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Historic Drums

Kettle drums

Horse Timpani

The timpani is an instrument that is really quite old when it is compared to its fellow melodic percussion counterparts, such as the marimba and xylophone. Music historians trace the instrument's history to ancient times when the drums were used in religious ceremonies. During the 13th century, timpani began to be used in pairs and were called Nakers, or Nakirs. These drums were small and were used primarily by the military. The construction of these drums was composed of a shell made of either metal or wood and a head, which was connected directly to the shell of the drum and did not allow for the drums pitch to be altered at all. The drums themselves were tuned to fixed pitches and were usually tuned to an interval of a fourth or a fifth. These drums were used until the 15th century, when cavalry such as the Mongols, Muslims and Ottoman Turks would mount timpani-like drums on horseback. These drums were much larger than those previously used and were very similar to the drums that would be later used in the orchestra. The instrument itself was made of a large metal or copper bowl and had an animal skin, usually goat, pulled tight across the bowl. Europeans added a system of screw-tension to allow for more precise tuning of the heads. Combined with the development of the so-called Counter hoop, the system created greater resonance and more precise pitch.
The horse-mounted timpani of the Ottoman Empire was sure to be one of the sources of inspiration for the European adoption of timpani into their cavalry. Having timpani in the cavalry was rare and the drums were only awarded to the most elite of groups. The drums were paired with trumpeters and announced the arrival of the armies. Both the trumpeters and the timpanists were highly regarded and were often placed close to a commander when in battle. This relationship between the trumpet and timpani continued for many centuries. As empires in Europe gave way to royal courts, the timpani and trumpet pairing continued to be used, but they were now used as more of an image-builder for the nobility. It was common for emperors, dukes, lords and others of high rank to travel with a timpanist and trumpeter to emphasize the importance of their social rank. Those who possessed timpani were an exclusive group. This meant that timpanists themselves were only allowed to be employed by nobility and were not to interact with other instrumentalists, who were considered to be household employees of an inferior rank. As a result, guilds were formed by timpanists and trumpeters and members were treated as an elite group.


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