by Nathaneal Sthay

Also sprach Zarathustra, composed by Richard Strauss in 1896, is a classical song from which the Fanfare called "Sunrise" is a widely known theme. This fanfare has a particular emphasis on the Timpani percussive instrument, and has been used in popular works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Timpani solo, starting at 0:14, plays a large role in this iconic tune.

What is a Timpani?

A Timpani is a musical instrumental that uses the tension on each drum to produce different notes.
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The most common variety of Timpani- the pedal Timpani- uses the pedal located near the bottom of each drum to increase or decrease the tension to make a configuration of notes.

Playing a Timpani and the physics behind it


Before the Timpani is actually played, the player must first tune each drum to indicated notes in the music. In the case of Zarathustra, these notes are C and G. The method for this varies due to different types of Timpani, but the pedal Timpani uses its pedal to increase or decrease tension on the head.

How this works:

By increasing the tension on the head, the frequency and pitch also increase. This can be explained with the property of waves, where as tension increases, frequency also increases. The frequency equation is expressed with the following equation:
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The technique for playing the Timpani is by hitting the head about halfway to 2/3rds from the head to the rim, as opposed to hitting it in the center. The result of this is a fuller sound that is sent outward from the player, rather than a duller sound you would get from hitting the center.

How this works:

Hitting the center of the drum- which is how you play most drums normally- is actually bad technique.

This (poorly drawn) diagram is an example of if the mallet struck the middle of the head. Although you can't tell from a 2D image, the sound wave would bounce off the bottom and split off into all directions, causing the sound to disperse and cause a dull and out-of-tune note.
As seen from this other diagram, when hit from a position closer to the player, the sound wave bounces off the bottom of the Timpani and is propelled forward in a single direction instead of dispersing.

The Pedal

The pedal of a Timpani is what allows the player to change the tension on the drum that it's connected to, thereby changing the note to which it's tuned.
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This pedal is typically connected to the drum head via a series of metal rods as seen above.

Pedal types

Within the pedal Timpani family, there are three distinct types of pedals:
  • The Ratchet Clutch pedal uses a Ratchet to hold the pedal in place. The player must disengage the clutch to tune, then re-engage once the correct note has been tuned.
  • The Friction Clutch pedal is attached to a post, disengaging the clutch removes the post from the pedal and allows it to move freely.
  • The Balanced Action pedal is a clutch-free pedal that may be used to change pitch at any time.

The vast majority of college-and-below level bands use the Balanced Action pedal, while professional bands use the Ratchet and Friction clutch system.


The first instances of Timpani date back to the 15th century, where they were played in the military by carvery. Joining the traditional Concert Orchestra in the 17th century, it became a staple of the Orchestra and used in the vast majority of both Concert Orchestra and Band music.
The first Timpani were tuned using bolts on the top of the drum to affect tension, as shown below. This laborious process limited the range of notes that the Timpani could play in a song or set of songs.external image 3lmIx.jpg
In the 18th century, a handle was developed to allow quick changing of notes on any drum, which evolved into the foot pedal that is used today. This allowed players to change notes quickly between pieces and even in the middle of the music.

Social Impact

Today, the Timpani, as stated above, is used in the majority of modern and classical Concert Orchestra and Band music. Timpani are common in any middle school level or higher bands, and essential to every professional Concert Orchestra. The Timpani also plays a large role in scores from movies such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones.