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January 10, 2023 9 min read

A steel tongue drum is used by novices and experts during meditation and yoga to balance chakras. The soothing sounds are used in sound healing or music therapy, a rising practice in the modern world. Tongue drums are also helpful when connecting with nature and in space clearing to manifest blessings.

A steel tongue drum is known as a hank drum or tank drum. It is a percussion instrument meaning that the sound it produces comes from the material itself. 

It does not need strings, a membrane, or an external resonator. 

A steel tongue drum is usually round. And when you hit it with mallets or bare hands, it produces a soothing sound. 

It is different from a wooden tongue drum which is typically box-shaped.

A tongue drum can be made from a 20-gallon empty steel propane tank.

Artisans typically cut out several tongues from the tank's base, which forms the instrument's top. 

The tongues are cut in different shapes depending on the type of musical scale that the maker intends.

After reading this article, you’ll learn the difference between a tongue drum and other similar instruments, its many uses, the scales and notes that make up its sound, and more.

Let's get started.

What’s the difference between a steel tongue drum, a hang, and a handpan?

As it happens, the original name for the tongue drum, "hank drum," is a combination of the words “hang” and “tank.”

Handpan (aka Hang) is yet another percussion instrument like the whale drum, whose sound is almost similar to the steel drum. 

Check out how these instruments differ below.

A man playing a tank drum

They’re constructed differently

The Hang is based on the Caribbean steelpan instrument. They're quite similar to Caribbean steel drums. In contrast, the steel tongue drum is largely based on the wooden slit drum. But it's made from steel or metal alloys.

The Hang fits into the Ideophone class and is constructed from two half-sheets of deep drawn, nitrided steel sheet. It is glued together at the rim, leaving the inside hollow, which creates a convex lens shape.

The top side (called Ding) has a center 'note' hammered in. And seven or eight 'tone fields' hammered around its center. 

The bottom side (called Gu) is a plain surface with a rolled hole around the center. 

It has a tuned note that you play by striking the rim with your fingers.

The construction of the steel tongue drum is enclosed, which differs from the handpan’s open-bottom drum construction. 

The sound made by the steel tongue drum reverberates through the steel and its vibrations are released through the slits.

A man holding a handpan on top of a mountain

A steel tongue drum

Each is played differently

The Hang is played while resting on your lap. Here you can create a melody by using the left and right hands to alternate between ascending and descending tone fields. 

The steel tongue drum, however, is played while placed on a care sheet on the floor or table. Smaller tongue drums may be played while resting on the laps, especially outdoors.

A steel tongue drum has tongues on the top side necessary for creating varying notes on a scale. 

But the handpan/Hang doesn't have tongues on its surface; instead, it has a top that is hammered in a way that produces different notes. 

The handpan, as the name suggests, is played using hands, unlike the steel tongue drum that uses both hands and mallets.

A woman playing a white steel tongue drum

They differ in Pricing

Another significant difference between these two almost-similar-looking instruments is their pricing. Tongue drums are more affordable, whereas handpans might cost six times the price of one steel tongue drum.

For a new and well-crafted handpan with about seven to eight notes, expect to pay no less than $1000 to $2500. 

A handpan with higher notes should have you paying between $3000 to $4000; and more for anything custom-made.

Quality tongue drums range from $69 to $450, making them affordable compared to the pricey handpans.

A sitting woman hugging a steel tongue drum

What can you do with your steel tongue drum?

People use it during meditation, when communing with nature, balancing chakras, sound healing, or music therapy, as well as space clearing. 

Find out more about each one of these uses below.

Whether you’re a music enthusiast or a trained professional, you have a myriad of options on how to use the steel tongue drum. This unique instrument encompasses various aspects of life. 

A meditating woman in white with a steel tongue drum on her feet
You can use steel tongue drum for meditation

People achieve a state of calmness and peace by regulating their breathing to the rich melodies of the steel tongue drum music. 

They give a pleasant and relaxing sound, which makes them a great musical addition to a meditation session.

These drums come labeled with notes on the tongues to help you create varying pitches. 

You can achieve a calm state using the steel tongue drum by gently hitting one tongue with a mallet and using the sounds to ground yourself to the moment. 

You may also incorporate other calming aspects into your meditation practice, like scents or being in a naturally lit, open space.

Take a moment and enjoy this tongue drum meditation session.

A woman in white playing a black steel tongue drum

You can use tongue drums to commune with nature

Being out in the environment is freeing and relaxing. You can make it much better by bringing along your tongue drum. 

Sitting by the river or amongst trees while playing this instrument is a great way to ground yourself and be one with nature.

Let the smooth and tranquil notes of your tongue drum accompany you on your next nature walk. 

Here is a nature enthusiast being soothed by the sweet melodies of the tongue drum while outside amongst nature.

Black, white, pink, red, and gold steel tongue calm panda drums in nature

You can use steel tongue drums to balance your chakras

Chakra is a Sanskrit word that means wheel or cycle. They are energy centers situated along the base of your spine to the crown of your head. 

When balancing your chakras, understand that there is a correlation between each chakra point and a note on the scale of your tongue drum.

Below are the different notes for each chakra:

  • Third eye Chakra: A or A#

  • Crown Chakra: B 

  • Root Chakra: C

  • Sacral Chakra: C# or D

  • Solar plexus Chakra: D# or E

  • Heart Chakra: F or F#

  • Throat Chakra: G or G#

Gurus and spiritual healers will often use the notes on a tongue drum to center upon each chakra to open up and allow a free flow of energy. This ancient technique has its roots in Asian culture. 

