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January 14, 2023 12 min read

The steel tongue drum is a unique and highly intuitive musical instrument. It’s a perfect instrument for anyone who wishes to get creative, relax, or enjoy beautiful melodies. However, knowing how it works is crucial to maximizing its sounds and experiences. 

The steel tongue drum produces sounds whenever the tongues are hit with the hands, fingers, or a mallet. The musical tunes are released through the slit of the tongues whenever they are hit simultaneously. The number of tongues on the instrument determines the notes to play. 

Anybody can play a soothing, melodic, and meditative tune on steel drums without having musical knowledge or skills. But you can only enhance the quality of the sound you create if you know how it works. 

In this post, we'll provide an ultimate guide on everything you need to know about how steel tongue drums work. 

What are steel tongue drums, and how do they sound?  

A steel tongue drum is a percussion instrument classified under the idiophone family. Instruments belonging to this family typically create sounds themselves without strings, membranes, or external resonators. 

The steel tongue drum derives its name from the tongue-shaped surface areas of the drum. 

As a slit drum, the tongue drum is made from an empty propane cylinder converted into a new instrument. It was invented by Dennis Havlena, who used a 20-pound propane tank to create a unique version of a hang drum. 

This unique drum resembles the whale drum, hang drum, Felle Vegas Tambiro, and Caribbean Steel drums. 

This percussion instrument typically emits a spacey and metallic sound with multiple harmonics based on how you strike the instrument. 

If you strike it with a pair of mallets, you get rounded tones with the series playing together. But when you play with your fingers, you'll get a more concentrated tone.

While different tongue drums have varying sounds, depending on their size and tuning, the sound they emit is easily recognizable. How the steel drums are played and the player's skill also affects how the instrument sounds. 

But the good thing about it is there's no right or wrong sound from the steel tongue drum. 

Each tongue on the surface of the drum is autotuned to play a particular note depending on its width and length. With the pentatonic scale used with the drum, every note plays in harmony. 

The combination of notes and chords created on the instrument results in excellently sounding melodies. 

Although the steel tongue drum is a new instrument, it shares similarities with other percussion instruments and has become more popular today. Tongue drums can be found in different environments, from the streets to offices and classrooms. 

What are the notes on a steel tongue drum? 

What are the notes on a steel tongue drum?

A steel tongue drum has multiple notes, which are determined by the size of the tongue drum. Some have smaller tongues than others. The standard combinations include 6 inches/8 notes, 10 inches/11 notes, 12 inches/13 notes, or 14 inches/15 notes. 

Each of the notes has a different scale, and the most common scale for a steel tongue drum is the pentatonic scale. 

Other steel tongue drum scales include the diatonic scale, chromatic scale, and Akebono. The only notes played in the pentatonic scale are five, including root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degrees of major scale per octave. 

A steel tongue drum tuned to the diatonic scale contains two half steps (semitone intervals) and five whole steps within an octave. 

The chromatic scale tuned to a steel tongue drum, on the other hand, contains twelve tones with twelve pitches. Lastly, the Akebono scale uses the same intervals as the diatonic scale. 

Manufacturers of steel drums generally indicate the different scales each drum is tuned. While these scales carry different notes, they don't necessarily make the instrument harder to play. You can even create excellent music by playing the instrument without knowing the notes or the scales with the notes. 

However,provided you understand basic music theory, you can change your scales if you have a tunable tongue drum. A tunable tongue drum allows the player to access and play a wider range of notes and alternate the instrument's scale. 

To alternate the scale, the player typically adds neodymium magnets to the base of the instrument, directly under the tongues. 

Do steel tongue drums need tuning? 

A steel tongue drum may need tuning to achieve the right frequency and scale. This is because the tongues tend to lose their initial frequency after a short time, or you may get tired of the scale. So tuning the drum remains the best way to restore their frequency and pitch quality. 

To do this, you'll need to get a tuner to enhance the output of your tongue drum and achieve the right pitch and frequency. You could purchase a chromatic tuner from a music instrument store or download a tuner software application on your smartphone. Both tuners use similar principles. 

Using both tuners, you must select the desired frequency and match every tongue on your drum to the note selected for that frequency. 

Some tuners also allow you to change the scale of your steel tongue drum automatically while adding every note to the scale. As effective as the automated tuning process is, it is much better to tune manually.  

While at it, ensure you get the scale and frequency right to achieve the best possible outcome. Failure to do this may affect your overall experience using the steel tongue drum. Frequencies are potent; they can hurt you as much as they help you. 

That’s why you must ensure precision while choosing the scale and frequency of your hank drum. You should also note that you can only adjust the scale of your tongue drum if it has the capacity for adjustment. 

You can tune your steel tongue drum using a magnet or a knife. Using a magnet involves moving the magnet from one tongue's edge to another. Using a knife involves hooking each tongue through the kerf while bending it to restore its initial frequency. 

Like all slit drums, hang drums require tuning. If you fail to do this, you may have to deal with a lower pitch and fewer notes until you do. 

