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#1147096 - 01/31/09 07:12 PM How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
Joined: Oct 2008
Posts: 625
xxmynameisjohnxx Offline
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xxmynameisjohnxx  Offline
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San Diego
Hey, another question for the orchestra stuff I'm playing around with right now...how fast can a timpani be retuned? Right now I'm just writing with four pitches, G, A, C, and D in the key of Gm because I read that you can assume there to be four timpani in a regular orchestra. But, how fast can one be retuned? Later in the piece I'm planning to modulate to Bb and I would obviously need different pitches to be able to cover the basic chords...how much time would I need to allow the timpani to be out in order to retune?


Chopin: Nocturne No. 15 in Fm. Op. 55 no.1.
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#1147097 - 01/31/09 11:37 PM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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8ude Offline
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8ude  Offline
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I'm no expert on writing for percussion, but my general rule of thumb on this is to allow about 10 seconds per drum that needs to be re-tuned. I'd bet it could be done quicker, but the less time you allow, the more margin of error there might be in the resulting tuning. Also keep in mind that retunings require the timpanist to very lightly play the drum to establish the tuning, so try to avoid a retuning during pianissimo sections.


What you are is an accident of birth. What I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been a thousand princes and there will be a thousand more. There is one Beethoven.
#1147098 - 02/01/09 12:13 AM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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xxmynameisjohnxx Offline
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xxmynameisjohnxx  Offline
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Okay, thanks for the info! I'm just learning to write for percussion, I'll make sure I give somewhere around 10 seconds for a retune. I'm just trying to figure out percussion, it's fun.


Chopin: Nocturne No. 15 in Fm. Op. 55 no.1.
#1147099 - 02/01/09 05:17 AM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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Tar Offline
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Tar  Offline
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The timpanist pre-tunes the timps and put pitch indicators for all required pitches in proper places before the performance begin. Then, when retuning is needed they simply moves the pedal to the marked position (which literally takes 1 second), and if you're in a concert hall (so no drastic fluctuation in temperature), usually the pitches stays where you've marked them to be at the pre-tuning.

I being an untrained percussionist have thrice played the timps in a pit band at an outdoor theatre. Because of fluctuation in temperature during the performance (it would be around 25C when we started and as low as 6C towards the end of Act I) everything went a semitone out, and retuning before the next number was difficult it was during a quiet dialogue and I don't have perfect pitch (see below). So my experience is that if - after pretuning - you're out, and there isn't a lot of time (e.g. below 10 seconds) there's not much you can do!

The timpanist doesn't necessarily have to hit the timps to be able to confirm the tuning. If the timps are tuned correctly and the other instruments are playing the tuned notes, the timps will naturally resonate (much more strongly than the background vibration when other notes are played), and again this takes around one or two seconds to realise. If your timpanist has perfect pitch, they could just hum the note and the timp would characteristically sing it back to you if it was rightly tuned.

So the conclusion is that provided that all goes well and that timps are pre-tuned then timps can be "retuned" fairly swiftly in order of 3 seconds after the ring of the last note dies (not after hitting the last note). Having said that though, 3 seconds is a heck of a long time for a Presto piece and hardly anything for a Larghetto piece to get information from other instruments, so maybe thinking of bars might work better.

That said, it's ideal to minimise the amount of retuning during performance needed. Sometimes the orchestra plays - say - one G major chord before returning to the home key of F and your timps are tuned to C and F. Depending on the musical context you can either (a) omit the timp beat there to preserve the harmonic purity, (b) use C or F to create harmonic interest, or (c) treat the timp as an indefinite-pitch percussion instrument (basically a "bass drum") and still use either C or F! Case (c) works surprisingly well if your piece is rhythmic and loud and doesn't sustain long chords.


Tar Viturawong
Amateur composer and pianist
Known on YouTube as pianoinspiration
verbis defectis musica incipit
#1147100 - 02/01/09 11:46 PM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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xxmynameisjohnxx Offline
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xxmynameisjohnxx  Offline
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San Diego
Thanks for the advice tar, it really helped. I've never used a timpani so I had no idea how they worked. Now I've got a much better idea.
And, I was thinking of using option C...but the piece is a slower [60 bpm's atm] and I really like the sound of the timps adding to the harmony. I'll try to plan probably ~5 seconds for each timp needing a retune.


