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September 2003



Steelpan science

Steve van Onselen

Steelpan drumsThe steelpan may have first come from Trinidad but its true roots lie in Africa since it was created to replace traditional african drums like the Djembe.


When Africans from Ghana and Nigeria were taken to Trinidad and Tobago to work on sugar plantations they weren't allowed to take their drums with them. This presented a problem because music and their drumming was a huge part of their culture. Other objects became used as percussion instruments and the first widely available resource was bamboo.

Street bands called Tamboo Bamboo bands were formed. A large piece of bamboo can be stomped on the ground to make a bass rhythm and smaller sticks rapping together for a more energetic rhythm. Being a shanty town environment these street bands leaned towards gang behaviour and a good piece of bamboo caused a high volume of bloodshed when rival bands met in the street. Tamboo Bamboo bands were eventually banned due to this. The people moved on to whatever they could find ranging from biscuit tins to cheese graters.

Biscuit tins to musical instruments

One regular day in the 1940's a man was playing in a percussion street band. His instrument was a large tin and a stick with which he beat a low bass rhythm. As he played he beat the level bottom of the tin in and stretched the metal thinner and tighter. He soon lost his bass note and found himself playing way too high pitched a note. This was not what he wanted and he bashed the bottom back out with a rock. He was very surprised to find that there were now three different notes that he could play on one surface. His idea became very popular and as interest grew the people moved onto using oil drums instead of tins. Thanks to this we now have instruments made out of oil drums that have the full range and versatilaty of a concert band.

Making Steelpans is regarded among Panmakers as more art than science but mainly because it is a hand crafted instrument and is a skill that takes years to master.

Making steelpans

A steelpan is made by shaping a flat, 44 gallon oil drum bottom into a bowl with the notes each forming almost flat panels. The drums that we use are dependent on various things like what thickness their tops and sides are and types of drums with a good reputation.

The first stage for the steelpan is to sink the drum into a bowl with a 4 pound hammer. The metal must be stretched evenly at all times to ensure that each note panel will be one thickness. After marking where the notes are positioned we shape the notes into place with the hammer. Moving around the drum we beat the area between the notes which stretches each one flat. We need to mark each note in some way so that they can easily be seen from the other side for tuning purposes. To do this we either make a groove, with a punch, or drill a few small holes on the border of the note. The finished tightness of the metal is essential to a good instrument. It works on the same principle as an elastic band. When pulled tight you can twang it with ease but the looser you let it the shorter amount of time it vibrates for.

This pan as it stands will need to be burned in a furnace to burn out some of the carbon and to clean off the paint. This makes the pan harder and tighter still so that we can now tune each note without putting the drum out of shape. Since we can compare steel to an elastic band the best comparison for a note would be with a drum velom. A drum is a piece of material stretched over a round hole and the tighter we pull it over the hole the higher the pitch of the drum. We treat the steelpan note the same but since it is metal we use it to tighten itself. By working around the note with a small hammer we can higher the pitch or work in the middle to lower the pitch.

These panels have various frequencies vibrating when struck this allows us to tune in not only the note but an octave up and typically a fifth up all on the same panel. To achieve this the note must have the correct shape allowing each frequency it's own position on the panel. The fact that it is rigid steel allows you to manipulate these frequencies in relative independance of each other. This method of tuning the pan is what gives it it's ringing quality as oppossed to a dull clunk.

Steelpans are played with rubber tipped sticks. The size of the stick and rubber is dependant on the size of the notes on the instrument that the sticks are for. A big note needs a big stick to create the correct effect and the sizes go down in proportion with the notes.

Steelpan drums in a bandThe Length of the side of the pan is used to amplify the sound and is therefore dependant on what range the pan has. A Tenor pan has the most notes on it and goes from the D above Middle C up two and a half octaves. It has very short sides typically being 15 cm's long. As the range of the pan is lowered the notes become larger and the sides lenghthen to best amplify them. The basses are full length with three or four notes on each pan. The way the notes are arranged on the steelpan ensure that notes a semitone appart are never next to each other. The reason being that interference would occur due to the frequencies being so close together. Knowing the way not to arrange the notes doesn't mean that a correct layout presents itself.


For sixty years Trinidadians have been making steelpans and since everyone had their own idea's to begin with many different layouts have been formed. At the moment there is still no layout regarded by everyone in the steelpan world as superior. There are a few that are relatively standard and used the most. One of these is the 4th and 5th Tenor pan given it's name because every note has the 4th from it on it's left and it's 5th on it's right. This pan is not only easier to play because of this but the pattern can also aid high school music students. By remembering a simple pattern one can determine the amount of sharps and flats in a major chord.

Steelpans are steadily growing more popular all over the world and we owe it all to a man who probably had no idea that his biscuit tin would become such an amazing instrument.

More information

For queries or sales information phone Steve van Onselen at (South Africa) 0835330818. 


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