• Symphony No. 3 - Scherzo
  • The Perpetrator - Timpani

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Timpani - Brief description


Timpani, Kettledrums
German: Pauken
Italian: timpani
French: timbales

The kettledrum, or timpani, an established member of the symphony orchestra since the 17th century, is the percussion instrument with the longest tradition.

It is the loudest of all orchestra instruments and as such requires tremendous precision of the timpanist. Great sensitivity is also necessary to get the pitch right: timpani are the only membranophones in the orchestra with definite pitch and the timpanist needs extremely sensitive hearing to find the correct pitch.

The volume and pitch of the timpani are far more heavily influenced by the prevailing atmospheric conditions (temperature and humidity) than other instruments. It is for this reason that the performance of the timpani part in the orchestra is generally only entrusted to trained timpanists. The difference between timpanists and the percussionists who play the other percussion instruments lies in the intensity of the timpanist’s tasks; this makes it essential that the instruments are played by a specialist. The timpani are therefore always played by a timpanist; “normal” percussionists are very rarely permitted to indulge.

In Romantic and modern works four timpani are usual. In the Classical period one pair was standard.

Percussion instrument, membranophone, skin-covered instrument with definite pitch


Copper, brass

From 52 cm (piccolo kettledrum) to 76 cm (bass kettledrum)

Approx. 80 cm

Wall thickness
0.5 mm

Skin (vellum)
Calf, goat or donkey skin. Plastic

Skin thickness
0.12 – 0.17 mm

Handle, head, covering