What Are The Differences Between Bass Drums & Timpani?

The bass drum and the timpani are very imposing percussion instruments regularly featured in symphonic orchestras and often seen next to each other. While having lots in common, the differences are hard to overlook.

What are the differences between bass drums and timpani? The main differences are:

  • The bass drum can be larger than the timpani and has a dissimilar shell and drumhead design.
  • The timpani are slightly higher-pitched than the bass drum.
  • Bass drums can incorporate a kick pedal, whereas timpani are played exclusively with mallets.

In this article, we'll expand upon the distinctions between bass drums and timpani that were just mentioned. However, let's first examine the origin of both instruments in more detail.

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The Backgrounds Of Bass Drums And Timpani

Both the bass drums and timpani first appeared at roughly the same time and within the same Arab and Ottoman circles. Naturally, being membranophones, they also share a common ancestor in the primitive drum that appeared during the Neolithic era around China. However, for the purposes of this article, we will only deal with their evolution starting from the time of the Crusades.

The Background Of Bass Drums

We may point to the Turkish davul (or Arabic tabl) as the earliest known bass drum in history, although some sources place the origin of the davul itself in the extinct Babylonian Empire.

This drum existed since around the 14th century and was traditionally strapped to the arm and played with two mallets, each striking one side. It was tightened via a system of ropes interlaced in a zigzag pattern across the shell.

This bass drum was prevalent throughout the Mediterranean, and it was adopted by Western Europeans in the 18th century. The instrument would make its first appearance in the classical music scene in the 1800s with Spontini's opera “The Vestal Virgin.” From then on, it'd be a staple in the percussion section of most orchestras.

The bass drum in North America had a slightly different outcome, for it would be included in more popular musical settings such as vaudeville or Dixieland. It'd also be key in the development of the modern drum kit just as the first kick pedals began to appear in the early 1900s, thanks to drum company Ludwig.

Ludwig is featured in several top drum brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!

The Background Of Timpani

The timpani also trace their origin from the Ottomans during the time of the Crusades. Specifically, they were developed from the Ottoman kettledrums used in military operations. Initially, these kettledrums were much smaller in diameter (measuring approximately 8″). Larger versions of these kettledrums were introduced into France in the 16th century courtesy of a gift presented by King Ladislaus of Hungary to king Charles VII the Victorious.

Not much time would pass before their inclusion in Church music and, later on, in classical music, mostly accompanying trumpets to evoke a warring atmosphere. By the end of the 19th century, a German instrument maker named Carl Pittrich patented the timpani pedal, allowing timpanists to modulate their pitch on the go and render glissandos.

What Are The Differences Between Bass Drums And Timpani?

Now, we'll revisit the differences between bass drums and timpani that were outlined at the start:

Difference 1: Design

I first pointed out how:

“The bass drum can be larger than the timpani and has a dissimilar shell and drumhead design.”

This is generally true when comparing the size of the largest timpani with that of concert bass drums. The largest timpani measures 32″ in diameter, while the concert bass drums can reach from 28″ to 40″.

However, when setting the “kick drum” (the one included in standard drum sets) side by side with the smallest timpani, the sizes are far more comparable. Some bass drums can reach sizes down to 16″, whereas timpani rarely go below 20″; hence, in those cases, the timpani may be deemed the bigger instrument of the two.

Examining the design, you'll notice more distinctions, especially in the shape and construction of the shell.

Bass drums carry a similar design concept to all other drums in a standard drum kit: A cylindrical shell usually has two heads attached to each side. By contrast, the shell of the timpani is likened to a kettle or pot, with a curved base at the bottom.

Difference 2: Sound

On another note, I stated that:

“The timpani are slightly higher-pitched than the bass drum.”

Like the design, the comparison varies depending on the bass drum model utilized.

If the juxtaposition involves the concert bass drum (particularly those surpassing the 32″ in diameter), you will notice that it renders notes at a lower frequency than the largest timpani. Initially, you could tune the timpani much lower, but their head will turn too flabby, hindering the output. For this reason, it's preferable to utilize a bass drum that can reach those lower notes more consistently.

When comparing the kick drum with the timpani, the timpani wins in the resonance department by a large margin. Most kick drums sport a porthole in the resonate head or have muting mechanisms installed to reduce the “boom” effect. This would result in the bass drum losing sustain and delivering sharp staccatos with not much in terms of pitch.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Finally, I affirmed the following:

“Bass drums can incorporate a kick pedal, whereas timpani are played exclusively with mallets.”

In drum kits, bass drums are placed at the same level as the foot in order to be actioned through a “kick pedal”. This kick pedal is designed to activate a beater that, in turn, strikes the drumhead.

Conversely, concert bass drums are laid on a stand and do require the use of mallets. Nevertheless, they're positioned in the same way as kick drums, with the batter head facing sideways.

The timpani likewise require mallets, and their head faces upwards. They also carry a pedal, this time designed for the sole purpose of tensioning or loosening the timpani's head to modify their pitch.

Read How Bass Drums Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Timpani Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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