How to Tune Timpani

I am often surprised to learn that many people and not only non musicians do not know that the timpani are tuned instruments. The four drum set of timpani has a range of almost two octaves from low C on the big 32” up to a high A on the smallest (23”) drum of the set. And, with the ability to change notes quickly with use of the pedal mechanism found on modern timpani complex melodies are possible to be played.

Want to Get Great at Timpani Tuning? Better Start Ear Training

When I was in university my worst subject and least favorite subject in music school was Ear Training. Ear Training is the study of how to recognize intervals, take musical dictation, and to sight sing complex musical passages without any instrumental accompaniment.

I was terrible at it and struggled through my degree program to be able to pass the required courses. But, I recognized later in life as a professional timpanist that these ear training classes that I had so much trouble with ended up being just about the most important thing besides my percussion lessons for me to have studied.

The ability to play in tune on the timpani is extremely important

The timpani play in the lowest register of the ensemble and often the loudest, so the rest of the group of musicians with whom you are playing rely on your pitch to set their own. The sound of the orchestra or band is dramatically affected depending upon the ability of the timpanist to play in tune or not

Timpani Tuning Starts With the Drum on its Lowest Note

Before tuning a drum make sure the pedal is at its lowest point with the heal of the pedal all the way down. This is an important first step because to tune accurately its best to tighten the drum head to the desired pitch rather than to loosen it.
Sing the note that you want to tune on to the drum

To tune timpani the timpanist needs to be able to first get the desired pitch in their ear. For example, if you want to tune your 26” drum to a D you must first be able to know what a D sounds like. Go to the piano or marimba and play a D. Listen carefully and then try to sing the pitch. Listen again to the piano’s D to double check you singing of the note.

Strike the drum one time and raise the pitch quickly so you won’t lose the note
Now, strike the timpano’s playing spot one time and slowly push down on the toe of the pedal. You will hear the pitch rise like a slide whistle and when you hear the pitch that you sang stop the pedal. You can test the pitch by playing the piano again to see if the pitches match.

It’s important when you strike the drum to only strike it one time and more the pedal while you can hear the pitch rise. If you strike the drum more than once you’re liable to forget the pitch that you are intending to tune to.

Want a fun Timpani tuning party trick?

Here is a fun trick for tuning and can be entertaining at swanky cocktail parties where there happen to be a set of timpani around. After you’ve tuned the drum to the desired note, lean over the drum with your face very close to the surface.

Sing the note into the drum head and you’ll hear the pitch resonate back at you from the drum. Don’t really take your drums to parties because you probably won’t get invited back again, but singing into the drum is a good way to check that your pitch is accurate.

In fact if you sing a note other than the one you put on the drum you won’t hear the drum resonate.

Learn to tune as quietly as possible

When you are alone in your practice room you really don’t have to worry about how loudly you tune, but if you don’t practice tuning quietly it will be difficult to do so when you have to tune on stage during a concert. If you tune loudly you’ll disturb the music and other musicians around you.

Watch this short video about Timpani Tuning

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Comments

  1. This site was… how do I say it? Relevant!!
    Finally I have found something which helped me.

    Thank you!

  2. Very great points that solved the most problems I encountered with the timpani since I learn by myself in playing with BC Chinese Orchestra. Main thing now is that I need more practice on ear training, my weakest part.

    Super thanks again 🙂

    • I’m glad the lesson on tuning was helpful. Keep working on your ear training because its really the second most important thing that a timpanist can practice after learning how to make a nice sound on the drum. Being in tune is everything when it comes to playing the timpani.
      If you haven’t already done so take a look at my lesson on tuning with piano chords that I think will be of some help.
      Keep on drumming!

  3. My issues come with tuning the lowest notes on my 32 and the highest on my 23. I can’t sing either due to my limited vocal range and the 23 doesn’t ring as much when it’s tightened. Any tips?

    • Garrett,
      Thanks for your question which is representative of a very common problem with beginning timpanists. I realize that you are not female, but women often have trouble hearing the low register notes of the timpani and the same goes for younger people who are more used to hearing things in the upper registers. The best thing to do about this is to practice your ear training by doing exercises to help you to recognize pitches which are an octave below or above what you can sing. Then you have to transpose those pitches into your range. At the piano play an A for instance an octave below where you can sing, but sing the A in your octave to match the pitch. After a while you’ll get better and better at it.
      The 23″ that doesn’t ring is another problem that can be fixed with a little more practice tuning quickly. Strike the drum one time and glissando the pitch quickly so that you can still hear the note. Don’t hit the drum more than once per gliss; otherwise you’ll confuse your ear.
      Hope this helps, but remember that your issues are commonly fixed by just a little more practice.

  4. Hello Andrew! I’m beginner, playing at church orchestra (new timpanis), trying my best. My 26″ bowl makes sound like metal bucket. What I need to do? Thanks.

    • Sorry you’re having trouble with your 26″ timpano, but I’ll need more specific information I think to be able to help you.
      Make sure that the head is in the right range for the drum. The 26″ drum’s range should go from Bb to F or slightly higher. You also have to make sure that the head is cleared and you can find a head clearing video on http://www.freepercussionlessons.com that should be of help.
      If the head is in the right range and cleared and still sounds bad make sure that all nuts and bolts are tightened on the drum.
      Let me know if this has been helpful or send me a video so that I can more assess the problem.

  5. I just started band this year and my teacher picked me to do the timpani for one of the songs in our concert. The only thing is that song goes second and the first song doesn’t use the timpani. That means I have to basically sprint over and have everyone stare at me while I tune the timpani. It gets very hard because the marimba is on the other side of the band room and the percussionist can’t figure out what notes I need. Is there a way for me to tune it by just looking at the gauge?? The Timpani we have doesn’t have the little dots with the letters on the gauge so its just blank…

    • Thanks for your question. Ideally, timpanists can tune their drums using a tuning fork. I use a tuning fork pitched to “A” and then using that note as a reference I can figure out by singing the appropriate interval and find the note I’m looking for. For example, If I need to tune to C and G, I listen to the A and either sing down a major 2nd to the G or up a minor 3rd to find the C. Once I have the C or G I sing the perfect 4th between the two notes to find the other pitch. When I say “sing” I mean that I do it very quietly so that only I can hear myself.
      But, the above technique takes a lot of practice and I couldn’t do it when I was in high school either. Doesn’t mean you can’t, but it does take time to master.
      So, you have to use gauges to get close to the pitch, but if your gauges are missing the note name then you need to add them by using a piece of masking tape and a pen. I’m assuming that the indicator needle is still working on your gauge so simply place a piece of tape where the indicators would be and then using a pitch source tune the drum. Then, mark a line adjacent to the indicating arrow and write what note the drum is tuned to. When you are done you should have an F, G, A, B, C on your 29″ drum and a B, C, D, E and F on the 26″ drum. If you need to tune to a flat note or a sharp note you can estimate by putting the gauge arrow between two note markings.
      Even though you have gauges to find the notes you still need to practice your intervals to make sure you are in tune. No matter how good your gauges are you still need to fine tune by ear.
      Hope that helps.

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