The Unique Sound of Steel Pan

Around the world, people are fascinated with the unique character of the sound that a steel pan musical instrument produces. The creation of the steel drum family of instruments, beginning in the middle of the 20th century in Trinidad, is a major musical achievement. New acoustic sounds that have enough appeal to be adopted usefully into many musical forms are very rare. To find proof of the stature that the steel pan has claimed in such a relatively short period of time, one has only to look at the dedication of the countless musicians who have enthusiastically embraced the steel drum and learned to play it. Steel pan tuners, builders, composers, arrangers and band leaders continue the hard work to bring their art to higher and higher levels. Their vitality and resourcefulness in establishing steel pan have helped it to take its place amongst the other important musical instruments internationally.

When steel drums were first made and played as pitched instruments, the notes had a sound that might be described as metal woodblocks. At that time, steel pan sound lacked the complex harmonic nature associated with the sound of other major and important musical instrument families, such as brass, woodwinds and strings. As such, the steel drum might never have reached much farther than the Caribbean except as a curiosity. Soon, however, something remarkable happened that might have been considered impossible. The hardworking steel pan innovators in Trinidad took the interesting but non-complex sound of the steel drum and added the missing harmonic structure to its sound to make it a full fledged musical instrument on a par with the great instruments of the world. Before steel pan, this had never been done before. Instruments other than the steel pan naturally have this harmonic content in their notes, so it is not necessary to add it.

The pitch that we hear as a “C” note when a violinist plays or a singer sings, is called the fundamental. This fundamental excites higher pitches of sound that are within that one note. These are called harmonic overtones or partials. These naturally occurring harmonic overtones sound as a series of specific pitches above the fundamental pitch whenever a note is played, although few people can clearly hear them separately from the main fundamental pitch. These “extra” pitches give a note its complex and enjoyable tone. Because it is a piece of steel, a steel pan note does not naturally have these extra harmonic overtones. Through careful observation and exhaustive experimentation, Trinidadian steel pan tuners found ways to add the extra overtones into each note by working the shape, height and tension of steel drum notes in very clever ways. This amazing innovation is what has made the steel pan sound so fascinating to all who hear it. When we listen to a string being plucked or a horn being blown, the sound may be wonderful but it is not beyond the normal range of what we have come to expect. When people first hear a steel pan played, it seems impossible to them that the sound could be coming from nothing more than the metal of a steel drum. They peer inside to see if there are strings. or they look underneath to see if maybe something else is making the sounds they are hearing. Of course, they cannot have an idea of the complex ways each note of the steel has been worked so it has the magnificent sound of a true musical instrument while maintaining the unique timbre and sound of the steel drum.