Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science
scientists from previous shows
cool careers in science
ask the scientists

Photo of Clément Imbert Clément Imbert
The Pan Man

Clement Imbert of the University of the West Indies answers questions about the fascinating music -- and science -- of the famous steel pan of Trinidad.

q I was wondering how the steel pan evolved from an oil drum to a finely tuned musical instrument. Was it gradual, perhaps musicians searching for new sounds and slowly learning how to increase the range of the drum? Or, was it a conscious effort by musicians who knew the workings of instruments to create a multiple note drum? Or perhaps something else?

A The steel pan evolved in a gradual manner, from the late 1930s, through street revellers looking for any available article to provide rythm. Petroleum was discovered in Trinidad many years before so oil drums were readily available. In about twenty years or so the instrument had been, more or less, developed into what we know today.

q Which steel drum is better in tone quality and sound, the man made one that takes a day to make or the machine made one?

A The tonal quality of the pan depends on the material and the skill of the tuner. The method of manufacture (manual or mechanical) does not really matter since the final shaping of the notes is done by the tuner, and tuning still has to be done by hand. However mechanically formed pans produce more consistent instruments and allows for greater choice of material, shape, size etc. of the instrument.

q I am interested in learning to play a steel pan. Do you know if they can be purchased in the USA? About how much does a steel pan cost?

A There are several pan orchestras and makers in the USA. A real steel pan pioneer (orginally from Trinidad) works out of the West Virginia University World Music Centre in the USA. His name is Ellie Mannette. That us a good place to start. There are also publications (and videos) available in the USA on how to play the pan. I would also refer you to work done by Prof. Thomas D. Rossing fo Nothern Illinois University and Prof. Uwe J. Hansen of Indiana State University and Dr. Anthony Achong of the Department of Physics of The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. You could probably look for them on the Internet; I am sure they would have a web page posted giving information on their work etc. A tenor pan (the one played by soloists) costs about US$400 in Trinidad and up to US$1000 in the USA.

q I was fascinated by the special on Steel Drums this evening. My question is regarding the vibrational testing done to get rid of 'the thump' as you called it when you were using different pick-ups in different directions -- vertical, horizontal and axial. I am a vibrations analyst and I am wondering if this was a resonance condition that you were experiencing at first -- since resonance is directional. I work with spectra and waveforms daily -- as well as detuning and dampening. Any and all information regarding this would be greatly appreciated.

A Answer from Dr. Brian Copeland, also seen on Science in Paradise: As noted in the interview, this problem has manifested itself with the contact pickup mechanism. Yes, it is a resonance problem which is a pathology of percussive excitation. In the pan we feel that there are two main generators involved:
  1. That due to transverse effects (the longitudinal effects dominate in the acoustic radiation by design) of the note being impacted.

  2. That due to the support structure of the instrument.
The latter is the easiest to test and also seems to be the major component in the annoying thump. However, there are certainly other contributors to this problem.

q How can each dent that is made in the drum produce a different sound than others that are the same size? Is it the closer the impressions are to the middle, the higher the pitch?

A The sound produced by each dent (i.e., each note) depends on the size, shape and position of the note. The higher the pitch the closer the note to the middle of the pan, the smaller the note size and the thinner the metal.

q What other instruments are in a band with pans?

A In addition to the pans themselves, a steelband would have drums (most importantly a trap set but also congo drums at times), and other small percussion "artifacts". Big bands include a so-called "iron section" as part of the rythm section. This "iron section" may comprise a single piece of steel (orginally a motorcar wheel hub) or several similarly shaped steel objects. It should be noted that pans have been included in bands with other musical instruments (wind, string, percussion, etc.) either as the lead instruments or accompanying.

q Is the quality and composition of the steel drums consistent - or do the makers and tuners of the pans have to take inconsistencies of the drums into account when doing their work? Are drums from some sources preferred over others?

A Generally speaking the pan tuner has to work with the material he gets and work "around" it. However one can order steel of a particular type though this is seldom feasible or cost effective.

q I am curious to know if your study of the steel pan is mainly scientific, or if you also play a role in promoting and maintaining the cultural significance of this instrument.

A Our work at The University of the West Indies is basically scientific, however we are relating our research to the practical benefits of the pan and the pan movement. Also we are all connected with the steelband movement in a direct way. For example, I am Assistant Manager of a steelband.

q Is it hard to learn to play the steel drum? It did not seem too easy for Alan Alda to play!

A It is not hard to learn to play the pan. Alan Alda played a few bars of a calypso and also a light classical piece in less than an hour. In fact, the pan has been found to be an excellent instrument to teach children in schools how to play a musical instrument, in England and other northern countries.

q Once a pan is tuned, does it go out of tune naturally, or does it stay tuned? And do the drums last forever once you make them or do you have to build new ones every so often?

A The pan does not go out of tune naturally as such, except that with time it would corrode if not properly protected. Most lead pans (called tenor pans), like the one Alan Alda was playing, are chromed for protection. Pans go out of tune after a few months of play and have to be retuned. After very many retunings they may have to be discarded since they may not be able to be properly retuned after a time. If they are played occasionally and not struck too hard they last very many years.

q I was wondering as I was watching your show, how do you know how deep to make each dent? Also, how do you know how much area each should occupy for the sound to turn out to be the right note?

A The pan tuner, from experience, makes the notes a particular size (surface dimensions) and profile (depth of dent) to achieve the particular note required. These shapes are relatively well established but it takes an experienced tuner (with an excellent ear for musical tones) to hammer the note area to achieve the desired sound.

q Do you have to use a special stick when you play or can you hit the pan with anything? If it's a special stick, what is made from?

A The sticks used to play the pans are normally about 3/4" diameter by 7" long made of wood with rubber at the playing end. The higher the range of the pan the smaller the rubber tip and the harder the rubber. For example, the tenor or lead pan is played with rubber such as motor car inner tube tightly bound around the tip about 1/4" thick and 3/4" long. For the very low note range (the bass pans) a stick with a sponge ball (ie, much softer "rubber") is frequently used. These sticks are similar to those used to play bass drums in a marching band.

Clement Imbert is also featured in Cool Careers in Science. Check it out!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.