Timpani Facts

Timpani have been a part of the European classical orchestra since the late 1600s, but they originated in the Middle East. Timpani are a pair of large drums that are played by striking them with drum sticks called timpani mallets. Unlike other drums, timpani can be tuned either by tuning screws or by devices to simplify the task.


Timpani, also called kettledrums, are made from a large skin stretched over a copper or fiberglass bowl. Although a smaller version of the timpani was used in 13th century military ceremonies, timpani are the primary percussion instrument in a modern-day orchestra. Each timpano (singular form of timpani) that is included is tuned a fifth apart from the other instruments.


The timpani are divided into two types based on their tuning mechanism. Basic timpani use the old-fashioned tension screws, and machine timpani use pedals, chains or a rotation of the drum itself to change the pitch of the drum.


The timpani are the only drum instrument that can be tuned to a specific pitch. Changing the pitch of the drum is achieved by altering the six to eight tension rods or tuning screws on the drumhead, which keep the skin tight on the bowl.

Pre-Orchestral History

The oldest known drum is made of bronze and is approximately two-thousand years old. This drum, called the Pejeng Moon, is a religious relic of the Southeast Asia Bronze Age period, and may have been used in harvesting ceremonies in what is now present-day Bali.

European History

The timpani were brought to Europe in the 13th century during the Crusades. The drums were first integrated into the orchestra in 1675 by the French composer Jean-Baptiste de Lully.