Poster A musician plays timpani
A musician plays the timpani with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
Classical Basics

Are the timpani the best instruments ever?

Are the timpani the best instruments ever? They are distinctive among percussion instruments in their ability to sound different (and even play a kind of melody) depending on how they are tuned, what the mallets are made from, and where and how hard they are struck. They can sound dull or thunderous, heavy or velvety, resonant or hollow, and thus can mimic a multitude of emotions.

Timpani, or kettledrums, evolved from military use to become a staple of classical music in the 18th century. Today, they are heard in all genres.

Classical legacy

Tonet, Ihr Pauken! Erchallet, Trompeten! (Johann Sebastian Bach): This cantata (which Bach reworked into his Christmas Oratorio) translates to “Sound Off, Ye timpani! Sound, Trumpets!” And the piece indeed starts with a timpani solo as the chorus and drums trade the melody back and forth.

“Scherzo,” Symphony No. 9 (Ludwig van Beethoven): The composer was a champion of the timpani, bringing them into more common usage with complex compositions that highlighted the instrument. Here he sets the timpani against the orchestra in a call and response of sorts.

“Sunrise,” Also Sprach Zarathustra (Richard Strauss): The timpani’s heart-pounding response to the rousing fanfare that opens Strauss’ tone poem is perhaps the most iconic percussion passage ever, thanks to its iconic use in the 1968 sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Concerto for Orchestra (Bela Bartok): The fourth movement, “Intermezzo Interrotto,” features 10 different pitches of the timpani over the course of 20 seconds — requiring the timpanist to retune the instrument every two seconds.

Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (Philip Glass): This work was commissioned by several orchestras in 2000 for timpanist Jonathan Haas. For much of the concerto and especially the last movement, the timpani have an intense and near constant presence.

Beyond classical

“Countdown” (Dave Brubeck): This opener from his 1962 concept album Countdown — Time in Outer Space, was dedicated to astronaut John Glenn at the height of the space craze. Drummer Joe Morello puts an exclamation on Brubeck’s signature playful time signatures and tonal experimentation.

“Randy Scouse Git” (the Monkees): Take a deep dive into the Prefab Four’s oeuvre with this 1967 ditty written and sung by drummer Micky Dolenz, who provided the echoing timpani cadenzas that contrast with the lighthearted vaudevillian melody.

“White Room” (Cream): Ginger Baker’s singular talent contributes mightily to the sound of this 1968 rock classic. Listen for the distinctive quintuple meter opening in the timpani, which both Baker and singer Jack Bruce claimed credit for introducing.

“All We Ever Look For” (Kate Bush): The deep pulsating of Morris Pert’s timpani pairs nicely with Bush’s distinctive soprano (and the whistle of the Fairlight digital synthesizer) on this track from 1980’s Never for Ever.

The versatile kettledrums can evoke drama, tension and even playfulness across a variety of genres. And that’s why the timpani are the best instrument ever!

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