Strings and Air Columns: “The Competition”
Before exploring the complex nature of what constitutes timpani pitch, it will prove helpful to first explore what timpani pitch isn’t. This may seem somewhat paradoxical, but timpani exist in the palette of orchestral color where the majority of pitched instruments generate sound based upon the harmonic series. An understanding of how the harmonic series applies to these instruments and how it doesn’t apply to timpani will bring to light why the careful tempering of timpani is paramount for any timpanist to master.
A thorough discussion of the acoustics of music is beyond the scope of this book. This chapter will provide a brief overview of the fundamentals of the acoustics of music and how it applies to the standard grouping of orchestral/band instruments with which timpani are generally scored. I refer this complement of instruments as The Competition since they vibrate and generate pitch in a similar fashion, and blend well together naturally. Timpani generate pitch in a completely different manner. Within the rich structure of the sound of timpani, there are but a handful of near or quasi-harmonic partials called the preferred modes of vibration. These preferred modes must fit into the mix of natural harmonic partials generated by the other instruments. Timpani pitch, in a sense, has to compete with these instruments if it:
1) wants to sound in tune
2) wants to be able to blend and mix well with the ensemble
It is much easier to make beautiful music when one’s sound is in tune and blends with his or her neighbor’s. This holds true for any type of musical ensemble, regardless of whether your function is as a specific solo color, textural or supporting in nature. It is no wonder why the great timpani masters all talk of blending in with the other instruments. It is not often that the masters speak of wanting their sound to be overt in the texture.