Chromatic Timpani

How do you handle this? I write music that is very chromatic. I can’t expect an orchestra to have six or more kettledrums on hand; but if I build up to a big sequence with a timpani roll, I can’t let the timpani drop out afterwards.

Example: Am, G-, Bm, Bb-, Dm, A-, E, Am. If the timpani played on each of those chord hits, six drums would need to be ready: E, A, G, B, Bb, D. (The G- could use the Bb drum, but that would still mean five pitches.)

What do you do?

You can approach this from several different angles. There are many pieces that require 2 timpanists, each with 3 drums, sometimes more.

If that’s not in their budget, the Baroque and Classical way was to write any note that’s part of the triad. (Timpani voicing was not so clear as it is today, so it didn’t make much difference.) The Scherzo of Beethoven’s 9th is a famous example, nothing but octave F’s.

Another approach (which I think I recommend most) is reserve your timp rolls for the most intense part of the crescendo. Long drumrolls (Sibelius, Nielsen, Bruckner come to mind) are very tiring on the ear anyway. The drums affect the texture powerfully, so a little goes a long way.

(BTW, by “-” do you mean minor or something else?)

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Another thing the classical era composers did was treat the timpani and bass drum as partners - when the timpani didn’t have the note, the bass drum would. Especially in a big tutti the pitch of the drum is going to mostly disappear unless it’s something super clashy.


Excellent replies. Thank you. (By G-, I meant Gdim as in G, Bb, Db). Sorry–I’m used to working in studios where we scribbled sloppy charts on Whataburger sacks. :slight_smile:

Yet another famous example (Bach, B-Minor Mass, Dona Nobis Pacem): Through expectation and late entry, Bach makes the listener believe to hear the timpani playing an upwards scale (the theme) - despite just using two notes.


Excellent. Thank you.

You would be surprised at what we can do on timpani. I recommend find a local timpanist in your area and paying them a few bucks to show you some of the idiomatic things we can do to handle chromatic passages, etc. Scales and quick pitch changes really aren’t much of an issue so long as the intervals are small when sliding up/down between notes on a single drum. For large jumps, it might take a bit longer to tune…but these are still quick changes.


Excellent idea! I know the Fort Worth Symphony people well and have hired some of them for various things (like score review or harp advice). I will be at a Symphony event tonight and will try to make a connection with the timpanist.

Quick update. I was at the Fort Worth Symphony concert and after party/dinner last night and spoke with the timpanist. He is nice gentleman and offered to take a look at the section of the score in question.

FYI, a lot of these musicians are kind people who are willing to help, but I always pay a consulting fee because it’s the right thing to do.