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Friday, 15 June 2018


Tessitura! There's a catchy word for you. It refers to the useful pitch range of a musical instrument. In some cases it's fixed, as in a piano -- unless you arrange to have extra keys installed, you get what you get. In wind instruments, tessitura is determined by the instrument, aided by the skill of the player (check out Nils Henning Orsted Pederson at the low end and Henry Red Allen at the top end). A guitar works best in the ‘guitar range’, and while you can play around with other tunings, you can't go more than a few tones either direction. Same with the rest of the string family: too high or too low just doesn't work.

One would think that drums, with their broad tonal range and facility for different tunings, would have an almost unlimited tessitura. They do not. For any drum, there are points at the top and bottom of their range where they just stop producing a quality tone. Tune too high and you lose tone, body and resonance. Tune too low and again, no tone and no resonance ... and no stick response.

A drum's tessitura is determined by shell construction, diameter, depth, weight, and head choice. Lighter (i.e. thinner) drums tend to have a lower and more limited tuning range than heavier drums. A heavier head can be tuned lower than a lighter head. Large drums tune nicely to lower pitches and smaller drums are better at higher tunings. While a 10" tom can be tuned fairly low, below a certain point it will stop working. Same with that 18" floor tom. Tune it too high and it's character will collapse. Higher still and you might break something.

Most drum companies are hip to the tonal range of various drums, hence the wide range of shell sizes on offer. DW goes a step further and inscribes a shell's resonant pitch on the inside the drum. You don't have to tune to that pitch, but it's not a bad starting point.

I tend to tune drums to the upper-middle of their range. I find that tone quality is maximized, as are resonance, punch, projection, and articulation. This tonal range also blends very well with other instruments.

There are lots of ways to tune drums and lots of theories on how to proceed … no wrong answers here. But if you find that a drum just isn't giving you what you want, maybe you're trying to tune it outside its tessi-thingy.