Hey Kid's, It's a Timpani | History, Fun Facts, and More

from the Meet the Orchestra Index

Hey Kid's, It's a Timpani

Learn timpani history, how it's made, how it's played, and a fun fact.

Timpani, also called kettledrums, are instruments from the percussion family. Unlike most percussion instruments, they produce a pitch when struck. Most symphony orchestras use three or four timpani of various sizes. A timpani player may be referred to as a percussionist or a timpanist.


Timpani began as military drums. In the late 19th century, a mechanical system was invented to change the tension of the drumhead quickly. These drums were referred to as machine timpani because they required the player to turn a handle to adjust the tension of the drumhead. The modern timpani is known as a pedal timpani because it allows the player to adjust the tension of the drumhead with a foot pedal.

How It's Played

The timpanist plays the timpani by striking the drumhead with a special stick called a timpani mallet. A timpanist must determine how loud to play a note and how long the note should sound. To end a sound, the timpanist must place his/her fingers against the drumhead while holding the timpani stick with the thumb and index finger. This technique is called muffling or damping and is an important part of timpani playing.

How It's Made

Timpani begins as a large copper bowl which is called the resonator. A calfskin or plastic drumhead is added to the top. Tension rods are added to stretch the head tightly across the top of the drum. Lastly, a foot pedal is attached to allow the percussionist to quickly adjust the pitch of the drum during a performance.

Fun Facts

Eighteenth century composer Johann Fischer once wrote a symphony for timpani and orchestra which required the timpani player to play eight drums at the same time.

Watch a Video

Watch this Yamaha Percussion Factory Tour - Timpani video that will offer your kids a virtual field trip to a musical instrument factory.

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