Timpani is an Italian plural, the singular of which is timpano. However, in informal English speech the instrument is rarely called a timpano; it is typically referred to as a drum, a timpani, or simply a timp. A musician who plays the timpani is known as a timpanist.
The shape of the bowl contributes to the tone quality of the drum. For example, hemispheric bowls produce brighter tones while parabolic bowls produce darker tones. Another factor that affects the timbre of the drum is the quality of the bowl's surface. Copper bowls may have a smooth, machined surface or a rough surface with many small dents hammered into it.
Timpani come in a variety of sizes from about 84 centimeters (33 inches) in diameter down to piccolo timpani of 30 centimeters (12 inches) or less. A 33-inch drum can produce the C below the bass clef, and speciality piccolo timpani can play up into the treble clef. In Darius Milhaud's 1923 ballet score La création du monde, the timpanist must play the F sharp at the bottom of the treble clef.
There are three types of pedal mechanisms in common use today:
Any pedal drums that are tuned using the spider system can be called Dresden timpani, though the term is most often used for drums whose design is similar to the original pedal timpani built in Dresden (see below). Strictly speaking, a Dresden drum has a pedal that is attached at the player's side. The timpanist can move this pedal with ankle motion. A Berlin-style pedal is attached by means of a long arm to the opposite side of the drum, and the timpanist must use his entire leg to adjust the pitch.
The drums that most professional timpanists use are Dresden timpani, commonly with a ratchet clutch or friction clutch pedal. Most school bands and orchestras below the university level use cheaper, more durable timpani. The mechanical parts of these timpani are almost completely contained within the frame and bowl of the drum. They may use any of the pedal mechanisms, though the balanced action system is by far the most common, followed by the friction clutch system. Many professionals also use these drums for gigs and outdoor performances because of their durability.
On chain timpani, the tension rods are connected by a roller chain much like the one found on a bicycle, though some manufacturers have used other materials, including steel cable. In these systems, all the tension screws can then be tightened or loosened by one handle. Though far less common than pedal timpani, chain and cable drums still have practical uses. Occasionally, a player is forced to place a drum behind other items so that he cannot reach it with his foot. Professional players may also use exceptionally large or small chain and cable drums for special low or high notes.
In the early 20th century, Hans Schnellar, then timpanist of the Vienna Philhamonic, developed a tuning mechanism in which the bowl is moved via a handle that connects to the base, and the head remains stationary. These drums are referred to as Viennese timpani (Wiener Pauken) or Schnellar timpani. Adams Musical Instruments developed a pedal-operated version of this tuning mechanism in the early 21st century.
Timpani are typically struck with a special type of drumstick fittingly called a timpani stick or timpani mallet. Timpani sticks are used in pairs. They have two components: a shaft and a head. The shaft is typically made from wood—usually hickory, cherry, birch, persimmon, or maple—or bamboo, but may also be made from aluminum or graphite. The head of the stick can be constructed from a number of different materials, though felt wrapped around a wood core is the most common. Other core materials include felt and cork, and other wrap materials include leather. Sticks can also have exposed wood heads. These are used as a special effect and in authentic performances of Baroque music.
Although it is not commonly written in the music, timpanists will change sticks—often many times within the same piece—to suit the nature of the music. However, choice of stick during performance is entirely subjective and depends on the timpanist's own preference, and occasionally, the wishes of the conductor. Thus, most timpanists own a great number of timpani sticks. The weight of the stick, the size of the head, the materials used for the shaft, core, and wrap, and the method used to wrap the head all contribute to the timbre the stick produces.
In the early 20th century and before, sticks were often made with whalebone shafts, wood cores, and sponge wraps. Composers of that era often specified sponge-headed sticks. Modern timpanists execute such passages with standard felt mallets.
Beyond this extended set of five, any added drums are nonstandard. Many professional orchestras and timpanists own multiple sets of timpani consisting of both pedal and chain drums allowing them to execute music that cannot be performed correctly using a standard set of four or five drums.
Many schools and ensembles that cannot afford to purchase equipment regularly only have a set of three timpani, which is the more traditional number sometimes referred to as "the Orchestral three". It consists of , , and drums. Its range extends down only to the F below the bass clef.
The drums are set up in an arc around the performer. Traditionally, North American, British and French timpanists set their drums up with the lowest drum on the left and the highest on the right, while German and Austrian players set them up the opposite way. Over time, that distinction has blurred: many German and European players have adopted the North American layout and vice versa.
Throughout their education, timpanists are trained as percussionists, and they learn to play all instruments of the percussion family along with timpani. However, when appointed to a principal timpani chair in a professional orchestra or concert band, a timpanist is not required to play any other instruments. In his book Anatomy of the Orchestra, Norman Del Mar writes that the timpanist is "king of his own province", and that "a good timpanist really does set the standard of the whole orchestra." A member of the percussion section sometimes doubles as assistant timpanist and plays timpani in some repertoire—such as overtures and concertos—as well as any second timpani parts.
Most pieces of music call for one timpanist playing one set of timpani. However, occasionally composers seeking a thicker texture or a greater palette of pitches ask for multiple players to perform on one or many sets of timpani. Gustav Mahler writes for two timpanists in six of his symphonies. Gustav Holst uses two timpanists to achieve the range of notes needed to echo the main theme in "Jupiter" from The Planets suite. Using two timpanists is relatively common in late Romantic and 20th century works for large orchestras, although the early Romantic composer Hector Berlioz calls for eight pairs of timpani played by ten timpanists in the Grande Messe des morts.
The tone quality of the drum can be altered without switching sticks or adjusting the tuning of the drum. For example, by playing closer to the edge of the head, the sound becomes thinner. A more staccato sound can be produced by changing the velocity of the stroke. There are many more variations in technique a timpanist uses during the course of playing to produce subtle timbral differences.
In performance, tuning is typically accomplished with a method called interval tuning. Timpanists who do not have absolute pitch obtain a reference pitch from a tuning fork, pitch pipe, or a note played by another instrument in the course of the performance, then use musical intervals to arrive at the desired note. For example, to tune the timpani to G and C, a timpanist may sound an A with a tuning fork, then sing, hum, or think a minor third above that A to tune the C, and then sing a perfect fourth below the C to tune the G. Timpanists are required to have a well-developed sense of relative pitch, and must develop techniques to tune undetectably and accurately in the middle of a performance.
Some timpani are equipped with tuning gauges, which provide a visual indication of the drum's pitch. They are physically connected either to the counterhoop, in which case the gauge indicates how far the counterhoop is pushed down, or the pedal, in which case the gauge indicates the position of the pedal. These gauges are accurate when used correctly. However, when the drum is moved, the overall pitch of the head can change, thus the markers on the gauges are not reliable unless they have been adjusted immediately preceding the performance. The Pitch of the head can also be changed by room temperature and humidity, as a result many inexperienced tympanists can be caught out by setting gauges in the afternoon before an evening concert, and find the gauges inaccurate during the performance when a few hundred audience members have arrived increasing both temperature and humidity. This effect also occurs dur to changes in weather, especially if an outside performance is to take place. Gauges are especially useful when performing music that involves fast tuning changes that do not allow the player to listen to the new pitch before playing it. Even when gauges are available, good timpanists will check their intonation by ear before playing.
Occasionally, players use the pedals to retune a drum while playing it. Portamento effects can be achieved by changing the pitch of the drum while it can still be heard. This is commonly called a glissando, though this use of the term is not strictly correct. The most effective glissandos are those from low notes to high notes and those performed during rolls. One of the first composers to call for a timpani glissando was Carl Nielsen, who used two sets of timpani, both playing glissandos at the same time, in his Symphony No. 4 ("The Inextinguishable").
Pedaling refers to changing the pitch of the drum with the pedal; it is an alternate term for tuning. In general, timpanists reserve this term for passages where the performer must change the pitch of a drum in the midst of playing – for example, playing two consecutive notes of different pitches on the same drum. Early 20th century composers such as Nielsen, Béla Bartók, Samuel Barber, and Richard Strauss took advantage of the freedom pedal timpani afforded, often giving the timpani the bass line.
