The timpani tonic-dominant tunings appear like below for instances:

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The image above shows examples of the tonic-dominant timpani tunings of certain orchestral pieces in all 12 major / minor common keys. We have the following:

  1. Beethoven: Symphony 5, 1st mvt - C, G for C major and minor (C3, G2)
  2. Mahler: Symphony 5, 1st mvt - C♯, G♯ for C♯ major and minor (C♯3, G♯2)
  3. Beethoven: Symphony 9, 4th mvt - D, A for D major and minor (D3, A2)
  4. Beethoven: Symphony 3, 4th mvt - E♭, B♭ for E♭ major and minor (E♭3, B♭2)
  5. Rossini: William Tell Overture - E, B for E major and minor (E3, B2)
  6. Beethoven: Symphony 6, 4th mvt - F, C for F major and minor (F2, C3)
  7. Mahler: Symphony 10, 2nd mvt - F♯, C♯ for F♯ major and minor (F♯3, C♯3)
  8. Haydn: Symphony 94, 1st mvt - G, D for G major and minor (G2, D3)
  9. Elgar: Symphony 1, 1st mvt - A♭, E♭ for A♭ major and minor (A♭2, E♭3)
  10. Mendelssohn: Symphony 4, 1st mvt - A, E for A major and minor (A2, E3)
  11. Beethoven: Symphony 9, 3rd mvt - B♭, F for B♭ major and minor (B♭2, F3)
  12. Schubert: Symphony 8, 1st mvt - B, F♯ for B major and minor (B2, F♯3)

Beethoven sometimes broke the rule that is listed above. For example, in the scherzo of his ninth, the timpani tuning appears as F3-F2. Some other composers broke the rule, too. Still, the timpani were most often tuned in tonic-dominant, as listed above. What's the reason?

  • 1
    F3-F2 is not a tonic-dominant tuning. Pieces don't tend to stick to tonic-dominant tunings for their timpani. For example, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 3 in C Minor has its timpani tuned to G-Bb-C (all going up in pitch). – Dekkadeci Feb 11 '19 at 6:54
  • 1
    In the first movement (in D minor), the Timpani are tuned to D and A, like "normal" I suppose, but there are no rules. The second movement (also in D minor) starts with octaves on all the instruments, and the timpani are played solo in one of the first measures, so it makes sense for them to play octaves as well. Another way to look at it is, why not tune the timpani to Fs? One effect is that the timpani are playing two of the notes of the D minor triad in the first movement, and then they are playing the third note in the second movement. Finally, it sounds good. – Todd Wilcox Feb 11 '19 at 7:07
  • I see. Like in the scherzo of the ninth, the timpani used its F-F tuning so it could join with the orchestra to complete the d-minor triad. So it goes like this: D - A - F - D. Am I right? – user53472 Feb 11 '19 at 11:34
  • Tchaikovsky's Piano concerto No. 1 uses Bb2-F2 for the first movement in bb-minor, only a Gb in the second mvt in Db, and back to Bb2-F2 for the third in tonic. The second movement does not meet the T-D definition. The first and third mvts are fine, but only with the roles reversed. – user53472 Feb 22 '19 at 3:12
  • Dekkadeci // That's right! F-F is a mediant-mediant! – user53472 Feb 26 '19 at 5:16

There never were rules.

Timpani were traditionally tuned as they most often were because there wasn't much other choice in their limited range, because of tradition, or because people couldn't think of anything better to do with them.

Beethoven lived in a time where the art of instrument-making advanced dramatically (in fact, he drove some of those advances himself), he was a revolutionary by nature and he had more imagination in his little finger than most of his predecessors combined. So it's no wonder that he should have been the first to use e.g. the tritone or the octave in place of the traditional tonic/dominant tuning.

