Physics of the Steel Drum

Physics of the steel pan or steel drum

Physics of the Steel Drum

It’s fairly universally agreed upon that music is… well, pretty. Nice to listen to. But what is it, exactly, that makes it so? Why do certain vibrations please the ear while others sound like nails on a chalkboard? 

According to scientists that studied steel drums, or steel pan, nearly three decades ago, the beloved Caribbean folk instruments made out of oil barrels have a blend of harmonic overtones and couplings that are especially pleasing to the ear. 

For the past few decades, steel orchestras and soloists have been popping up all over the world. As we have shared on our Panyard social media pages, colleges have their own steel bands, while even elementary schools play our entry-level Jumbie Jams. There’s just something about steel drums that soothes the soul. They’re also relaxing and fun to play, and not that hard to learn. 

Acoustics of the Steel Pan

Northern Illinois University physicist Dr. Thomas D. Rossing conducted research in the 1980s and ‘90s on the instrument after getting hooked on the sound while at school. Writing in ‘Physics Today,’ he and his colleagues called the pan “probably the most important new acoustical musical instrument developed in the 20th century.” 

Striking a pan with a mallet for a single note produces “a sound spectrum rich in harmonic overtones,” according to Rossing. 

If the pan is struck gently, listeners hear a single pitch. If struck harder, listeners hear not only the single note, but aso “overtones,” giving the impression of more than one instrument playing at once. A skilled pan maker tunes each note so that they have multiple variations of frequency. The harmonics can sound an octave higher, or to a third, making each note a chord. Reverberations from the pan can create sympathetic vibrations from other notes on the pan, according to Rossing. 

Research included flashing laser lights across the tops of vibrating pans to make “holographic interferograms,” which revealed the different resonances. For example, drumming harder on the area of a middle G created vibrations at the neighboring G an octave lower. 

“At typical performance amplitudes,” the researchers wrote, “almost the entire drum vibrates and radiates sound.”

The steel pan only came around last century, and because of that is an instrument in progress. At Panyard, we are consistently innovating and creating new ways to enjoy the steel drum. Visit our online shop to see our products!

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