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The timpani drum produces a deep, resonant sound with a variable pitch. Indeed, it is hard to confuse the distinctive sound of the timpani with any other type of drum.

Timpani is an Italian name, a plural from the singular timpano. In English, however, the name timpani is both singular and plural. The instrument can also be called the kettledrum. Timpani, or kettledrums, come in sets of varying sizes.

The timpani evolved from a military drum, appearing in various formats over the centuries to reflect different uses. For example, there were versions for marching drummers and for drummers mounted on horseback.

The instrument made appearances in concert settings by the late 17th century, and many composers appreciated the dramatic effects it could provide. The timpani had become well established as an orchestral instrument by the classical era, although for the most part it remained in a supporting role. Franz Joseph Haydn is credited with being among the first composers to give prominence to the instrument. The timpani grew in importance throughout the romantic era.

Early timpani lacked the pedal mechanism that allows modern musicians to tune the instrument and modulate its range.