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Studio Class 5

Timpani: Clearing the Head

Dr. Jason Kihle, Associate Professor of Percussion

Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Clearing a timpani head is a skill and, like any other skill, it takes practice. Work in a completely quiet environment. Don’t trust yourself to hear fine gradations in pitch while there is a tuba player playing fff two feet from you. Yes, this means you will need to arrive at rehearsal early to clear the drums before anyone else gets there.


  1. Timpani mallet
  2. Tuning fork
  3. Timpani key

Bottom pitches

  1. 32” - D
  2. 29” - F
  3. 26” - Bb
  4. 23” - D

The Clearing Process

  1. Strike the head softly in the playing area with a fairly hard stick. Listen for the lowest fundamental pitch, keeping your head down near the playing area. Playing three soft notes and one loud one will give you the true pitch on the soft notes, and any false pitches on the loud.
  2. If the loud stroke sounds flat in comparison to the soft pitches, then there is probably a flat spot. If it sounds sharp, there is probably a sharp spot. Stuffiness in the sound often indicates sharpness.
  3. Begin looking for the out-of-tune lug in the four tension rods in your primary playing area if the difference between the soft and loud strokes is very obvious. If it is less obvious, look in the secondary area (the four lugs out of the primary playing area).
  4. When you think you’ve found the culprit, check the lug opposite it first to be sure. 
  5. When you have found the correct lug, turn it a quarter turn.
  6. Don’t spend more than about ten minutes attempting to make a true adjustment. The ear begins to tire and your mind will begin to play tricks on you. Take a short break and come back if you need to. Work for at least one or two adjustments that you are positive of in each session. 


  1. You should clear the heads every day, as they will go slightly out of tune over night. This will also keep your ear sharp. 
  2. Don’t use tuners. They are incapable of focusing in like the human ear and can produce an inferior result. Besides, you won’t be using these on the gig.
  3. Rod tension measuring devices work well for the initial mounting of a head, but for clearing the heads they are generally ineffective. You can go around and measure head tension and get it exact, but the sound at each lug is what we are primarily concerned with, so focus on that.