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Updated on April 25, 2010

The most important drum in the symphony orchestra is the timpani, kettledrum, or tympanum, a single-skinned drum tuned to a specific pitch. It is made of a large, bowl-shaped copper "kettle," and the tension of the skin, or head, can be adjusted either manually or mechanically to permit pitch changes. Struck with sticks having various felt or sponge heads, it can produce different tone effects. Timpanis originated in the Middle East, where they were carried in pairs by players on horseback. They were introduced to Europe at the time of the Crusades and into the symphony orchestra during the 18th century, when they were played in pairs tuned to tonic and dominant pitches. In modern orchestras, three or more timpanis are usually used.

Beethoven (1770-1827) was the first composer to vary the tuning of timpanis from the conventional tonic-dominant. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was probably the first to call for a change of tuning during a single movement. Bela Bartok (1881-1945) made use of the glissando: a rapid, slurring effect made possible only by mechanical tuning.

Photo by Ted Cabanes
Photo by Ted Cabanes

Other Drums

The other drums of the orchestra have two skins and are of indefinite pitch. The tension of their skins is maintained by cords or rods that stretch from skin to skin and can be tightened or loosened. Among these drums are the snare ("side") drum, the tenor drum, and the bass drum.

The snare drum gets its name from its characteristic rattling tone created by snares—gut or metal strings, stretched tightly across the lower drumhead. The upper head is struck with wooden sticks, frequently in "rolls," or rhythmic trills, that are difficult to perform. Eighteenth century composers used the snare drum primarily to create special effects, but it has become standard equipment in modern orchestras.

The tenor drum is a larger version of the snare drum without the snares. Its tone is dull and muffled, and it is used principally in the fife and drum corps.

The bass drum is the biggest member of the drum family. Held vertically by a marching player or standing on a frame in the orchestra, it is struck on one or both heads.

A combination of drums and cymbals called a trap set is used in popular music and jazz. The drummer is seated and beats the bass drum with a foot pedal, keeping his arms free to play the other drums and the cymbals.

The tambourine is a drum made from a wooden hoop with a single head stretched over the top and has "jingles", or small cymbal-like pieces of metal, attached to its frame. It can be shaken or played with the fingers.


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