The typical method of muffling is to place the pads of the fingers against the head while holding onto the timpani stick with the thumb and index finger. Timpanists are required to develop techniques to stop all vibration of the drumhead without making any sound from the contact of their fingers.
Muffling is often referred to as muting, which can also refer to playing the drums with mutes on them (see below).
It is typical for only one timpano to be struck at a time, but occasionally composers will ask for two notes to be struck at once. This is called a double stop, a term borrowed from the string instrument vocabulary. Ludwig van Beethoven uses this effect in the slow movement of his Ninth Symphony. These demands tend to be made by more modern composers who sometime require more than two notes at once. In this case, a timpanist can hold two sticks in one hand much like a marimbist, or more than one timpanist can be employed. Hector Berlioz writes fully voiced chords for eight timpanists, each playing a pair of drums, in Grande Messe des morts.
When the timpani are struck directly in the center of the head, the drums have a sound that is almost completely devoid of tone and resonance. George Gershwin uses this effect in An American in Paris. A variation of this is to strike the head while two fingers of one hand lightly press and release spots near the center. When done correctly, the head will vibrate at a harmonic, much like the similar effect on a string instrument. Resonance can also cause drums not in use to vibrate causing a more quite sound to be produced. In orchestral playing, timpanists must avoid this effect, called sympathetic resonance, but composers have exploited this effect in solo pieces, such as Elliot Carter's Eight Pieces for Four Timpani. Resonance is reduced by damping or muting the drums, and in some cases composers will specify that timpani be played con sordino (with mute) or coperti (covered), both of which indicate that mutes should be placed on the head. Timpani mutes are typically small pieces of felt or leather. The degree the head is dampened can be altered by placing the mute at different spots on the head. Barber specifies that the timpani be played con sordino in a section of Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Additionally, mutes are often placed on unused drums to prevent sympathetic resonance.
Composers will sometimes specify that the timpani should be struck with implements other than timpani sticks. It is common in timpani etudes and solos for performers to play with their hands or fingers. Leonard Bernstein calls for maracas on timpani in both the "Jeremiah" Symphony and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Edward Elgar attempts to use the timpani to imitate the engine of an ocean liner in his "Enigma" Variations by requesting the timpanist play with snare drum sticks. However, snare drum sticks tend to produce too loud a sound, and since this work's premiere, the passage in question has been performed by striking the timpani with coins.
Robert W. Smith's Songs of Sailor and Sea calls for a "whale sound" on the largest timpano. This is achieved by moistening the thumb and rubbing it from the edge to the center of the drumhead. This effect can be used on other percussion instruments, notably the Tambourine where it is called a "Thumb Roll". Amongst other techniques used primarily in solo work, such as John Beck's Sonata for Timpani, is striking the copper bowls. Timpanists tend to be reluctant to strike the bowls at loud dynamic levels or with hard sticks, since copper can be dented easily.
On some occasions a composer may ask for a metal object, commonly an upside-down cymbal, to be placed upon the drumhead and then struck or rolled while executing a glissando on the drum. Joseph Schwantner used this technique in From A Dark Millennium.
Arabic nakers, the direct ancestors of most timpani, were brought to 13th century Continental Europe by Crusaders and Saracens. These drums, which were small (with a diameter of about 20–22 cm or 8–8½ in) and mounted to the player's belt, were used primarily for military ceremonies. This form of timpani remained in use until the 16th century.
In 1457, a Hungarian legation sent by King Ladislaus V carried larger timpani mounted on horseback to the court of King Charles VII in France. This variety of timpani had been used in the Middle East since the 12th century. These drums evolved together with trumpets to be the primary instruments of the cavalry. This practice continues to this day in sections of the British Army, and timpani continued to be paired with trumpets when they entered the classical orchestra.