The purpose of the entire tuning process is to create high-quality drums with more notes while playing the highest note at a higher pitch. When you have this, you can play great music that is soothing to the ears. 

What are the different uses of tongue drums? 

While other drums are used purely for entertainment, steel drums are popular for other uses like healing vibes, melodic musing, chakra cleansing, immersion and improvisation, and musical entertainment, among many others. 

The steel tongue drum is used for the following purposes.

Healing vibes 

Healing vibes

Music therapy is a longstanding method of re-calibrating body cells back to balance while reducing pain, stress, and anxiety. 

Notably, musical instruments with a vibration trigger a particularly emotional and physical response with restorative effects whenever tongue drums are played. 

A tongue drum offers these vibrations and, as a result, is used to incorporate healing vibes into daily routines. 

Melodic musings

Many people struggle with whirling thoughts and worries after a stressful day. However, with a steel tongue drum, they can enjoy melodic musings that help calm all their worries and thoughts. 

The harmonies created by hitting the tongues offer a distraction from mental meandering. 

You will surely enjoy a rejuvenating experience whether you play this drum or listen to it. This automatically aligns thoughts and regulates your breathing.

Chakra cleansing 

Tunable tongue drums are used to aid the processes involved in chakra cleansing. The drum notes are tuned in alignment with the seven chakras to facilitate positive energy restoration. 

After this, they are played from the lowest to the highest chakra. 

Immersion and improvisation 

Concentrating on the tones and harmonies of the steel tongue drum offers an uninterrupted focus. As a result, the drum is used during meditation sessions and yoga. 

The drum brings complete silence to mind, allowing people to generate flow from a deeper and much calmer state. 

Musical entertainment and new compositions

Like every other musical instrument, the steel tongue drum can be used purely for entertainment. Instead of playing music with regular speakers, you can create tunes of the music using tongue drums. 

With the drum, you can have jam sessions with friends. This attempt lifts spirits and enhances people's mental health. 

Every tongue drum has a complimentary scale, so no lousy note is created. This implies that players can get creative while making new beats and unique compositions using the instrument. 

Religious purposes 

Down the ages, especially during ancient civilizations, hank drums were used for religious purposes. Some of these religious purposes include worship or rituals, depending on the practices that are preferred among these religions. 

Adherents of Buddhism and Confucianism used the drum for religious purposes. 

Today, some churches are already adding it to their instruments played while they worship and pray.

You may also like: 7 Benefits of Steel Tongue Drums (Explained!)

How are steel tongue drums played?  

As a percussion instrument, tongue drums are played using hands, fingers, or a pair of mallets. The most suitable of these three depends on the size of your tongue drum. You can play the tongue drums by striking the tongue-shaped grooves on the drum. 

While this is the typical way to operate the tongue drum, you can take it a step further by observing the following tips: 

  • Familiarize yourself with the instrument
  • Start playing with mallets
  • Find the notes 
  • Experiment with the sound
  • Take lessons
  • Find sheet music for your favorite song
  • Practice continuously with the purpose 
  • Make your music
  • Record and playback
  • Read from and watch experts
  • Enjoy the Process

1. Familiarizing yourself with the instrument 

Once you get your tongue drum, the first thing to do is pick it up and feel its weight. After this, you position it by having the lowest notes closer to your body. You can quickly identify the notes on some tongue drums because they come with number stickers. 

If they don't, whatever notes you eventually play will not detrimentally affect the tone of the tongue drum. 

And once you familiarize yourself with each note, you can memorize their position on your tongue drum; after this comes tuning checks to determine if the steel drum is perfectly tuned or requires adjustment. 

2. Play with mallets 

Mallets are the most straightforward tools used to play the steel drum. With mallets, you can produce a louder tune than you can produce with your hands or fingers. These mallets are usually relative to the size of the instrument they accompany. 

Using mallets as a beginner is advisable because it enhances your familiarity with the notes the instrument emits. These mallets are hard plastics on sticks. Softer ones are also available for purchase. 

3. Find the notes 

The scale in which your tongue drum is tuned determines the number of notes you can play. To find the notes, you can search online, buy a songbook, or watch tutorials. 

These notes can be developed independently if you're vast in music theory. All you have to do is correctly position the steel drum before identifying the notes. 

Once you find the notes, you can start playing from the lowest note (#1) to the highest. This means striking the tongues around the steel drum by moving from left to right. Start with one hand, and follow up with both to alternate your strikes on each note discovered. 

Repeat the process to visualize the positioning of each tone and how they combine with others to create pleasant music. The tones are naturally autotuned to play harmoniously together. 

4. Experiment with the sound

Experimenting with the sound you create is where using the steel tongue drum gets fun. The best way to do this is first to create a chord. You create a chord when you hit multiple tongues at the same time. 

However, only some of the notes you combine will come out well. So it would be best if you experimented to determine perfect combinations. While it's not compulsory, you can research the chords available on your tongue drum's scale to understand them better. 

