timpani nomenclatura

Hello, any timpani players around?
How would I correctly assign a label to a pair of timpani in classical or baroque music?
Example: I have timpani in d and A (the music is in D-Major…)
Notation: c and G (in bass clef) without key signature.
a) Timpani in D-A
b) Timpani in A-D
c) Timpani in D

What would be the right way to label the instrument?

My understanding is that it should be Timpani in D-A, or Timpani in D,A. Either way is considered acceptable. The key is always to list the lower pitched drum first, regardless of what that pitch is. Thus three drums in F, B, and F with the first an octave lower than the third one, would be listed in the shown order, and the performer would assume the meaning without further explanation.

L3B thank you for your reply.
If the lower pitched instrument should be listed first, then it would have to be
Timpani in A-D
which looks strange to my eyes.
How are timpani set up, if one has a pair of them?

Ok, I googled a little bit :wink:

I’m not a timpanist, but an educator and composer. My experience is that timpani are usually set up from the player’s perspective with lowest to highest (largest to smallest) in a clockwise direction. Left - low, right - high, etc. I think for clarity you should definitely list the lowest first, in your example D - A as L3B stated. Ultimately, the player can garner this info from the notes themselves. Since you mentioned classical - attached is showing what Beethoven wrote at the beginning of his 7th Symphony.

I agree with musicmaven about the physical placement of timpani. I’ve never know a timpanist who set them up any other way. Always large to small, clockwise.

…irrelevant post coming up…
I wrote a quartet for timpani and fire extinguishers.
Four timps in a circle, four players. Each played two timps, sharing both with the player on either side.
Fire extinguishers were racked up behind the players.
A good noise!

[off topic] A viola player is sick of all the silly jokes on his instrument. He decides to change to something more fancy. So he walks into a music shop and asks to buy the white upright piano and the red saxophone. The sales assistant goes to a back room. After having returned she tells the viola player „I have checked with the boss, we can sell you the fire extinguisher - but the heating radiator has to stay on the wall.“

It depends, where you live. The american way of setting up the timpani is from low to high as on a pianoforte. The german way is exactly the other way round - probably to have the stronger right hand handle the bigger instruments…

I now checked some Mozart symphonies in manuscript and early prints.
As an example piece in D major: in the Haffner-Sinfonie Mozart labels Corni and Clarini „in D“ and leaves the Tympani right underneath unlabelled (as the tuning is unambiguous by the context).
In the printed edition (Breitkopf 1880) the Timpani are labelled „in D.A.“, showing the lower timpano as second. As it was probably also located to the right…

musicmaven, a slight misunderstanding…
my example is d and A
d being the higher note
A being a fourth lower

May be I am wrong with the octave but I have known the way to identify pitches and octaves CDEFGA… cdefga… c’d’e’f’g’a’… c’‘d’’ and so on.

Ah… thanks and sorry for the misunderstanding. I am a piano tuner, and am used to C4 for middle C, and so on. Of course there are numerous ways to indicate the octave of a note, with middle C being either C3, C4, or C5. And in the world of MIDI it is note 60. I’ve seen this system with lower case letters and such.

Regarding your second example - I am speculating that D is listed first because it is the tonic of the piece, while A is 2nd because it is the dominant. I’m just guessing here, but that is what my “gut” is telling me.

musicmaven, this makes perfect sense, agreed.

I am a timpanist, and off the top of my head, “Timpani in D, A” looks right to me. In terms of the arrangement of the drums, lots of people do it both ways…

Classical practice may not be very useful. In Beethoven’s time the lowest timp was F and the highest f, so these were the only pitches where there might have been ambiguity. Therefore D, A or C, G would have to indicate a fourth, and Beethoven’s use of F, f in the 8th and 9th symphonies was ground-breaking. Somebody may prove me wrong, but I think the use of the high f drum in Symphony 8 was a first, so that indicating F, C in the first movement was understood by all to represent a fifth. I think it was Mahler who pioneered the pitches down to low D and Stravinsky who came up with the high B-flat timp (Le sacre du printemps); but I am not at home and writing from memory, so open to correction! (However, I do know for certain that Stravinsky originally specified the low D timp in Le sacre (Évocation des ancêtres and Danse sacrale), but abandoned them in one of his revisions.)

This history reflects the tuning limitations of calf-skin drum heads. Modern plastic heads are another matter.


Addition: I forgot about the Scherzo of Beethoven 7, which has F, A in the old Breitkopf score, indicating that the higher timp is listed first.

I was asking about classical and baroque habits, as that is what I am copying out.
A lot has happened after Mozart, of course :wink:

Timpanist here (German, using low-pitched instruments on the right).

Looking through a lot of sheet music shows me that usually, baroque/classical music shows the timpani in descending pitch order (D, A for d/A (D major) or D, G for d/G (G major) etc.). This tradition continues mostly into the romantic and modern era, but gets a lot more flexible - mostly because timpani can (and will) be tuned to different pitches during the piece anyway, so there is no sense in adding the pitch to the instrument name.

For example, in Balakirev’s “Russia”, the initial pitches are denoted as “B, F, D, A”, meaning d, B flat, A, F - so they are grouped by musical characteristics, not by pitch. Smetana’s “Vltava” shows timpani in “E, H” (e, B natural) with a retuning to “A, D” (d, A) coming up. Seems to be pretty arbitrary.

Do yourself a favor, don’t add the pitches to the instrument name. Timpanists will appreciate it if you indicate the first pitch setup (so they know how many timpani they’ll need and how to setup before the start of the piece), and they will love you if you indicate which timpani should be retuned at which time. But if you don’t, they’ll figure it out themselves. Give us something to do besides counting rests (84, 2, 3, 4, 85, 2, 3, 4,…) :slight_smile:

So David, listing F first then A tends to buttress the idea of Tonic (F) first regardless of which timpano is higher. By the way, it’s really great that timpanists are responding to this thread. I love all this information! It’s like an unknown world that most of us don’t know about being opened up. Thanks to all!!!

I have talked to a timpanist today and he says one theory with having the small timpano on the left comes from having them on horses. Makes it easier to enter the horseback for the drummer.

I know, this is also the reason, why traffic on roads started on the left (as a soldier on a horses back could pass to the left and hold a sword with his stronger right hand, in that way being able to protect himself)

You may be right. But the case of the Scherzo of the Seventh Symphony is unique, and I am pretty sure the first use of a high F timp. In other cases in Beethoven, First Symphony C G, Second Symphony D A, Eroica E-flat B-flat, Fourth Symphony B-flat F, Seventh Symphony A E, there is no ambiguity: before the Seventh Symphony, the timp range went from low F to the E above, so it was clear which pitch was intended. The first movement of he Seventh Symphony is the odd man out with the lower timp specified first, which would agree with your theory. Unless I have missed one by Haydn, it is, by the way, the first symphony in A major to have timpani and trumpets – who have to be in D, because there was no A trumpet.

Then there is the curious case of the beginning of the second act of Fidelio, where the timps are E-flat A. The piece is basically in F minor, in itself unusual, and the timps are used when there are diminished chords.

Sorry if this doesnt help!