What Are The Differences Between Timpani & Tom Drums?

In this article, we'll look at two drum types that appear similar yet, at the same time, distinct from one another, namely timpani and tom drums.

What are the differences between timpani and tom drums? These are, in summary, the main differences:

  • Timpani are larger than tom drums, also displaying a distinct design and feel.
  • Timpani sound much more powerful than tom drums.
  • Timpani are played with larger mallets than tom drums and include a pedal.

In this article, we'll delve deeper into the differences between timpani and tom drums. However, before moving onwards, let's unveil both instruments' backgrounds.

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The Backgrounds Of Timpani And Tom Drums

Despite appearing to belong to the same family, the timpani and the tom drums come from very different traditions. While both instruments claim ancestry from Neolithic Chinese drums, this connection has only diluted over time.

Let's now go over the history of each drum:

The Background Of The Timpani

The timpani (plural for “timpanum”) were a set of tuned drums that were very popular during the time of the Crusades. The first timpani (called initially “kettledrums” due to the shape of their base) were presumably designed by 12th-century Arabs. They were made much smaller than modern timpani (measuring about 8″ in diameter).

These drums were employed primarily in battles and processions. Large timpani started being developed in the middle of the 15th century, slowly displacing their smaller counterparts. With the introduction of these drums into France by King Ladislaus of Hungary (given as gifts to King Charles VII), the drums soon became a symbol of nobility within the social mindset of the time.

Sometime after, Church music began incorporating these timpani, which would pave the way for their further inclusion in classical music.

The Background Of Tom Drums

The original tom drums were made in East Asia and were mainly hand drums. The closest version of the modern tom drum was being imported into America from China.

These Chinese tom drums (also named “tom-toms”) displayed manifestly Chinese-style artwork on their skins and lacked a proper tuning mechanism. It was through companies like Ludwig that the tom drums started featuring these capabilities.

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

The tom drums proved to be very popular among jazz musicians during the nascent stages of the drum kit. At first, they were enticed by the “exotic” sound these drums emitted upon being struck. Notwithstanding the initial perception of their sound as “foreign”, they would eventually become a staple in pop and rock kits as well.

What Are The Differences Between Timpani And Tom Drums?

In this next section, we'll be fleshing out the distinctions pointed out at the beginning of this guide. Let's start with:

Difference 1: Design

Earlier, I stated:

“Timpani are larger than tom drums, also displaying a distinct design and feel.”

The contrast can't be overstated. When comparing the largest typical floor tom (measuring up to 18″) to the smallest typical timpanum (coming in at around 23″), you should be able to notice the sheer difference in size between the two instruments.

The silhouette is likewise quite dissimilar. The tom drum shell retains a straight cylindrical shape, while each timpanum's shell carries a more bowl-like construction and lacks a hollow bottom.

Furthermore, the timpani only equip one head at the top, while most tom drums (with the exception of the concert tom) carry two heads: The “batter head” (which is struck) and the “resonate head” (located at the bottom which, as the name suggests, resonates from the vibrations it absorbs).

Ordinarily, timpani come with foot pedals which, when actioned, would alter the pitch, producing a peculiar glissando similar to that heard when one rubs the finger across the head of any drum.

Tom drums rarely feature a pedal, except in cases where a floor tom is turned into a kick drum, and, even in that scenario, the purpose of both pedals is starkly disparate. In the latter case, the pedal activates a rocker shaft that moves the attached beater towards the floor tom's bottom head (on the bass drum, it would strike the batter head.)

Finally, I need to mention the build material. Timpani shells or “kettles” are almost always made of copper, though cheaper models may be made of aluminum or fibreglass. Tom drums, in the meantime, have shells made of either wood or steel (wood being the most common), albeit occasionally, you can find shells made with synthetic materials.

Difference 2: Sound

The second difference I alluded to was the following:

“Timpani sound much more powerful than tom drums.”

There is no questioning that the timpani is one of the most imposing drums in the percussion family of instruments, with an overwhelming tone that cuts easily through the mix.

The tom drum also has a powerful tone comparable to that of the timpani (especially when played with a mallet, as seen here). However, it doesn't reach nearly the same decibels, to the point in which timpani players most frequently wear earplugs to avoid hearing damage.

Another difference between tom drums and timpani is that the latter leans towards a brighter sound and generates more harmonics (especially noticeable as the sound decays) as well as a much more pronounced sustain. On the flip side, tom drums tend to deliver more fundamental albeit muffled tones, with more emphasis on the percussive action rather than pitch.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Finally, I stated that:

“Timpani are played with larger mallets than tom drums and include a pedal.”

Although this is usually the case, it's not an absolute rule. Timpani mallets, as inferred earlier, may be used on tom-toms if you want to deliver beats with a particular colour. These mallets are essentially drumsticks with a ball at the tip made of felt or similar material.

However, the inverse is not generally the case, perhaps owing to the drumsticks' inability to produce sounds at an optimal level fitting for the timpani's potential.

To conclude, tom drums naturally lack the timpani pedal. This pedal is connected to the timpani's head and is responsible for adjusting its tension and, hence, controlling the pitch.

Read How Timpani Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Tom Drums 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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