In Search of the Missing Fundamental: by Richard K. Jones
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Timpani “Harmonicity”

No matter how you slice it, the only way to get a timpano head in tune is to adjust the tension rods around the circumference of the drum. Long gone are the days when the only method a player had for changing pitches on a drum was to adjust tension rods manually. With the advent of the machine drum in the middle of the 19th century, as well as demands by composers for more pitches, changing the pitch of a drum now means using some sort of mechanical assist to make the pitch go higher or lower, not adjusting the tension rods manually to acquire a pitch. Because of these changes, emphasis on the art of tempering timpani has perhaps fallen by the wayside.

The art may have also diminished in part due to the fact that the use of hand-tuned timpani virtually disappeared in the modern orchestra in the mid to later part of the 20th century not only because of the demands placed on the timpanist by composers, but also because of the introduction and consequent widespread use of Mylar or synthetic heads. Synthetic heads, being impervious to the fluctuations of the humidity content in the air don’t need the constant attention, as do natural skin heads. However, natural skins are still in wide use today by many world-class players because of their preferred tonal qualities (some on hand-tuned period instruments), but most modern professional quality instruments are equipped with a fine-tuning mechanism to compensate for changes in the tension of the head due to the changes in environmental conditions.

This does not mean that the job of timpanist using natural skins is any easier, as the chasing of pitch is no easy maneuver, it just means that he/she only needs to turn one master-tuner rod instead of numerous tension rods to make fine adjustments as was the case with natural skins on hand-tuned drums. Chasing pitch is also a phenomenon experienced by those using synthetic heads, but not to the degree as those who use natural skins. Master-tuners or fine-tuners have been standard on most quality machine drums manufactured since the middle of the 19th century. Once the head has been tensioned via the rods, gross motion is done via a pedal and fine-tuning via a single screw.

The users of hand-tuned instruments have the challenge of manipulating fine and gross pitch changes via the tension rods only. An advantage of tuning each lug manually is that the individual tuning lugs can be adjusted to the proper tension to compensate for any changes in air density. This is real-time tempering and it is becoming a dying art. The fact that this may not always be practical in today’s modern orchestra (due to the demands of the music) has relegated the use of hand-tuned timpani mostly to specific period works. Multiple sets of timpani on stage which might include hand tuned drums for specific period literature is becoming more common, but due to the lack of equipment, many players never fully develop the rudimentary skills of manipulating the pitch of the drum via the tension rods only. Adjusting the tension rods may happen only when the head is mounted and little else after that. Some players believe that once the head has been mounted, you leave it alone and the drum will take care of clearing itself. Sometimes younger players (students in particular) never experience it at all due to the rigorous demands placed on them by academic institutions or due to the varied programming of the contemporary orchestra. Some are simply afraid to “mess with it” because they don’t fully understand “how it works” and would rather focus more on the technical aspects of timpani playing than incorporating routine tempering into their practice discipline.

The simple fact of the matter is that if you don’t routinely do it, you will never develop the aural skills needed for tempering timpani heads. The art of tempering timpani is an ongoing process and is a skill that needs to be practiced just as much as does playing technique. The initial stages of tempering are the most difficult, but there are number of tools to assist you in the process. Whether or not you embrace or advocate the use of technology for tempering timpani, it is a means to an end and it can help you fine-tune your timpani and you own aural skills as well. In the end, your ear will be the final judge no matter what road you take.

What makes tempering difficult for many players, young players especially? When resolving sounds as having a pitch, the human auditory system responds best to spectra that are comprised of multiple partials of a harmonic series (see Chapter 4). At best, when a timpano is completely tempered or cleared, it has only a few near harmonic partials and many non-harmonic (inharmonic) partials in its spectrum. The objective is to isolate and project a small group of these partials (preferred modes…see Chapter 3) and coax them into harmonicity via the adjustment of the tension rods.

The processing center of the human auditory system tends to dismiss spectra weak in harmonic partials as noise and in the initial stages of tempering a timpano, the majority of the spectrum is non-harmonic partials. Upon repeated and incessant hearings, the mind tends to memorize these patterns, register and then remember them as being noise and not pitch. This fatigues the ear/mind and causes confusion as to what is in-tune and what is out-of-tune or as what sounds good or what sounds bad. It is often recommended that you temper timpani in ten of fifteen minute increments and then give your ears (and your mind) a break. Training your ear what not to listen for is as important as what to listen for with respect to the content of the spectrum.

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