Chopin: Nocturne No. 15 in Fm. Op. 55 no.1.
#1147101 - 02/02/09 07:16 AM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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RogerW Offline
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RogerW  Offline
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Tar is correct, no more than one second is needed when the pitch indicator is in place. It is also a bit faster to tune them upwards than down. The pedal system functions so that to raise the pitch you press the pedal down and to lower the pitch you only release the locking mechanism of the pedal and it raises by itself (pedal raises upwards, pitch goes down). Timpanists usually want to tune by pressing the pedals, it is more accurate this way. So when tuning to a lower pitch, they release the pedal and let the pitch fall below the desired pitch, then they approach the correct pitch from below by pressing the pedal.

If you plan on using four timpanis, it's also good to know he ranges of the four timpanis:
[Linked Image]
(these migh vary slightly between different orchestras)

When using four timpanis, you usually have the four lowest of these, not the 20 inch. Also, below F the 32 inch timpani gets very muddy and the pitch hard to recognize. If you want for example Eb emphasizing the bass note, it's better to take it one octave higher on the 26 or 23 inch timpani, than to use the low Eb on the 32.

#1147102 - 02/02/09 07:59 PM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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xxmynameisjohnxx Offline
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xxmynameisjohnxx  Offline
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Joined: Oct 2008
Posts: 625
San Diego
Thanks for the ranges, I definitely was playing all in the 32in and 29in range for all four parts, :p . Thanks!!


Chopin: Nocturne No. 15 in Fm. Op. 55 no.1.
#1147103 - 02/03/09 03:24 AM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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Tar Offline
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Tar  Offline
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One more thing. I've played in a few amateur orchestras and they mostly have two timps, three max. To me, four timpani are hard to come by and a bit of a luxury!

I noticed from your first post that you want the timps pre-tuned to G A C D. As I understand that C act as the subdominant and D as the dominant (hence you can cover the basic I, IV, and V), presumably A acts as a secondary dominant? In a lot of cases the tonic (i.e. G) will cover fine for the subdominant, and you can replace - in appropriate contexts - C with G. Similarly, in appropriate contexts A may be dispensible and replaced by D. I suggest that you look into how relatively more ancient writing for timpani was done at the time when timps were fixedly tuned and pedal-less (I'm thinking Baroque music here) - most of these pieces would simply have the timps tune to I and V, and they cope fine for a surprisingly large variety of harmony than simple I and V.

There can be reasons to use more than two timps, such as multiple notes are needed at the same time, in quick succession, or the timp was playing a sort of melody, or doing an alberti-bass style accompaniment (see Fanfare for the Common Man [3 timps], also see O Fortuna from Carmina Burana [5 timps], and also see an arrangement of My Way for timpani [8 timps]).

In practical terms, if you can trim down the number of timps, it makes (a) the timpanist, (b) the orchestral manager who needs to book the timpani, and (c) the whole percussion section [plus a couple of violists*] who need to then move them before and after the concert, all happy. I can say this because I've done all three!! The consequence of this is that more orchestras will be willing to play your piece.

*sorry, can't resist it wink


Tar Viturawong
Amateur composer and pianist
Known on YouTube as pianoinspiration
verbis defectis musica incipit
#1147104 - 02/03/09 11:54 AM Re: How fast can a timpani be retuned?  
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Posts: 625
xxmynameisjohnxx Offline
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xxmynameisjohnxx  Offline
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Joined: Oct 2008
Posts: 625
San Diego
Well, the tunings funtion as dominant, subdominant, ii and i, but also having the a and the g give me some more melodic timpani content as well. And I'll see what I can do to remove one of my timps to make it more feasible if a real orchestra is ever to do it. Right now the piece is no where near good enough for a real orchestra, or even me recording all the parts on my keyboard. :p .


Chopin: Nocturne No. 15 in Fm. Op. 55 no.1.

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