How Does a Steel Tongue Drum Work?September 29, 2022
You might have heard that fascinating sound of steel tongue drums. They are played in the streets and at parties, in drum circles and on smaller gigs, and many people play them just for fun or meditation. You might also have thought about starting to play this instrument. It all starts with curiosity, and if you are eager to know more about steel tongue drums, let’s see what it is, how it is made and tuned, and why playing this instrument is so easy and popular.
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How Does a Steel Tongue Drum Function?
Take a look at the instrument. Its appearance is a bit extra-terrestrial, reminiscent of a flying saucer, and so is its sound. When you look at the top of a steel tongue drum (also known as a panda drum or a tank drum), you see that there are tongues cut on its top surface. Not only do they vary in shape and size: Each tongue produces a different note when hit. So this is living proof that drums can be melodic instruments.
Playing it is intuitive. You hit tongue by tongue with mallets or fingers, varying the spot, force, and manner. Though this slightly changes the sound, the base remains the same. Usually, steel tongue drums are tuned in a special manner so that you just cannot play a wrong note and produce any disharmony. Tuning of these drums, though, is a different matter altogether.
Where are panda drums usually played? They are great for drum circles, smaller parties, group or solo meditations, or just for interacting with music. It is portable, so if you take one with you to a party with many unfamiliar people, it will be a good icebreaker. Finally, you can record it; there are even special models with built-in mics and plugs, which are easy to connect to a mixer or even to your laptop and record the sound with any DAW.
What Is a Steel Tongue Drum Made Of?
The first modern steel tongue drums were made of propane tanks (hence the alias). Now they are also often made of these 20-gallon tanks, but some have specifically made bodies. Anyway, they are mostly made of steel, though you can run into a specific version produced, say, of aluminum. This makes their sound so recognizable.
It might sound unintuitive but the first tongue drums in history were wooden, not metal. This instrument was independently invented by different civilizations in several regions, so no country can claim priority in inventing it. Nowadays, though, tongue drums are mostly made of steel or (as you already know) other metals.
What Are the Tongues?
The tongues that are seen on the top surface of it are the “keys,” each tuned to a certain note. Hit a tongue to make a sound. Hit several to play a melody. It also allows for chords, though it requires some training to make the right movements.
The advantage of a steel tongue drum for a beginner is that this instrument often uses a scale that allows for no disharmony, the most frequent tuning being pentatonic. So you can just hit tongue by tongue in random order, and it will still sound good. You can also play certain tunes and songs with it. Today’s factory-made steel tongue drums usually come with manuals and songbooks, plus more songs for almost every tuning can be found online.
How Is a Steel Tongue Drum Tuned?
There are different tuning options if you look at the array of steel tongue drums sold now. The most popular options are the following:
- Minor scales. These are great for meditative moods or sadder tunes.
- Major tunes. More cheerful and uplifting, these are also popular.
- Akebono tuning. This Oriental one stands alone, which sounds quite exotic.
Within each of these tunings, there are more options, depending on the base note. So, there can be a C major tuning, an A Akebono tuning, and so on. Choose the one you like the most, after testing it or listening to someone playing it for a while. The base note is usually the one from the biggest tongue. It’s recommended to hold the steel tongue drum with this tongue closest to you so that you can play it even without looking at it after some practice.
Last but not least: A steel tongue drum can be retuned. There are basically two different methods of retuning it: making tongues lighter with a file, which is irreversible but sometimes necessary or making them heavier with magnets, which is reversible and easy. There are even special magnet kits for retuning certain models of steel drums.
In most situations, though, you don’t have to retune your steel tongue drum. You might need to do it if you want to record it with other instruments. Then you will need to learn how the rest of the instruments are tuned to know whether you have to retune yours at all, and if so, then how exactly. Another reason to do it is to try a new scale without buying a new instrument.
How to Play a Steel Tongue Drum?
Though it’s simple, learning it can take months or even years. It helps that you just can’t make a mistake with a correctly tuned tank drum. To play it, you need to make some choices:
- Do you want a simpler instrument or a more sophisticated one? This defines how many tongues you want. The number can vary, usually between seven and ten, though there are those with more or fewer tongues.
- Smaller or bigger? This makes a change in your muscle memory if you switch the instruments. Smaller ones are more portable while bigger models are louder and more emotionally charged.
- Mallets or hands? Switching is the easiest, in this case, still you might want to buy the most appropriate option for your manner (and mallets if you opt for them).
It deserves a longer manual, of course. And no manual can replace practice.
The Best Answer
We could tell you much more about steel tongue drums. However, nothing can do it better than taking the instrument in your hands and giving it some decent hits on every tongue so that you can feel the vibrations with your entire body. If you are really curious, you should learn about it with your own hands and your own ears.