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Dramatic Timpani

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There's something about those huge, deep-sounding, resonant kettledrums tuned to play specific notes (traditionally two notes a perfect fourth apart, such as C and the G below it) that evokes a visceral reaction from anyone who hears it. In sequences where maximum drama value is sought, expect Classical Music excerpts with timpani. For extra awesome, add an ever- louder roll on one deep note.

In some works, the timpani may play a line used as a Leitmotif (a melodic passage associated with a character or theme).

In Real Life, timpani are mostly used in Classical Music , in orchestras and concert bands. They are big copper bowls with a membrane stretched across them. Typically, a professional timpani player will have four or five of the drums in different sizes. The bigger drums can produce deeper bass notes, including those as low as a double bass or the pedal keyboard of a pipe organ. Unlike the other deep-pitched drum in common use, the bass drum (aka "kick drum"), the timpani sounds a clear pitch (bass drums have an indeterminate, thumpy pitch). Timpani players can adjust the tuning using mechanical pedals at the base of the drum. The timpani is usually struck with a pair of wooden sticks with felt heads.

If your work is a Period Piece set in the 1700s or early 1800s, music from that era typically uses two timpani tuned a fourth apart, playing simple lines with repeated notes. If your work is set in the late 1800s or early 1900s, this is the era of music romanticism, where composers wanted more dramatic effects and more powerful sounds. As such, you could use four or five timpanis or even multiple timpani players to get a bigger, more powerful effect. As well, you can have the timpanis play deep melody lines or create sound effects. Occasionally, rock bands, progressive rock groups and avant-garde jazz groups with big budgets will use timpani.

Compare Drum Roll, Please, typically played with hard sticks on a snare drum. For the quiet version, see Heartbeat Soundtrack.

Other instruments capable of low pitch that can create a dramatic effect include Ominous Pipe Organ or the Drone of Dread played by low brass.


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     Films — Animated 

     Films — Live-Action 
  • In Galaxy Quest, when Taggart is going back home for the first time and still doesn't realize it's all real, as the bay doors of the Protector 2 open and he sees the space vista, dramatic timpani music plays.
  • Discussed in Jurassic Park. The "Mr. DNA" animated short film played in the park's Visitor's Center is accompanied by bouncy, cartoony, lighthearted music complete with Mickey Mousing. However, John Hammond says this is just placeholder music, mouthing out a "boom boom boom" while miming a drummer playing timpani to give his guests an idea of what the final soundtrack will sound like.
  • The first half of the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the half which has Fun with Subtitles) is accompanied by Pierre Arvay's "Ice Floe 9",note  dominated by pounding timpani and enigmatic xylophone which combines with the white text on black background to create an atmosphere deliberately at odds with the comedy subtitles and the typical Monty Python absurdism that follows.
  • In On the Waterfront, the soundtrack by Leonard Bernstein has the quiet title music followed by a pounding fugato for three drummers (though the third is actually on tuned drums rather than timpani).
  • Parodied in Spaceballs as Spaceball 1 is transformed into (BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM)...Mega Maid.: The dramatic timpani are played by an actual timpanist in the spaceship itself. Later, when the Self-Destruct Mechanism is activated, the timpanist is one of the many extras on board who gets an Escape Pod, hitting President Skroob over the head with a mallet before the door closes and he blasts off.
  • Star Wars:
    • Revenge of the Sith has several timpani beats between the opening music and the BGM for the opening Space Battle.
    • A New Hope features one during the trench run, as the technicians aboard the Death Star prepare to fire the Superlaser the second time. Earlier, a timpani roll is heard as Obi-wan makes his way down a hallway, only to be stopped in his tracks by Darth Vader, waiting at the end of the hall with his lightsaber drawn.
  • Parodied in Waiting for Guffman: the overture from "Red White And Blaine" features dramatic timpani... but the dude who's playing it is also hitting an absurdly high trumpet note at the same time.

     Live Action TV 
  • Used during the "Epic Fail" segment of Attack of the Show!.
  • Formerly used at the start of the Bonus Round on Wheel of Fortune and at the start of Jeopardy! when Art Fleming was host.
  • Used after the opening of Concentration, and before contestant introductions.
  • The infamous Viacom "V of Doom", combined with the synth piano and and quickly zooming in Viacom V logo, freaked people out.
  • Used, and called for ("TIMPANI!), in the yearly MDA Telethon when updating the large display showing the amount pledged, at least some years.
  • Get Smart would do a slow version of this during suspenseful moments.
  • Ultraseven features one at the beginning of the opening credits. The exact same sequence is used for the beginning of two musical pieces, each a series of Dramatic Timpani notes, the first is just a fast series of timpani notes, the second one (called Space Monster) is slower and features a horn section.
  • Similarly to the aforementioned Viacom "V of Doom" is Universal Television's "Globe of Doom" from 1975 to 1991. The low, ominous score of drums/trumpet (and later in its run, a weird electric "warbling" sound) frightened quite a few viewers.

