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Timpani: Definition, History & Facts

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  • 0:01 Timpani
  • 1:00 History of Timpani
  • 2:03 Playing the Timpani
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cathy Neff

Cathy has taught college courses and has a master's degree in music.

What do 'George of the Jungle' and '2001: A Space Odyssey' have in common? Timpani solos! Learn some fun facts about the timpani in this lesson, including their history and how they're made, tuned, and played.

Timpani

Boom! Boom! Boom-Boom Ba Boom-Boom! Thus begins the theme song to the old George of the Jungle cartoons. Similar sounds are heard after the iconic brass chords in the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey. What instrument makes that very distinct sound? And where did it come from? When did it start being used as an instrument in the orchestra? These questions and more will be answered in this lesson.

The distinct booming sound comes from drums called timpani, also known as kettledrums, whose name comes from the Italian word timpano, which is also where we get the word tympanum, or ear drum. The eardrum is a stretched membrane that vibrates when struck by sound waves. Timpani have a membrane called a drum head that's stretched over a frame, and it vibrates when it is struck by a stick called a mallet. That is what makes the big booming sound we know and love.

History of Timpani

Many military organizations in Europe began using timpani in the 15th century, and by the 17th century, timpani had found their way into the orchestra. Timpani were traditionally made of copper, but are now often made of fiberglass. The drum head, which was traditionally made of calfskin, is now often made of plastic. At first, only two timpani were used in the orchestra, but now the standard number is four.

Timpani can be tuned to different pitches by tightening or loosening the drum head. The tighter the drum head, the higher the pitch. Originally, this tuning was done manually by tightening screws on top of the drum. This made re-tuning the timpani during a piece of music very difficult. Because of this, the player only played two notes, much like the opening to the George of the Jungle theme song. Modern timpani, however, have a foot pedal that allows the player to tune the timpani quickly and play many pitches, often re-tuning several times in one piece of music.

Playing the Timpani

Timpani are measured in size by the diameter of the drum head. The bigger the timpani, the lower the sound. The timpani are placed in a semi-circle around the timpani player, or timpanist, with the lowest timpani to the player's left, just like the lowest notes of the piano are on the left. The standard sizes of timpani in use today are the 32-inch, the 29-inch, the 26-inch, and the 23-inch timpani. If a fifth is used, it is generally a smaller and higher pitched 20-inch timpani.

Timpani music is written in the bass clef, and the notes each timpani is capable of playing are called its range. Composers have to be careful when writing parts for the timpani, because if two pitches are to be played on the same timpani, there has to be time in between to tune.

Timpani are classified as percussion instruments because they are played by being struck. Timpani mallets are tipped with a softer material than a traditional drum stick to protect the drum head from being damaged. Timpani mallets range from very soft to very firm. The softer the mallet, the less distinct the tone, while the firmer the mallet, the more distinct the tone. A timpanist can use a single strike with the mallet, or they can create a roll, which is a series of quick strikes made by alternating left and right mallets.

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