Over the next two centuries, a number of technical improvements were made to timpani. Originally, the head was nailed directly to the shell of the drum. In the 15th century, heads began to be attached and tensioned by a counterhoop that was tied directly to the shell. In the early 16th century, the bindings were replaced by screws. This allowed timpani to become tunable instruments of definite pitch.
Later in the Baroque era, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a secular cantata titled "Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!", which translates roughly to "Sound off, ye timpani! Sound, trumpets!" Naturally, the timpani are placed at the forefront: the piece starts with a timpani solo and the chorus and timpani trade the melody back and forth. Bach reworked this movement in part 1 of the Christmas Oratorio.
Ludwig van Beethoven revolutionized timpani music in the early 19th century. He not only wrote for drums tuned to intervals other than a fourth or fifth, but he gave a prominence to the instrument as an independent voice beyond programmatic use (as in Bach's "Tönet, ihr Pauken!"). For example, his Violin Concerto (1806) opens with four solo timpani strokes, and the scherzo of his Ninth Symphony (1824) sets the timpani against the orchestra in a sort of call and response.
The next major innovator was Hector Berlioz. He was the first composer to indicate the exact sticks that should be used – felt-covered, wooden, etc. In several of his works, including Symphonie fantastique (1830), he demanded the use of several timpanists at once.
Until the late 19th century, timpani were hand-tuned; that is, there was a sequence of screws with T-shaped handles, called taps, which altered the tension in the head when turned by players. Thus, tuning was a relatively slow operation, and composers had to allow a reasonable amount of time for players to change notes if they wanted to be sure of a true note. The first 'machine' timpani, with a single tuning handle, was developed in 1812. The first pedal timpani originated in Dresden in the 1870s and are called Dresden timpani for this reason. However, since vellum was used for the heads of the drums, automated solutions were difficult to implement since the tension would vary unpredictably across the drum. This could be compensated for by hand-tuning, but not easily by a pedal drum. Mechanisms continued to improve in the early 20th century.
Despite these problems, composers eagerly exploited the opportunities the new mechanism had to offer. By 1915, Carl Nielsen was demanding glissandos on timpani in his Fourth Symphony—impossible on the old hand-tuned drums. However, it took Béla Bartók to more fully realize the flexibility the new mechanism had to offer. Many of his timpani parts require such a range of notes that it would be unthinkable to attempt them without pedal drums.
Later, timpani were adopted into other classical music ensembles such as concert bands. In the 1970s, marching bands and drum and bugle corps, which evolved both from traditional marching bands and concert bands, began to include marching timpani. Each player carried a single drum, which was tuned by a hand crank. Marching timpani were heavy and awkward to play, as the drumhead was almost at the player's chest. Often, during intricate passages, the timpani players would put their drums on the ground by means of extendable legs, and they would be played more like conventional timpani, but with a single player per drum. In the early 1980s, Drum Corps International (DCI), a drum corps governing body, allowed timpani and other percussion instruments to be permanently grounded. This was the beginning of the end for marching timpani: Eventually, standard concert timpani found their way onto the football field as part of the front ensemble, and marching timpani fell out of common usage.
As rock and roll bands started seeking to diversify their sound, timpani found their way into the studio. Starting in the 1960s, drummers for high profile rock acts like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, and Queen incorporated timpani into their music. This led to the use of timpani in progressive rock. Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded a number of rock covers of classical pieces that utilize timpani.
Jazz musicians also experimented with timpani. Sun Ra used it occasionally in his Arkestra (played, for example, by percussionist Jim Herndon on the songs "Reflection in Blue" and "El Viktor," both recorded in 1957). In 1964, Elvin Jones incorporated timpani into his drum kit on John Coltrane's four-part composition A Love Supreme.
Jonathan Haas is one of the few timpanists who markets himself as a soloist. Haas, who began his career as a solo timpanist in 1980, is notable for performing music from many genres including jazz, rock, and classical. In fact, he released an album with a rather unconventional jazz band called Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing. Glass's Concerto Fantasy..., commissioned by Haas, put two soloists in front of the orchestra, an atypical placement for the instruments.