In Search of the Missing Fundamental: by Richard K. Jones
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Historically Informed Performance

Historically Informed Performance is a much-debated term, and both music historians and performers have difficulty defining it exactly. There are many ideas of what HIP consists of, but at its most basic level, it means performing music with special attention to the technology and performance conventions that were present when a piece of music was composed. For many years, this approach was applied primarily to music composed before 1750, from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. In recent years, however, the drive towards historically informed performance has made musicians reconsider how they perform Classical-and Romantic-era repertoire as well.

With instrumental music, being historically informed often means performing on instruments such as Baroque oboe, recorder, harpsichord, or viola da gamba. While some musicians (primarily string players) perform on antiques, most early music performers use instruments that were made relatively recently, by modern makers who have a variety of ideas about what an early instrument should be. Some makers try their best to make exact copies of surviving instruments in museum collections, some create their own designs based on historical principles, and some try to blend the two approaches. The particular tonal characteristics of early music instruments, as well as their inherent strengths and limitations, help to create a historically informed sound.

The most important element of historical performance is the musical style, which is ideally based on a knowledge of primary sources and other reference materials from the era of the music being performed – for example, the writings of Johann Joachim Quantz and Leopold Mozart. Of course, it is also based on modern pedagogy and performance conventions, since in many cases the early music performers of the 20th and 21st centuries have resurrected musical instruments and traditions that lay dormant for centuries. It might seem incongruous to hear a Medieval mass performed in a concert hall, or a Renaissance drinking song performed in a church, but neither of these are uncommon in the early music world!

The truth is that the majority of what we consider historically informed performance practices are speculative, and based on the best information available to the musicians and scholars of our era. Much has changed in the way that we perform early music since the beginning of the historical performance revival, and that was only 60 years ago. Those who perform early music, though (and there are more bright stars on the horizon all the time!), generally believe that the experience of the music for both performers and audience is a richer one when historical performance practices are taken into account.

Information Courteous of
Society for Historically Informed Performance

When using modern timpani for the performance of period music, “Those drums ring too long” or “I need a shorter sound” or even “Do you have anything smaller?” is often the quip from music director to the timpanist when the sound isn’t quite what the MD is looking for. Unlike modern string, wind and brass instruments, modern timpani are not able to manipulate their sound envelope quite as readily. In fact, modern timpani with modern (thinner) heads are designed and built to have a long sustaining sound with each strike.  Creating sounds with a short envelope is quite impossible when fast articulated rhythms are written. The result, even with very hard sticks, is a sound with far too long of a decay, which often doesn’t complement the rhythm and articulation of the ensemble, especially smaller ensembles. This type of sound can in fact diminish the character of the style period rather than add to it as was the original intention of the composer.

Most iconographic evidence (open to speculation) suggests that the early 16th and 17th timpani were generally struck dead or slightly off-center. This method of producing pitch (striking the drum dead/off-center) is in fact how noted musicologists Edmund Bowles 53 and  John Michael Cooper 29 believe timpani produced pitch until the very end of the 18th century. This purportedly yielded a sound with a very percussive attack with a quick decay, and a short discernible pitch.

Man playing kettle drums – engraving by J.C. Weigel
(1661-1726), from Musicalisches Theatrum

This method of playing is still used today by traditional Cuban Timbaleros. Below is a short video showing the traditional approach to tuning Timbales Cubanos, and then playing the Cuban danzón. Notice where the timbalero is striking the timbales for the primary notes; near dead center on *do* and just slightly off center for *sol* yet there is still strong sense of the key of F. When he strikes the timbales in the more traditional location, the instruments produce a weak, thin sound. The voice of these drums (when struck dead/off-center) produces a very short envelope, which is probably very similar to the sound of early 17th and 18th century timpani.

Tutorial on how to tune traditional Timbales Cubanos, and play  Cuban Danzón with Canelo Vasquez, drummer and director of the Super Lamas Group of Actopan.

When replicating period sound, one needs to focus on the length of the natural sound (envelope), the amount of sound, and the color of the sound in that order. For modern timpani, it is not necessarily a question of the amount of sound, but more a question of the length of the sound. The amount of sound can be controlled by stick choice and stroke, but much of the natural length of the sound (envelope) is governed by the instrument itself; specifically the membrane (head) and how it is or isn’t allowed to vibrate. One should also bear in mind that as with all instruments, timpani have undergone an evolutionary process as well.  Consequently, this sound envelope differs from stylistic period to stylistic period. One size does not fit all. The mid-nineteenth century Einbigler timpani that Felix Mendelssohn wholeheartedly endorsed would not have been appropriate for an early eighteenth century Bach oratorio, just as they would not be efficient enough to power a full sized orchestra of today.

Clearly, original instruments or accurate replicas are best (for pure HIP, all instruments involved in the ensemble need to be authentic), but when authentic period timpani are not available for your performance. Below are three possible options to consider when using modern equipment to emulate a HIP sound. The author has used these methods at different points in his career to modify/alter his sound when HIP or period practice is requested. Each creates a different color, resonance, sonority, and sound envelope. Much of the outcome will depend on the acoustics of the venue, the instruments, the heads, the sticks, the playing technique used, the size and forces of the ensemble, as well as the conductor’s approach. Be flexible, open-minded, and don’t forget to experiment with new ideas as you develop you own personal approach to developing a HIP sound. There is no prescriptive solution, only creativity, imagination, experimentation, and artistry.