The more you play the drum to create music, the more dexterous you become in playing steel drums. When you get to this stage, you subconsciously avoid playing the wrong chords while you play original or adapted melodies. 

5. Take lessons

Take lessons

Tongue drums don't require musical knowledge or skills to create excellent music. However, if you enjoy the tunes you play as a novice and want to enhance them, you may take lessons on Youtube. 

Whenever you get to the point you want to play for an audience, you may take specialized courses in playing steel drums.

Taking lessons will drastically enhance your skill level and protect you from developing self-taught bad habits that slow learning progress. 

These bad habits may limit your ability to play challenging chords. So starting with the proper techniques and good habits will enhance your progress. 

6. Find sheet music of your favorite song

Once you've improved your skills, you can fully optimize them when playing your favorite song. To do this, go online to research apps and websites that allow the purchase of sheet music. It's a proven and enjoyable way to engage with the instrument. 

When you're comfortable playing your favorite songs, you can take it further by playing other songs you know. An alternative to all this is to use the song and instructions with the drum. 

7. Practice continuously with purpose

Purposeful and continuous practice is the only hack to improving your tongue drum-playing skill. As much as you're free to play for fun, you can only maximize the fun if you're playing to achieve a goal. The goal is to play much better or to create your music using the tongue drum. 

While at it, ensure you go for something narrower and more feasible. Pick specific objectives or work on trouble spots hindering your progress. Whatever purpose you set for yourself, prioritize continuous practice because it considerably influences the grand scheme. 

8. Make your music 

As enjoyable as it is to play your favorite music created by other people, it's much more fun to create yours. It is the most significant step towards enhancing your creativity while playing the tank drum. You don't necessarily have to write lyrics from the outset.

When you create unique tunes, you can create lyrics to them later. When you eventually create your music, perform it for someone. The more you increase your audience, the better your confidence in creating songs using the tank drum. 

9. Record and play back  

The best way to evaluate your progress while playing tank drums is to record your practice. When you do this and play back the recording, you can detect the areas you're lagging and attempt to improve them. This will enhance your tank drum playing skills.

While the audio format of the recording carries significant importance, the video formats are also crucial. 

With the video formats, you can record all angles of your practice. This will help you pinpoint areas you hit that gave wrong notes to work on them. 

10. Read from and watch experts 

Read from and watch experts

Some players are regarded as experts because they always have a unique way of playing the tank drum. It becomes paramount to read their submission and watch their videos. You're likely to add more to your knowledge of the tank drum while doing this. 

Picking and slowly adding a few things to your skill set will improve you in the long run. As you're aware, the hank drum is one of the most accessible instruments; you don't have to stress to gain more knowledge about playing it. Instruments like this only require interest, and every other thing follows.

11. Enjoy the process 

Playing the steel tongue drum is a remarkable experience that involves several processes. Each process involves lessons, all of which add up to establishing your knowledge and skill. That's why you must enjoy the process all the way. 

People who play better fall in love with the process of learning. This indicates you can also achieve the same mastery provided you set your mind towards enjoying the process. It gets easier afterward.  

Can you play a steel tongue drum with your hands? 

Can you play a steel tongue drum with your hands?

You can play a steel tongue drum with your hand, but its suitability may depend on some factors. These factors include the size of the tongue drum, the sound you like to create, and the skills you have to create such sounds. 

You'll get a soft and warm tone from your tongue drum when you play with your hands. You can either use one or both hands. But when you use both hands, you create more tunes simultaneously. 

Playing relaxing sounds on tongue drums using your bare hands requires time and practice. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. 

The good thing about using your hands is that you can attain remarkable versatility. You develop the skills to play different tunes and music on tongue drums of different sizes. 

How do steel tongue drums produce sound? 

As a slit drum, tongue drums produce a smooth and calming sound through vibration. This sound reverberates around the tongue drum whenever the tongues on the surface are tapped with the hand or a pair of mallets. With its resonating chamber, the steel tongue drum naturally amplifies all sounds. 

However, the sound of tongue drums can be amplified more by using

  • A microphone, which is placed at the front or behind the drum
  • An external speaker, which allows the player to move around while playing, or 
  • A portable amplifier, which is designed to enhance the sound of other instruments. 

Whether the sound is amplified, a steel drum produces naturally loud tunes. The sound quality of the steel tongue drum usually depends on how deft the notes are matched and mixed with the chords. 

This typically reflects the player's skills and the tongue drum notes after tuning. 

Takeaway: Unlock your creativity, boost focus, and ease stress by playing steel tongue drums

How do steel tongue drums produce sound?

Playing tongue drums allows you to enjoy peaceful tunes irrespective of musical skills. The more you play these tunes, the better your creativity for creating more tunes. 

Whenever you purchase a steel tongue drum, rest assured you invest in something worth more than a musical instrument. 

With the drum, you can relax, play, boost focus, and ease stress while renewing your inner energy. You don't have to stress about cutting a steel propane tank to create metal drums. You can get one at a lower price at Calm Panda. 

For more information about steel tongue drums,check out Calm Panda today.