Exploring Music's Complexities

What are Timpani?

What is a Timpano

A Timpanist is a person who plays a kind of kettle drum or timpani in an orchestra. Timpani are different from other drums because they are tuned to certain musical notes.  A pair pf timpani are normally an octave from F below middle C downward.  With three the kettles are tuned c-g, G-d, and E b-B-b, (g=below middle C, Eb =the second E below middle C).  The instrument has a skin stretched over a large bowl-and sometimes other percussion instruments as well. To be good the timpanist must be well trained in percussion (1).

What are Timpani

Alyssa Porambo has provided a list of ten things to know about timpani (2).

  1. There are actually two different ways to set up the timpani: the American way and the German way. The German setup makes way more sense if the player is right handed – the largest drum is placed on the right, so that the timpanist can easily access the pedals and tuning gauges.
  2. Each drum in a set of timpani has a different pitch, which is surprising, since most people think drums have only one pitch, which sounds like: BOOM.
  3. Each timpano (singular), timpani (plural), has a pedal that controls which pitch the drum is on.Among these pedals is the mechanism called the “ratchet clutch system.” Imagine trying to put THT into first gear!
  4. Typically, timpanists will use real animal skin for the drum heads, like calf or goat.Weather doesn’t permit us to use these here in Baltimore – darn humidity!
  5.  Timpanists actually make their own sticks!
  6. It can take up to one to two years to build a complete set of timpani and they probably cost more than your car.  
  7. A single timpano drum (pedals and all) can weigh as much as 140 pounds. That’s like one and a half Taylor Swifts!
  8. In the old days before timpani had pedals, they were controlled by a chain and a crank. 
  9. Ever wonder what the timpanist does when he puts his face on the drum?They are often hovering over their instrument, checking to see if it is in tune.
  10. Before timpani were used as an orchestral instrument, they were played on horseback during the Civil War (2).


  1. Timpani musical instrument.   http://www.britannica.com/art/timpani.
  2. Porambo, Alyssa. Ten Things You Need to Know About the Timpani.  https://www.bsomusic.org/stories/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-timpani.aspx.










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