As mentioned earlier, it must be stressed that timpani (including the heads) have gone through an evolutionary process, as have all musical instruments, so it is impractical to try and define a period sound that fits all 16th through 19th century stylistic periods. Since the actual performance sound of early timpani is open to speculation, even modern replicas are only an approximation and may not be appropriate for all situations if you are truly wanting to create a specific or regional period sound. The term Baroque timpani is often misused today when describing modern replicas that have T-handles, let alone a chain or belt driven tuning system equipped with modern natural skin heads.

With that in mind, how does one begin to approach HIP? Do you need drums that employ Schalltrichter? What size of Schalltrichter is appropriate? What type of heads are appropriate? What sticks should one use? Where does one draw the line with HIP? Wherever one feels comfortable, both financially and musically. Period instruments (including true replicas) are very expensive so finding alternative solutions is usually the name of the game. It is all about the interpretation, the sound(s), and the effect(s) a timpanist (or in some cases, the conductor) want to create. First and foremost, the player needs to have a clear mental and aural concept of the sound that they want to create. The true artist then adjusts the instruments, sticks, technique, and their interpretation to fit the acoustics of the environment and the stylistic approach of the conductor in order to realize that sound. One may be able to simply pull a set of ornate wooden sticks out of their bag, and the conductor will be satisfied with your HIP interpretation, but the true artist digs deeper.


Having an understanding of how to stylistically interpret the music (which does influence the sound) is just as important as the concept of the sound (and look) that you want to create. Case in point, slashed note stems (indicating a specific rhythmic subdivision of the beat) and tremolo markings are often found in the same piece in much of the 16th-19th century timpani literature. A classic example of this can be found in the last measure of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Is there any real difference between the sound of the two indications. What did Beethoven intend? Was this simply a misprint; a copyist’s error from a previous manuscript perhaps?

B5Final measure of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

This notation makes no sense to the modern timpanist when playing on modern timpani, but when this work was first performed in 1808, the size and power of the orchestra was much smaller as were the sizes of the timpani. The drums of Beethoven’s era were also equipped with much thicker heads, which produced less resonance and sustain; a much different sound envelope as it were. A note with a tremolo marking would often be interpreted as a multiple bounce roll (i.e., a buzz or press roll rather than the modern hand-to-hand interpretation), which was accepted as an appropriate interpretation for the time. This seems antithetical to the technical and interpretative standards for modern timpani performance. There are no rules, only opinions and conjecture, consequently, a scholarly approach is always encouraged when when pursuing HIP practices. The opening of video below of the Schumann Symphony No 4 in D minor with David Zinman conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich is a good example of HIP practices on modern timpani.

Schumann Symphony No 4 D minor
David Zinman Tonhalle Zurich

Traditional Grip/Wood Sticks
Concentus Musicus Wien

Much of the interpretation and aesthetics of period performance may be as much visual as aural, e.g., the ornate wooden sticks mentioned above,  so late 19th or early 20th century hand-tuned timpani mounted on wooden floor stands are often used.  They may look the part, but the sound will still need to be adjusted. Based on extant examples, period timpani (16th-19th century) were much smaller in diameter and more shallow in depth than modern 21st century instruments and were equipped with very thick heads. The size and depth of the narrow collared bowls produced less projection. The integrity and mechanics of the construction produced less pitch definition. The quality of the heads produced less resonance and sustain. The sticks and playing techniques (e.g. playing spot) were much different as well. Consequently, early timpani emitted a sound that is quite unlike that of modern drums, so using modern instruments for HIP requires some reverse engineering if you want to approach a true period sound, which is often not all that palatable to modern ears.


Courtesy of The National Music Museum: Pair of timpani, German states, 18th century. Bowls hammered from sheets of copper. Animal skin heads tucked around iron hoop and tightened by iron tuning rods (six and seven, respectively). Rods received by nuts mounted on decorative iron shields nailed to the bowls. Large internal funnels (schalltrichter) above each vent hole. Three-legged, one-piece, integral stand. Diameters: 61.5 cm  and 63.5 cm  Bowl Depths:  30 cm  and 30 cm

18th Century Kettledrums
Lobkowicz Family Collection

The sizes of modern American timpani now considered “standard” are, 32″, 29″, 26″ and 23/24″ and are usually equipped with Mylartm heads. The standard sizes of modern European timpani are 58cm, 66cm, 74cm, and 81cm and European timpanists generally prefer natural skin heads. If you are using natural skin heads such as calf or goat on modern instruments, it is somewhat easier to emulate the sound of period timpani.

More often than not, controlling the length of your sound as well as the amount of sound you generate will go a long way in defining your HIP interpretation. The color of your sound is important, but the afore-mentioned will do more to emulate a true period sound.

