How to use timpani in a live orchestral piece? (I'm asking for the most fundamental knowledge)

• Jun 28, 2018 - 09:51

I write scores for live symphony orchestras (which basically means the scores can entirely be played live by a normal-sized symphony orchestra), and a problem comes about: how to write the timpani part(s)?
My knowledge for it is almost zero, so could somebody please tell me how many timpani are usually selected and which ones are most commonly used in a live orchestra? How many players play them?
I know that the answer may vary based on different orchestras, so just tell me the MOST COMMON situation, or if there isn't one, a range of choice among which I can choose from. Thanks!


My limited experience: there is normally one timpanist (although for pieces that need them, a second can be added), and there would often be two or three timpani, each tuned to a pitch you choose before the piece starts (typically the I, IV, and V in tonal music). It's possible to re-tune a timpani mid-performance, but it's not something you treat lightly - you can't write for timpani like it was an ordinary pitched instrument.

Timpani, unless not noted as such, are fundamental instruments. Like Tuba, they either hold the bottom end of the orchestra/band with simple lines or single notes (which have to be a roll, since notes don't sustain long on the instrument) or serve to accent certain music parts in crescendos and such. As other comments have noted, it's not a solo instrument in general. There are pieces that ask for as much as 12 timpani, divided between 2 timpanists or more, but those are more an exception. You'll prefer to stay with either whole note rolls and, at most, 8th note lines with 4 different notes at most (generally 2, since smaller bands usually only have 2 or 3 timpani). They are usually tuned in 4ths as noted before. They can also gliss into notes both up and down as well.

In reply to by Howard-C

I didn't say "in a roll". A usual set of timpani has 4 timpani, but a regular timpanist can play a maximum of 2 notes simultaneously. Some pieces call for multiple timpanists and have them play scales and chords, for example. While you can do 2 simultaneous rolls (one note on each hand), it's not something common.

Here's an example of a simple 4 note line a timpanist could play:

And here's a simple example of timpani glissandi and 2-note chord:

A good way to familiarize yourself with what timpani can, and can't, do is checking the Wikipedia article on timpani:

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

Yes I tried it, but a problem occurs: the sound is just so stiff. Sometimes when the notes become short, the next note plays even before the previous note ends playing, which sounds very awkward. Maybe you can take a look at this issue? Or that I'm not supposed to make the notes so short?

In reply to by Howard-C

I've been working on this problem myself this arvo - been an adventure improving my musecoring. To get a better roll sound I've created a new instrument ( with a second channel for timpani rolls. You first have to install extra sound fonts that can playback rolls (

To use the roll sound you have to change sound mid score ( So the first few bars in the excerpt below are using the default timpani with the tremolo marks from a typical score. The second few bars are using my new timpani. Listen to the mp3 in the zip for the difference so far (never tried to upload mp3 before so didn't know forum doesn't allow it - I zipped it, humble apologies if bad form).

One problem is that if you put a tremolo mark on the semibreve it plays the roll with a tremolo playback, which sounds ridiculous. So to work around that the semibreve with the tremolo is in Voice 2 but marked as silent, and the semibreve without the tremolo is in Voice 1 but marked invisible. Confused? I'll upload the musecore file too.

Attachment Size
timy.jpg 41.34 KB 266.3 KB
t2.mscz 4.99 KB

In reply to by Howard-C

In version 2.0.3 or 2.1 is was possible to write the tremolo symbol on two notes and connect them with a tremolo and they would play the glissando. The glissano was of course individual notes, but at least there was some glissando unlike in the new and improved version after that. I wrote a piece in version 2.0.3 that took advantage of this, but it does not work in later versions.

In reply to by Howard-C

Timpani can be retuned while being played by the musician using the foot pedal, this is how the glissando works. If you rely on this, keep in mind that the musician can only retune one instrument at a time. It may be physically possible to retune two instruments at once since the musician usually has two feet, but I would not count on anyone actually being able to do it.

In reply to by mike320

Even if they could do it, some dual tunnings are impossible to do because of how timpani are set. Also, I've never seen notes ever being changed on any timpani of the set except the two middle ones. Usually, the ones on the extremes are tunned to the lowest and highest note in the part and are never touched.

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