I was watching Whiplash for the first time, and they mention tuning the drums at the start of the session, but that made me think. In every other instrument I know of, you can do on-the-fly pitch adjustments, in embouchure or slide position or whatever else. Can drums do that, and if so, how?

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    You might want to narrow your question. Timpani, for example, are routinely tuned and returned during performance; and rototoms can also be easily retuned; but I don't think that's what you're asking.
    – Aaron
    Mar 21, 2022 at 23:55
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    Which drums are you considering? It's not a long process to tune any I can think of.
    – Tim
    Mar 22, 2022 at 8:29
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    Also, be careful with Whiplash… though it's definitely one of the best 'musical' films, it does get some things either wrong, or slightly exaggerated in the wrong direction. It's very close, but just short of cigar territory. Personally, if my kit ever needed tuning [which it doesn't all that frequently] I'd dedicate an afternoon to the task at home & do it properly.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 22, 2022 at 8:30
  • Jazz drummer Ari Hoenig plays melodies on his drum kit, adjusting the pitch by pressing on the drum head. See an example here: youtube.com/watch?v=d1zPpLdc-Go&t=95s It's certainly not a standard technique though.
    – Semiprime
    Mar 22, 2022 at 15:09
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    @Semiprime it's actually a common technique (in the sense that it's commonly known by most drummers and percussionists) and used quite often in jazz but not only - Hoenig was actually the first I thought of when I pointed out in my answer :-) It cannot be considered actual "tuning" in the meaning of the question, though. Mar 22, 2022 at 18:32

1 Answer 1


Supposing you're talking about drums of a standard drumset, a certain amount of tuning at the start of a session (concert, rehearsal) is normal, especially if the same set is used for different groups/genres, if it has sustained some changes caused by transport and atmospheric changes, or it hasn't been used for some time. Some drummers even tune some drums for specific pieces so that they can do some "pitched" notes, or because they need a specific range for some of their drums.

Actual "on the fly" tuning while playing is practically impossible: standard drum tuning requires at least one hand and you usually need both of them to play ;-)

There are some occasions in which the drummer could do a small amount of tuning because they have some rests or are playing a section that doesn't require both hands, but that would be not very precise, as accurate drum tuning requires more attention and doing that without properly listening to that single drum is actually just a guess.
It's also possible to apply small pitch changes (obviously, only higher notes) by pressing the head with a hand or elbow while playing with the other arm, but that's not tuning, it's an effect.

Note that there are some tunable drums: notably, rototoms, which still need a hand to rotate them in order to change pitch; there are also some custom-made drums that use a bowden cable operated by a foot pedal that works similarly to timpani. But, the reality is that a drumset normally has very few (and usually none) of those drums, the "general" tuning cannot be done as it is possible with other instruments.

Most importantly, considering the unpitched nature of most drums, it would not make a lot of sense: the adjustments typical of other instruments are to fix (hopefully ;-) ) small imprecisions, usually in the order of a few cents, and for very specific pitched notes; since drums don't have such "notes" and are generally not fundamental to the harmonic side of the music, doing small adjustments on the fly would be pointless.

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