Damping Methods

The amplitude of sound will diminish over time due to resistance. The decay of amplitude over time is called damping. For timpani, there are five possible reasons for energy loss resulting in the damping of the sound emitted from the instrument. 47 48 50

1) radiation of sound

2) mechanical loss in the membrane

3) viscothermal loss in the confined  air [inside of the bowl]

4) mechanical loss in the kettle [bowl] walls

5) mechanical loss in the frame and external parts

For generating a shorter sound envelope, we will focus on number two from above; 2) mechanical loss in the membrane.  The information below can be used as a starting point for emulating various types of period timpani sounds via damping using gel-dampers e.g., Moongel Damper Pads while employing modern instruments with Mylartm heads. Some players prefer to use suede mutes for damping. For more information on how to make and use suede mutes, please visit How To Make Duff-Style Suede Timpani Mutes by Dwight Thomas.

Method I

Place the pitches on the higher two drums e.g. 26″ & 23/24″ and place a gel-damper or some type of mutes in the direct center of the heads. You need to have very clear heads if you still want a pitch component to your sound. The lower range gives the drums a “slack” sound without a lot of high overtones. The damping diminishes a lot of the sustain and produces more of a dry sound (if your heads are clear), yet there is still plenty of pitch to the sound. If a sound comprised of percussive attack transients and drum color only is desired, i.e. a lack of a focused pitch, the drums can be slightly de-tuned at each lug point. It may seem counter-intuitive to de-tune timpani, but a dry, slack and percussive sound without a lot of pitch was purported to be the characteristic sound of very early timpani. A slightly “out-of-tune” head will also create more mechanical loss in the membrane.

Method II

Place the pitches on your center drums (29″ & 26″) and place a gel-damper or some type of damper in the direct center of the head along with suede mutes or split a gel-damper and place it on the edges slightly muting the head right where it touches the bearing edge. Experiment with placement of the side dampers and various lighter weights of hard sticks. Creating and damping via a pseudo backbone on Mylartm works well (see below).

Method III

Place the pitches on the lower drums (32″-29″) and damp in a similar fashion as #2. The higher range on the low drums will give you a little bit less ring and bit drier sound. Again, experiment with placement of a gel-damper or mutes of your choice, and various weights of hard sticks. Using larger drums (damped) works well for larger ensembles when you want to emulate the effect of the early English “Double Drums” or when playing with a large brass compliment where you need volume, but not a lot of sustain to your sound.

The author uses different sizes of clear, circular gel-disc mutes made from basically the same material as Moongel Damper Pads, which he use regularly in the dead center of the head. The gel-discs are slightly thicker than the Moongel Damper Pads. The circular shape damps the higher overtones without sacrificing pitch better than the rectangle shape of the Moongels.

Gel-disc mute

Muting Mylartm Heads with Moongel Damper Pads

MoongelsPseudo Backbone I

When using both split and large Moongel Damper Pads, place them on the drums so that they bisect the drum creating a pseudo backbone placement allowing you to create a playing spot on either the shoulder/hip area or the belly.

PBBellyPseudo Backbone II (belly)

Creating a pseudo backbone and playing on the belly of the backbone plane projects the pitch of the principal tone yet limits some of the higher overtones and slightly cuts down the resonance and sustain of the head. Good for Classical period sound.

ShoulderPseudo Backbone III (shoulder/hip)

Creating a pseudo backbone and playing on the shoulder/hip of the backbone plane helps project the pitch of the principal tone yet limits some of the higher overtones and cuts down the resonance and sustain emulating an earlier period sound. Good for Baroque period sound.

Stick Choices

The stick choices for use in HIP interpretation on modern instruments is as important as the choice of drums you use, and how you alter the sound of the drum. Stick choices should include an array of sticks of different weights and shaft length, with wood, chamois leather, hard felt or hard flannel heads. The length of the shaft and the weight/size of the head will influence the overall weight of the mallet.  The weight of the stick will influence the voice of the instrument by having a direct effect on the actual amount of sound you generate from the drum. The covering will influence the color of the sound you create. Many times using heavy, ornate “table leg” replicas on modern instruments generates way too much sound due to the weight of the stick. On the original instruments, the heavier mallet were necessary in order to get enough sound out of the instrument.

Contrary to the modern concept of a large voiced, pitch-centered and sustained timpani sound, period instruments were purported to have a much smaller voice with a rather thin, transparent, dry “dull” sound with a very short envelope. This was due to the thick heads, shallow depth, and small diameter of the bowl with no significant collar.  This made the sound envelope much shorter and the articulation of the sound more apparent, which is a hallmark of much period music.  Paying close attention to the relative weight of the stick helps to prevent the larger sizes of modern instruments from creating a boomy or muddy sound, which is not a characteristic of period instruments and the music itself.

Gallery of Mallets by B-Mallets






To reiterate, first and foremost, the player needs to have a clear mental/aural concept of the sound that they want to create; then adjust the instruments, sticks, technique, and their interpretation to fit the acoustics of the environment and the stylistic approach of the conductor in order to realize that sound. Again, there is no prescriptive solution, only creativity, imagination, experimentation, and artistry.

For historic wood stick replicas, please visit the site of Wolfgang Gaisböck.