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I understand that timpani normally have a tuning mechanism, usually involving a pedal that controls the tension on the drum surface, which allows the timpanist to play a range of melodies. However, it is not clear to me from the Wikipedia article whether this range of notes is continuous, or whether there are 'gaps' with notes that are not accessible inside the range for each size of drum. Additionally, it's not clear whether such tuning mechanisms are used throughout the performance to change the note played by the drum, or whether they're fixed at the start and function as single-note drums throughout each piece. How versatile, in practice, are these instruments, in this sense?

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I used to often wonder this myself. You can imagine how amazed I was when I heard (live) a professional timpani player play a melody with a timpani drum! He was that good with the pedal. –  SuperMusicman Nov 16 '13 at 1:00
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Tuning modern orchestral timpani is continuous. You can tune to any frequency. Also, in some compositions, the timpanist is required to re-tune the drums to different pitches while the orchestra is playing around them. Learning to do this, very quietly, while the orchestra is playing around you, is a skill required of professional timpanists.

This YouTube video is part of a series that explains tuning the timpani while playing.

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OK. But you wouldn't use the tuning pedal on each drum while playing, then. –  episanty Nov 15 '13 at 18:50
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Not unless the score asks for a portamento, or change in pitch. You can set the pedal at a certain pitch, where it stays, then strike the drumhead while cranking the pedal up or down to create a pitch-bend effect. It isn't used much, but it is an available technique. –  Wheat Williams Nov 15 '13 at 21:10
    
players are limited by having two feet for four (or five) pedals and by the distance between the pedals. When rapidly changing pitches, for example playing a melody, the Timpanist largely has to rely on muscle memory. The speed at which Timpanists can hit different notes is limited by these challenges. –  Matthew Briggs Nov 22 '13 at 0:35
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