What Are Kettle Drums?

Kettle drums, also known as timpani, are drums made of a stretched skin or head over a large bowl. The name “kettle drum” is derived from the drum’s bowl’s resemblance to a large copper kettle. Kettle drums are played striking the head with a specialized drum stick known as a timpani mallet, which can be tuned to sound specific notes.

The kettle drum is a type of percussion instrument that dates back thousands of years. The Moon of Pejeng, the world’s largest single-cast bronze kettle drum, is thought to have been created around 300 B.C. Even older kettle drums are depicted in Mesopotamian carvings. The modern timpani’s design is based on an Arabic design that was first introduced to Europe in the 13th century.

The size of ancient kettle drums varies, and the material used to make them is often determined the drum maker’s resources. Copper, bronze, wood, clay, and even tortoise shells have all been used to make kettle drums. Traditionally, the drum’s head was made of animal skin. The body of a modern kettle drum is usually made of copper, fiberglass, or aluminum, with a synthetic plastic head.

The ability to sound a specific note or pitch is one of the kettle drum’s most distinguishing features. The sound of the drum can be changed loosening or tightening the screws that connect the drum head to the body. Using a foot pedal is the simplest and most common way to accomplish this. The tension screws are connected to the pedal, and the drum pitch can be adjusted and fixed locking the pedal.

In the past, kettle drums were used in military campaigns to keep track of time, intimidate opponents, and signal field orders in the same way that military bugle calls were used. The kettle drum’s role became even more varied after it was incorporated into symphonic band and symphony orchestra music. The orchestra has used kettle drums to emphasize musical themes, provide a solid bass foundation, and even to imitate the sound of thunder.

The drummer, or timpanist, strikes the drum’s head with a pair of timpani sticks or mallets to play the kettle drum. These specialized drum sticks are usually made of wood and have a felt-covered rounded head. Depending on the style called for in the score, the type of material at the tip of the timpani mallet can have a significant impact on the note, and the timpanist may be required to switch mallets in the middle of the song. The note played can also be influenced the location of the mallet strike on the kettle drum head.