A kettledrum has a range of about a sixth.
A timpani group composed of several instruments covers approximately three octaves.
The purest tone is produced in the middle of a kettledrum’s compass. Very high notes sound too strained and too thin, very low notes sound too “woolly” and weak. For this reason timpanists allocate the pitches demanded in the score to the available drums in such a way that the pitch each drum plays is in the middle of its compass.
|D kettledrum (bass kettledrum: 75–80 cm):||C2, D2 – H2, C3|
|G kettledrum (large kettledrum: 65–70cm):||E2, F2 – D3, E3|
|C kettledrum (small kettledrum: 60–65cm):||Ab2, Bb2 – G3, Ab3|
|F kettledrum (high kettledrum: 55–60 cm):||C3 – G#3|
|A kettledrum (high kettledrum: 50–60 cm):||C3, D3 – Bb3, C#4|
|B kettledrum (45–50 cm):||G3 – C4|
The range of historical (baroque, classical) timpani was limited solely to the octave F2 to F3.
This meant that certain keys could not be played in the instruments’ usual tuning – low drum = dominant, high drum = tonic. In such instances the usual tuning was reversed: low drum = tonic, high drum = dominant (e.g. A major).