a metal hoop, which is fastened to the top of the drum by metal tuning screws. These screws are connected to a pedal mechanism. Pressing the pedal down increases the tension and raises the pitch.

Range by Drum Size

FIGURE 5.4 Timpani range by drum size, traditional set


The timpani sounds as written. The compass of each drum is approximately a perfect fifth up from its lowest note. Notate the tuning pitch in bass clef for each drum at the beginning of the score and part. In the 20th century the trend has been to use timpani with larger diameters to perform a wider range of pitches with resonance. Professional orchestra players typically use 32", 29", 26", and 23" drums. These may be augmented with a 20" drum. The range chart above can be extended downward a step for timpani with larger diameters. 

Tone Quality

Resonance is best when the drum is struck about a third of the way from the rim to the center. Drum tuning is a critical factor in the tone. At the bottom of its range each drum sounds flabby and unfocused. At the top of its range, with the membrane stretched tightly, a thin sound with a "ping" results. The tone sustains unless it is dampened by the hand. Where pitch is important, double with other bass instruments. A pedal point is possible without the doubling.

Technical Abilities

Single notes, rhythmic figures, and rolls are all effective. Tremolo rolls between two drums are common, but chords played simultaneously on two drums are rare. Glissando is accomplished by depressing the pedal while the note sounds. When pitch changes are necessary for the timpani, allow sufficient time for the player to make changes and test the new tuning. Three or four measures at a moderate tempo should be adequate time. Tuning gauges have become a popular accessory because they facilitate rapid changes and also aid beginning students.

Tuning changes are indicated in the following way:

Change G to G

IT: G muta in G - FR: changez sol en sol  - GER: G nach Ges umstimmen

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