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What Are Kettle Drums?

By C.H. Seman
Updated May 23, 2024
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Kettle drums, also known as timpani, are drums that consist of a skin, or head, stretched over a large bowl. The name "kettle drum" comes from the resemblance of the drum's bowl to a large copper kettle. Kettle drums can be tuned to sound specific notes and are played by striking the head with a specialized drum stick known as a timpani mallet.

The kettle drum is an ancient percussion instrument. The largest single-cast bronze kettle drum in the world, the Moon of Pejeng, is believed to have been made in about 300 B.C. Mesopotamian carvings depict kettle drums that are even older. The design of the modern timpani comes from an Arabic design that was first imported to Europe during the 13th century.

Ancient kettle drums vary in size, and the material of construction often depends on the resources of the drum maker. Kettle drums can be made of copper, bronze, wood, clay or even tortoise shells. The head of the drum was traditionally made from an animal skin. Modern kettle drums typically have a body made of copper, fiberglass or aluminum and a synthetic plastic head.

One of the kettle drum's most unique characteristics is the ability to sound a specific note or pitch. The drum's sound can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the screws that connect the drum head to the body. The easiest and most common method for doing this is using a foot pedal. The pedal is connected to the tension screws, and the pitch of the drum can be adjusted and fixed by locking the pedal.

Historically, kettle drums were used in military campaigns to mark time, to intimidate opponents and to signal field orders in a similar fashion to military bugle calls. After being incorporated into symphonic band and symphony orchestra music, the role of the kettle drum became even more varied. Kettle drums have been used to emphasize musical themes, provide a solid bass foundation for the orchestra and even to emulate the sound of thunder.

To play the kettle drum, the drummer, or timpanist, strikes the head of the drum with a pair of timpani sticks or mallets. These specialized drum sticks are normally made from wood and feature a rounded head covered in felt. The type of material at the tip of the timpani mallet can have a large effect on the note, and the timpanist might be required to switch mallets in the middle of the song, depending on the style called for in the score. The location of the mallet strike on the kettle drum head can also have a large effect on the note played.

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