(Tip no. 60 from 100 MORE Orchestration Tips, to be released in 2018)
The range of timpani pitches has an emotional arc.
In Tip 53 of my previous book 100 Orchestration Tips, titled “Timpani Tuning Shortcuts,” I provided a quick and easy way to check the range of possible pitches using the standard four timpani kettles, as well as a chord that represented pitches along the perfect median range. These chords are illustrated below for your reference; a B-flat 6/3 octave chord to an F 6/3 octave chord, plus the median range chord of a root F# minor/major 7th. Or simply view the original video presentation of this tip, which I’ve embedded at the bottom of this page for your convenience.
Those are the basics: now let’s deal with the subtleties that can bring a score the air of mastery, not just utility. Often, a composer will just pick whatever pitches are available from their choice of four kettles, perhaps defaulting toward the median wherever feasible for the roundest, most characteristic sound. While those median tones are ideally beautiful, one can make an argument that they’re not always the best way to tune a set of timpani.
Timpani pitches have a certain emotional range, even on median pitches. Higher pitches will appear to be more urgent and stressed, while lower pitches may feel more relaxed, and of course more profound. Developing composers often ignore the potential of rolling or striking on a higher pitch, scoring an octave lower for the sheer magnitude of the effect as a default. While lower pitches certainly feel grandly cinematic, they sometimes don’t fit the emotion of a passage as well as a higher pitch.
There’s a further and more refined approach as well. Every kettle will sound more stressed or more relaxed depending on the tightness of its setting. A composer can actually control this effect directly by indicating pitches that are generally higher or lower across the full range of the kettles. So the same general pitch set can be tuned in completely different ways to emphasise these different emotional colours. Of course, there should always be an awareness that these low- or high-focused settings come at a price: exclusive very low tunings will lack the colour and springiness of median pitches, while outright very high tunings will ring quite a bit tinnier. Some timpanists may strongly resist the latter unless the musical context is well justified.
The final point of craft here is directional. The composer can push the music in an emotional direction simply by leading up or down from one pitch to the next. The most typical example is a V-I cadence, for which the timpani were virtually invented in the first place; but within certain tighter or slacker tunings, the destination note can have all the more emotional impact. Of course, often the composer must take whatever pitches are available out of an octave and a fifth of range. But with some knowledge and foresight, expressive potential can be built right into a tuning scheme, including all approaches to tuning. Consider some of this timbral world-building in your own scoring.