  • Yes. Bruckner's 7th symphony's finale uses E-C (1-b6) instead of E-B (1-5) . – user53472 Feb 17 '19 at 13:10
  • Beethoven's 5th's 2nd mvt is in Ab-major, and uses C-G (3-7) instead of Ab-Eb (1-5) as well! – user53472 Feb 17 '19 at 13:12

Beyond the fact that the use of timpani in classical music was relatively new during the classical period, the tonic-dominant practice was the practical result of drums that were "fixed" in pitch. That is, the pitches could not be altered during a performance.

This was because early timpani had no tuning pedals like their modern counterparts. They were simply a copper bowl with a calfskin head, held in place over the bowl with a steel "counterhoop" (that pressed down around the edges of the skin head) and several large bolts.

The drums could be retuned by turning all the bolts, but this was time-consuming and impossible during a performance.

The first pedal-tuning mechanism for timpani, if I remember correctly, was developed in Dresden, Germany sometime in the early 19th century. This of course inspired a revolution in writing for timpani.

As was mentioned above, Beethoven was the first to push the boundaries of what could be done with timpani in orchestral music. But his innovation was in the rhythms he wrote, as well as actually using them in soloistic ways (the greatest example being in the scherzo of his 9th Symphony). But even Beethoven symphonies still generally adhere to the tonic-dominant scheme.

An interesting side note: there are actually a few moments in Beethoven symphonies (I can't think of where off the top of my head but they are definitely there) where the entire orchestra (particularly the brass, which the timpani part often mirrors) plays V-I, and Beethoven actually had the timpani playing IV-I, resulting in a major 2nd clashing between the dominant and subdominant. This was obviously because Beethoven had a choice between leaving the timpani out at a climactic moment (knowing the timpanist couldn't retune his drum), or just saying "What the hell?" and having the timpanist play the wrong note. It's wonderful that--in true Beethoven style--he opted for the "What the hell?" approach. Modern timpanists, with the aid of pedal-tuned drums, often "correct" these instances by retuning the drum. This often results in heated debates over authenticity--and whether or not it's ethically correct to "fix" Beethoven's score?

After the invention of pedal-tuned timpani, composers such as Wagner and Bruckner began to expand the number of pitches played within a single work. It really wasn't until Mahler came along that the use of timpani "exploded." Mahler remains to this day the greatest music in the entire classical repertoire to perform as a timpanist--both for his melodic use of the instrument, as well as the prominent role he gave the instrument in all of his symphonies.

The high point for timpani, in terms of classical repertoire, was undoubtedly Gustav Holst's "The Planets," which is scored for two sets of timpani with two players. This enabled (among other things) Holst to score the melody in "Jupiter" for the timpani...which I can tell you from having performed it, is an absolute RUSH to perform! :-)

(I graduated from The Juilliard School with a degree in percussion performance and played timpani professionally for a few years before switching careers.)

  • If the rest of the tutti was playing ^5 and the timpani was playing ^4, then it would have been a V7 chord overall. Anyways, great! :) – user53472 Mar 8 '19 at 4:37
  • Timpani were well established in baroque orchestral repertoire several decades before the beginning of the classical period. There are also many scores that call for the drums to be retuned with plenty of time for turning screws. I suppose that the desire to make this easier, faster, and more precise is precisely what led to the invention of the pedal mechanism. – phoog Mar 8 '19 at 5:56
  • Non-pedal timps certainly could be re-tuned during a performance, and often were required to be. – Laurence Payne Mar 28 '19 at 23:15

A pair of two timpani is very common. As been said there are no rules, but if there are only two timpani instruments available then you need to use the range that is possible on those two drums. That means you would sometimes need to make the tonic-dominant downwards and other times upwards.

If you have more instruments, like 4 or even more, which have different ranges you have more possibilities. One timpani drum has a range of a fifth by the way.

  • Great answer! I just checked the score for Tchaikovsky's 6th, and the first movement, in b-minor, requires a B2-F#2, the second, in D-major, requires D3-A2, the third in G-major requires G2-D3, and the fourth, in b-minor, we are back to B2-F#2. – user53472 Feb 22 '19 at 3:08

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