  • Richard Strauss's "Also sprach Zarathustra" features this in its famous opening, "Sunrise". It never recurs in the remaining half-hour of the work.
  • Gustav Mahler was well-known for writing spectacular timpani flourishes into his symphonies:
    • Symphonies Nos. 1 (first and fourth movements), 5 (first and second movements) and 6 (first movement) all provide dramatic timpani to increase excitement at climactic moments.
    • The third movement of Symphony No. 1 starts and ends with a repeated descending fourth in the timpani, played pianissimo.
    • The finale of Symphony No. 3 has the final cadence underlined by two timpanists slowly pounding out "not with brute force—full, noble tones."
    • The finale of Symphony No. 7 begins with a bravura flourish played on four timpani.
    • A minimalistic but attention-getting timpani volley opens the third movement of Symphony No. 2.
    • Symphony No. 4 saves its most dramatic timpani moment for the mainly peaceful slow movement, powerfully underpinning soaring brass chords in the E major episode near the end.
  • The first measure of Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor features a timpani roll that goes from near silence to near deafening to herald a massive chord from both the pianist and the full orchestra.
  • Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable) ends with a duel between two timpanists, placed at opposite sides of the orchestra. Yes, it is as spectacular as it sounds.
  • The fourth (and final) movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor starts aned finishes with timpani solos.
  • The "Tuba mirum" in Hector Berlioz's Grande Messe des morts (the French title for the Requiem mass) and Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" has loud fanfares accompanied by overpowering drum rolls. "Be slowly lifted up" in the War Requiem is accompanied by timpani volleys played on three drums.
  • Havergal Brian's "Gothic" Symphony begins with a short crescendo leading to a loud outburst from two timpanists. The timpani motif recurs at various points, particularly in "Judex crederis esse venturus," where each of the four additional brass bands comes online accompanied by its own half-chorus and its own dramatic timpanist, and in "Non confundar in aeternum," whose two massive crescendos are launched by the six timpanists.
  • In Peter and the Wolf, when the hunters enter, there are intermittent menacing timpani outbursts, representing their gunfire.
  • Ringo Starr plays a very attention-getting timpani in The Beatles' "Every Little Thing".
  • In Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, Variation VII (Troyte) begins with a dramatic timpani crescendo played on three drums.
  • The opening chorus of Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio, "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage",note  begins with an emphatic passage for solo timpani, occasionally punctuated by the basso continuo instruments. (The chorus was originally written as the opening chorus of the secular cantata Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!, or "Resound, ye drums! Ring out, ye trumpets!" - so the drums, and shortly thereafter the trumpets, do as they are told.)
  • Aaron Copland:
    • In the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, the timpani pounding out the work's motto theme in the final movement would be more impressive were they not overshadowed by the organ playing at full power.
    • In his ballet "Billy the Kid", the timpani are used to depict the sounds of a gun battle.
    • "Fanfare for the Common Man" features them very prominently in the opening, in addition to multiple points throughout.
  • In the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, when the main subject returns after the development, it comes as a massive storm in the orchestra, with the timpani in particular hammering away long after the point when you think they could have stopped. The musicologist Susan McClary famously described this passage as having "the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release", although she toned it down when she published the same paper in her book Feminine Endings, by which time she'd received a shit-storm of abuse from people who were under the impression that she was comparing Beethoven to a rapist. In the Scherzo of the same symphony, the timpani are tuned an octave apart from each other (an unconventional tuning, but also used in the finale of Symphony No. 8). The Scherzo's main theme begins with a descending octave, which the timpanist gets to play loud and unaccompanied several times.
  • The opening drum roll in "Opus 17 (Don't You Worry 'Bout Me)" by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
  • The first bar of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F is a three-timpani flourish that forms half of the percussive ostinato of the opening section and becomes a recurring motif thereafter.
  • Featured in the "Baccanele" from Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah.
    • His Symphony No.3 ends with a variation on this, timpani playing a C alternating with the G below it and the E above, combined with a pipe organ.
  • In Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," the timpani get to lead the percussion section in their variation on Henry Purcell's theme after each of the wind, string and brass instruments have had their turn.
  • The faster, even-numbered movements of Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta have some fairly dramatic bits for timpani, particularly the recapitulation in the second movement.
  • "Uranus" from The Planets by Gustav Holst has a principal motif consisting of four well-spaced notes (G, D♯, high A, low B). Naturally, one of the timpanists has four drums tuned to those pitches, and often plays them loudly in rapid succession.
  • The Rite of Spring has a percussion section that includes five timpani, including one unusually high-pitched drum. Notably dramatic timpani moments include the start of "Games of the Rival Tribes," the repeated F♯–E–D♯ Sting in the revised version of "Evocation of the Ancestors," and the all-out assault in the middle of the "Sacrificial Dance."
  • The Wormhole segment of Future Crew's Unreal demo, scored by Purple Motion.
  • In Felix Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" overture, the fast section ends with an Anti-Climax in which the orchestra drops out temporarily but the timpani keeps going strong and sets the beat for the twice-as-slow coda.

  • American Top 40: Used before Casey Kasem announced the No. 1 song of the week. A longer one was often used on the year-end countdowns or if the week's No. 1 song hit a milestone.
  • American Country Countdown: To a lesser extent than sister program AT40, as host Bob Kingsley would use it only on the year-end countdown programs before naming the No. 1 country song of the year. Kingsley has carried the timpani roll over to year-end Bob Kingsley's Country Top 40 programs.

  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Miles Gloriosus enters the scene to dramatic timpani flourishes; in most showings, his entourage reflects this by having several drummers.
  • In Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Giants' Leitmotif is accompanied by pounding timpani at their forceful first entrance in Das Rheingold. The timpani motif stays with Fafner after he becomes a dragon, with the interval altered from a perfect fourth to a tritone.
  • In Peter Grimes, the first part of Act I's "Storm" interlude is underpinned by an incessantly pounding timpani part marked molto pesante (very heavy) in the score.
  • In Candide, bombastic pounding timpani underline the brass fanfares in the "Battle Music" which plays (in most productions) as the Westphalians get slaughtered and is also heard in the Medley Overture.
  • In The Most Happy Fella, the prelude to Act II begins with a short reprise of the pseudo-romantic stalking music from the end of the previous act, which climaxes with the rising and falling fifth motif from the title song played as an ominous timpani solo.

     Video Games 

     Real Life 


Mahler Symphony No. 3

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra

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