What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums & Timpani?

In the world of percussion instruments, there are many options of all sizes and properties. You'll frequently find two percussion instruments in academic circles: the snare drums and the timpani (also called “kettledrums”). Both look roughly similar in their overall constitution but differ in more ways than one.

What are the differences between snare drums and timpani? The differences can be summed up in the following:

  • The timpani have a different design and size than snare drums.
  • The timpani are pitched percussion instruments. Snare drums typically have no notable melodic properties.
  • The Timpani are a set of drums. Snare drums are played individually or in a kit.

Throughout this article, we'll go over these differences in depth. First, we should disclose some background.

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The Backgrounds Of Snare Drums And Timpani

Both snare drums are membranophones that came to the fore during a similar period in history and within approximately the same region, though their use case is quite contrasting. Let's begin talking about the snare drum.

The Background Of The Snare Drum

The snare drum is an essential part of the modern drum kit, along with the bass/kick drum. While membranophones existed for a very long time (going back to at least the Neolithic era) and came largely from East Asia, the snare drum doesn't seem to have a direct connection with these primitive instruments.

Snare drums first appeared in Eastern Europe during the crusades. They're often associated with the percussion instruments used by Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. During these early stages, these drums were named “tabor“, depicted in medieval art as sporting snares over the top drumhead.

The tabor was initially played as a standalone drum, often handheld or attached to a strap wrapped around the arm. It was utilized constantly for signalling during military operations, but then it made its way into chivalrous competitions, mock fights, and dances.

Tabor players would also play a three-holed pipe held in the other hand, but, eventually, they would associate with fife players (as the fife required both hands to be operated) to create the “drum and fife” setting that was so famous in Medieval times.

The Basel drum was a refined concept of the original tabor and the first drum to feature snares at the bottom side of the drum (made mostly from animal guts). These “tabors” were larger than the standard tabor, measuring around 16″ in diameter.

During the American Civil War, these drums (called “field drums”) were employed for communication between troops during skirmishes and, in some specific locations, for announcing church services.

Meanwhile, this drum was already featured in European concert halls a century earlier, as composers such as Marais were wont to create thundering effects with it to complement their compositions. Other composers, such as Beethoven, were very fond of the instrument's ability to materialize a militaristic feel in music during the turn of the next century.

After the American civil war, field drum owners took their instruments home and began to find their musical utility, but reserved for popular music ensembles such as vaudeville and Dixieland bands. This would pave the way for creating the first drum set, which would quickly gain popular acclaim.

The Background Of The Timpani

The timpani are a set of drums that likewise rose to prominence during the crusades. They were also inspired by drums used by the Ottomans during the 12th and 13th centuries. They were initially a pair of small kettledrums, measuring roughly 8″ in diameter (much smaller than the modern timpani).

Just as in the case of tabors, these kettledrums were mostly played within the context of military conquests and were predominantly featured in processions and victory marches. This first version of the timpani slowly waned in favour of the larger timpani models that started to become widespread by the mid-15th century. These were introduced by King Ladislaus of Hungary as a gift to Charles VII of France and his court and would soon become an instrument associated with knighthood and nobility.

Since then, several developments were made to the instruments, including how the skins were stretched and tensioned (ditching the typical nails in favour of hoops that would lap them instead). During the 16th century, these kettledrums would be inserted in church music as they gradually evolved into the modern timpani that would be heard in concert halls worldwide.

Some of the most recent updates included inserting screws to hand-tune them and inserting a pedal. This pedal is roughly similar to the one installed on bass drums, with a footboard activating the mechanism.

Timpani pedals were patented in late 1870 by Carl Pittrich. These pedals were responsible for stretching or loosening the skin on the drumhead so that they could deliver sounds at different pitches and generate glissando notes.

What Are The Differences Between Snare Drum And Timpani?

Next, we'll be reviewing the differences laid out at the beginning of this guide:

Difference 1: Design

In the initial answer, I pointed out the following:

The timpani have a different design and size than snare drums.”

While both instruments share several traits common to membranophones, it's very easy to spot the distinctions in design (which would eventually also shape their differences in sound).

The first discernible point of contrast lies in the shape. The timpani have a very peculiar “kettle” shape (hence their original moniker, “kettledrums”). These bowl-like structures form the instrument's base, with the skins stretched at the top.

The head is held in place by a hoop and a suspension ring, while the entire structure, including the kettle, is framed by metal bars that stretch to the bottom or base. This base houses the pedal mechanism and a caster (a small wheel) to facilitate portability.

Meanwhile, the structure of the snare drum consists of a round shell with two skin heads stretched across the top and bottom. A counter hoop also fixes the skins, and the shell sports an air hole to let air escape the cylinder.

As described earlier, the snare drum has snares at the bottom, consisting of a set of coiled wires fastened by a strainer (located on the drum shell) and secured by a butt plate (situated opposite to the strainer).

The tension rods are very similar to the tuning rods of the timpani, but, contrary to the latter, the tension rods don't extend outwards. Rather, these tension rods are located near the hoops at the top and bottom and are linked together by lug casings that remain stuck to the shell.

Another aspect to consider is the standard sizes of both instruments. The snare drums regularly featured in the ordinary drum kit are roughly 14″ in diameter. On the other hand, the timpani are not usually found with a diameter smaller than 20″ and can be as large as 32″.

Difference 2: Sound

Earlier, I highlighted the following:

“The timpani are pitched percussion instruments. Snare drums typically have no notable melodic properties.”

This statement needs some elaboration, as I do not deny that there's pitch in the snare drum's sound. Rather, when compared to the timpani, the snare drum is not very effective in conveying discernible notes. Part of the reason is because of the design of the snare drums and the presence of the snare wires.

As said earlier, both the timpani and snare drum are membranophones, meaning that the bulk of their sound is generated via the vibration of their membranes.

With this said, the snares referenced earlier interact with the lower membrane and hamper its vibration, absorbing a great part of the motion (this is what gives the snare drums their “buzz” sound.) This hinders the instrument's sustain, consequently causing a sharp staccato.

Meanwhile, the kettle base of the timpani and the lack of any snares allow the timpani to engender more defined notes with a much more pronounced sustain. This enables the timpani to be classed as pitched percussion instruments. The sound is also much deeper and lower pitch in general (owing to their size).

In addition, you can regulate the timpani's pitch on the spot, thanks to the inclusion of the pedal. This pedal regulates the membrane's tension. As you press on the pedal's footboard, the membranes get tighter, and the frequency of the sound turns higher (with a corresponding higher pitch), as it takes less time for them to produce one full oscillation.

Difference 3: Playing Style

Lastly, let's address the third difference, which was summarized as follows:

“The Timpani are a set of drums. Snare drums are played individually or in a kit.”

Timpani is a Latin plural noun referring to a set of drums of the “timpanum” variant. Theoretically, timpani players could play a simple timpanum, but this strays from the purpose of the timpani, which is to serve as a grouping of pitched percussion instruments capable of rendering a myriad of low- and mid-range notes.

The snare drum, conversely, is mainly purposed to provide a tight rhythmic pattern and for timekeeping, which is why there's no need to have more than one in a drum set.

Read How Snare 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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