Timpani (and Percussion) FAQ - Musician Pages


These pages are designed for non-percussionist musicians (ex., composers or conductors) who are interested in timpani.



(DAT) Timpani Writing 101 - Problemo Numero Uno
RANGES!! - Stay out of the basement!!

Over the years, I have noticed a fairly consistent tendency in timpani writing that can cause real problems for the player and is easily remedied with a little education.

First, a standard set of orchestral timpani is a set of 4, sizes:


The range of pitches available to each respective drum overlap, the total effective range of the entire standard set is usually:
D to bb

give or take a semitone on either end...

The approximate range of each drum (assume the highest quality Dresden-type instruments) is:

D-A, Eb-G#Bb-F#, C#-F

D-A, Eb-G#Bb-F#, C#-F

As you will notice on each graphic, there is a red bracket around a portion of the total range, this indicates the extent of the BEST notes in the range for that drum. These ranges can vary a fair amount depending upon the manufacturer and the design of the instruments, and more importantly with the quality of the instrument. The lower the quality, the smaller the effective range. There is a great difference in volume, length of note, stability of pitch, and other qualitative factors between those notes in the best range and those on the edges of the effective range, especially on the LOW side, primarily due to a lack of overall head tension. Also, many drums commonly in use, such as Ludwig or Yamaha instruments with spring-type pedals, have a finite lower limit that can only be changed by adjustment of the lug screws that change the head tension.

This means that the composer is effectively limited as to the number of notes available at any one time by the relative ranges of the drum. A tuning such as:

Eb F Gb Ab

would be nearly impossible in a fast tempo on a standard set without recourse to the pedals, because the Ab is way out of the range of the 23" drum, and the Gb is out of the range of the 26" drum.

In order to play these notes in rapid succession, the player has two options, use of the pedal on the lower 2 drums, or use of extra large drums in addition to the standard set of four.

I list the low D as the lowest note in the range of the largest 31" drum, but it is outside the effective range. What options are available when this note (or indeed the Eb) is called for? First, you can purchase a rare special large drum, such as the 33" drum I personally own. Outside of specialized solo and chamber music literature, timpani repertoire rarely strays below the cello's low C. Mahler symphonies are a hotbed of these low notes, for example. The 33" drum fills in this lowest range, but most players and/or institutions do not own or have access to such instruments. The second option is to transpose the offending low notes up an octave into the more effective ranges of the smaller drums. The third and least desirable option is to play these low notes as written using the available standard instruments, which usually does not give a satisfactory result.

Pops and commercial arrangements are a prime area where this misunderstanding of effective ranges persists, often the writing is full of these problematic low notes in loud solo passages, where their qualitative shortcomings suffer the greatest exposure. In these situations the "octave up" second option is often the best choice for the average timpanist.

Our composer-in-residence at the Omaha Symphony, Matthew Naughtin, gave his kind permission for me to quote both versions of a timpani solo he wrote in a piece called Mario! Jump!, a delightful work based on music from Nintendo games, to illustrate how these problems can be addressed. The first version of the solo was:

example 1 example 1

This version has two very bad low notes, the C on the 23" and the A on the 26". The tempo was allegro, far too fast to effectively pedal the notes. So, when faced with this passage I had two alternatives, either get out the extra drums (I have access to 10 high quality instruments including the aforementioned 33" drum); or talk to Matt, explain the situation, and rewrite the passage. After some discussion of various alternatives, the final version of the solo became:

example 1

This version has all the notes well-placed in the upper part of the range of each drum, solves a sticking problem (outside the scope of this discussion), and sounds brilliant.

All the opinions expressed above are only those of their respective authors.


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