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ASUmusicMAN

Discovering the Timpani Drum in Classical Music

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Unlike most other drums, kettledrums are meant to be tuned to specific notes ? big, low, booming, walloping, godlike notes. Remember the monumental opening music from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? That music, actually by Richard Strauss, makes dramatic use of the timpani's unique capability to go . . .

BUM-bum-BUM-bum-BUM-bum . . .

What you're hearing is the alternation of two different notes. That's an extremely common effect on the timpani. (Next time the Summer Olympics roll around, listen to the fanfare music they always play on TV ? lots of timpani bumming around there, too.)

You tune a kettledrum by tightening or loosening the head. (That's the plastic "lid" that's stretched tightly across the opening of the kettle. Now you don't have to ask your doctor why your eardrums are known as the timpanic membranes ? it's because they're stretched tightly, just like a timpani head.) On old instruments, you adjust the pitch by twisting several screws located around the circumference of the drum ? not exactly something you can easily pull off in the three seconds you have between sections of a symphony.

Fortunately, that clumsy process is going the way of vinyl records, hula hoops, and DOS. Nowadays, all timpani come with foot pedals. As you push down the pedal with your toe, you tighten the head; and as you push down with your heel (lifting the toe), you loosen the head. In other words, you can tune your kettledrums incredibly quickly.

In fact, you can even change a note while you're playing it, making the note slide up or down. You hear this special effect (a glissando) in Saturday-morning cartoons, every time the fat guy gets kicked in the rear or shot from a catapult. It's a truly arresting effect.

Drum roll, please

What timpani are best known for, however, is the roll. A timpanist executes a roll with two mallets, striking the drums with each mallet alternately, at blinding speed.

Many timpani rolls are accompanied by a gradual increase in volume. The climax of this increase is generally signaled by a momentous crash from the rest of the orchestra. This effect is so common that it's become a cliché.

The word timpani is Italian, and it's plural, because you never see fewer than two in one place (except in Figure 1). Composers never write for a single kettledrum.

Where to hear the timpani

You can hear the timpani strutting their stuff (along with many other percussion instruments) in Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta? an ingenious, way-out work of music.

For that matter, the timpani make an especially striking appearance in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (second movement), Richard Strauss's tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), and the finale of Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5.

post-22-1082074782_thumb.jpg

Edited by ASUmusicMAN

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Thanks for the post. That was interesting... Curious, what instrument do you play ASU?

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I've played French Horn for about nine years. As part of the program i'm in here in school I have to learn just about all of the major instruments as well with a special two year emphasis on piano

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Any electronic stuff or synthesizer stuff included?

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Nope...no electronic stuff...just stuff you would have to teach to a band or orchestra. Ususally the get the piano players to play all the synth. stuff...or if they have enough percussion they could double as well

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A composer friend of mine has a synthesizer and he literally programs each instrument, whether its a rock score or an orchestra. Might be fun to play with since you have to learn all the instruments anyway...

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Yeaah...I got a bunch of fun computer programs that'll compose and play for every instrument; always can burn a couple hours just messing around (I made a brass choir version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart"...LOL). What kind of synthesizer...I don't know too too much about 'em...the only one I've gotten to mess with was a Roland box thinggie that plugged right into my teachers computer.

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PM me and I will put you in touch with John. He's been commissioned by the marines, doens music videos, scores for tv's and films, composed for orchestra's. He composed the music for the Ray Bradsbury theater and that little jingle for Wonderful World of Disney. He would be happy to tell you about his synth. or anything else you wanna know

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For whatever whack-ass reason, I played the baritone, trumpet, trombone, and alto sax in Jr. High. Had I had an inkling of my future desires, I would have played drums or the guitar. Possibly even the bass. I have played drums in the past. Even played live once in Germany. "TNT" by AC/DC. We screwed it up since we were all drunk, but at least we got a drunken applause. I wish I could get a set and play now. :thumpin:

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Go for it man...I wish I was talented enough to play set...it would take me like a year of work just to get that whole feet/arm different beat coordination going on

That's awesome that you played some brass in jr. high...I play horn now and used to play trumpet in a jazz band and also in a ska band.

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