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A brief history of the Timpani Drum
You may know the timpani drum as the booming notes in the 2001: A Space Odyssey, but timpani have been famous for a long time, long before Kubrick’s classic or Super Paper Mario. The definition of a timpani is a drum with a head stretched over a kettle. The timpani drum can be traced back to the naqqara, the ancient ancestor of the modern timpani drum. The oldest drum considered to be a timpani is more than two millenia old. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews used these instruments, with the word timpani coming from the Greek word tympanon. The true modern timpani was used in the Ottomon empire by its military, who brought it into Europe. Here it quickly became a staple of percussion in orchestras and concert bands.
The Different Types of Timpani
There are a few different types of timpani, but the vast majority feature a set up with a copper kettle, which gives the instrument its tone and timbre, as well as the resonance. The type of timpani generally is classified by how it’s tuned. This is the most exciting part about playing these beautiful instruments: the timpani drum ranges. You can adjust the pitch of each drumming, easily switching to different keys. Only an instrument this versatile has stood the test of time and is still incredibly popular. This also separates the timpani by type. Hand-tightened timpani have the simplest design but they are also tough to tune. There’s a tuner at each like, and you must tune evenly, much like a drumset drum. This is more tedious than what’s needed in the other set-ups. A handle-type timpani uses - you guessed it - a handle to adjust the pitch of the instrument. This must be rotated several times to change a pitch. There’s a lot of modern scores that call for the timpani to be re-pitched on the fly, in the middle of the piece. Glissandos are also popular. This is a type of roll in which the pitch is changed while the timpani roll is happening. This is impossible with the handle and hand-tightening types.
The classic type of timpani that many of us have used and continue to use is the Pedal-Balancing Spring type. This type has a pedal on an angle that’s used to control the pitch of the timpani up and down. These each have a finite note range. This of course makes it easier to use glissandos and change quickly. There’s generally a tuning dial on the side that will show what note you’re on, your timpani range, and how accurate your pitch is. Still, this requires regular maintenance and calibration, so it’s always good to have a real timpani tuner. Once you make a pitch change and take your foot off the pedal, you’re now permanently on that note (until you move the pitch pedal again). This gives this type of timpani the ability to perform timpani solos, something not possible on any other type.
The timpani use a drum head, much like what you’d use on a drumset, but the collar, or where it sits on the timpani itself, is much different. There are also some timpani heads made of animal hide, which tend to drift in and out of tone with environmental changes. That’s what there’s something called a locking timpani. You can get to the note you want, lock the tension, and then fine-tune it. Now you have an accurate note that will stay because of the this timpani’s locking mechanism. These also use a pedal and are similar to the Pedal-Balancing timpani.
Besides the pitch-control mechanisms that differ on each type of timpani, there’s the kettle itself - a large copper bowl to generate that familiar, booming sound. European timpani have a fuller shape, where the American timpani is much more rounded on the bottom, giving it a parabolic shape. Generally, a set of timpani consists of four drums - radii size 23”, 26”, 29”, and 32”. They’re usually arranged from largest to smallest, left to right. The timpani drum range of a set like this is approximately D2 to A3. These notes are played in rolls, large booming staccato notes, or even in chords. These large tuning ranges make for an incredibly versatile and adaptive instrument.
We've got the Accessories
At MyMusicSupply, we’ve got timpani for you. We have used timpani for sale, we have single timpani for sale, and we have entire sets for sale. We can also get brand new timpani in from Adams, who have literally hundreds of options! Bottom line? We can get you a great instrument for a great price. MyMusicSupply also has all of the accessories you could need. We have an entire wall of timpani mallets, with brands like JG Percussion, Malletech, Grover, ProMark, Innovative, and Balter, just to name a few! Pete, the owner of Denver Percussion and MyMusicSupply even created his own custom timpani mallets. There are three different types and all have slightly different uses.
We carry Remo and Evans timpani heads in just about every size, shape and color imaginable. Need a solo? We’ve got a ton of sheet music, solos, technique, etc. Give us a call and we will set you up before our next performance. We even offer expert lessons!