You can learn more about the different notes and the chakras they represent here.

A woman meditating on top of stone for Calm Panda

You can use steel tongue drum for music therapy

Music therapy is the clinical use of music's naturally mood-lifting properties to accomplish individual goals like mood improvement, stress reduction, physical rehabilitation, and increased motivation. 

Trained practitioners use steel tongue drums to invoke resonance between a patient's well-being and the instrument's sounds. 

You can learn how to use the steel tongue drum for music therapy here.

A mother teaching a child to play a calm panda steel tongue drum

You can use steel tongue drum in space clearing

You can use the calm, echoing sounds of the steel tongue drum as part of your space-clearing practices. Simply strike it with a mallet during your ritual.

Space clearing is an ancient practice that harmonizes and balances the flow of energy in your personal and living spaces. It pushes out stagnant and negative energy in a room or other space to allow fresh energy in. 

Incorporate it into your yoga sessions

Combining tongue drums with yoga is one way to clear your mind and nurture your spirit. Listen to the percussion of a tongue drum during your yoga session to heal your physical, mental, and spiritual health. 

The tongue drum will come in handy, especially when trying to focus on your breath.

See if you can recreate this tongue drum music during your yoga sessions!

A woman meditating in yoga position with a white 11 inch 11 tone Calm Panda Steel Tongue Drum on the yoga mat

Is it hard to learn how to play a steel tongue drum?

Learning how to play a steel tongue drum is effortless. Since most slit drums have tongues that produce notes on a specific scale, playing these notes in any order would create beautiful sounds that resonate with each other. 

Unlike complex musical instruments such as the piano, the tongue drum is more "easy-going."

This instrument is easy to play also because it involves minimal input from the user or player. Compared to the strenuous hand work needed to play the violin or the precise foot and hand coordination needed when playing the drum set, a tongue drum only needs you to strike its tongue gently using a mallet or hand.

Lastly, the steel tongue drum is easy to play because you don’t need pages of sheet music to decode musical notes or sound into writing. 

A beginner could pick up a mallet, strike one or two tongues on the tongue drum, and quickly achieve a soft and soothing melody, all without needing a reference point. 

The more accustomed you get to the notes and how they make you feel, the better you get at creating the right music. 

How many notes can a steel tongue drum have?

While most steel tongue drums come with a note range of about eight to eleven notes, you may even find some to have fifteen.

The more the number of tongues on a tongue drum, the more notes it's able to produce. 

Smaller steel tongue drums can produce fewer notes because they have fewer tongues, whereas more giant drums can incorporate more tongues, hence more notes.

Steel tongue drums can be calibrated to various scales. Some of the popular ones include the diatonic scale, the pentatonic scale, the chromatic scale, Akebono, and major to minor scales of all notes. 

Below’s a closer look at these scales.

11-tone Blue Calm Panda Steel Tongue Drum
11-toneSteel Tongue Drum - calmpanda.com​​

The Diatonic Scale

The diatonic scale is a type of scale with seven notes - a heptatonic scale. It includes five whole steps and two half steps in each octave. 

There are seven diatonic scales, including; tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone.

The Pentatonic Scale

A pentatonic scale has five notes per octave, in contrast to the heptatonic scale, which has seven notes per octave. 

Some tongue drums are made explicitly for this scale by calibrating their tongues to match the frequency of each note on the scale.

The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is a set of twelve pitches arranged in ascending or descending order of pitch. It's also called the twelve-tone scale and is made up entirely of half steps, with each step being above or below the last note.

Akebono Scale

The Akebono scale is a musical scale commonly used in traditional Japanese music which uses the same intervals as the Diatonic scale, only that Akebono has no fixed tonic. This means that any note on the Akebono note can be the tonic.

Major to Minor Scale

Simply put, a major scale is a scale in which the third scale degree (the mediant) is a major third above the tonic tone. With a minor scale, the third degree is a minor third above the tonic.

Can a steel tongue drum be tuned?

You'll be glad to know that tuning your steel tongue drum is possible, and you can accomplish it in a few ways.

After using your tongue drum for a while, you may realize that its original tuning is different from what you're looking for and wish to fine-tune. 

Below are various methods for tuning a steel tongue drum.

Tuning a Black Calm Panda Steel Tongue Drum

By Using a Tuner

It is impossible to tune your tongue drum without using a tuner. How else would you achieve the correct frequency and pitch of each tongue? 

A chromatic tuner is the reference point you need, and you can quickly obtain one at a music store or opt for a digital tuner on your smartphone or computer.

Both work by the same principle: you have to choose the frequency and match every tongue to the note you select on the tuner in that frequency. 

Other tuners may let you tune all notes on a full scale instead of manually tuning each note. You may find that manual tuning is more accurate compared to the later alternative.

Magnetic Tuning

Some tongue drums are described as two-part tongue drums because you can open them to tune them. 

You can move tuning magnets from the edge of a tongue to where it merges with the rest of the body to adjust the frequency.

Tuning with a sharp object

Using a sharp object is a more unconventional way to achieve tuning on your steel tongue drum, but it's possible. 

You can carefully hook the tongues through the slits, bend it up and return the frequency to what it used to be. 

Please exercise caution and bend each tongue with little effort to get the right frequency.

Takeaway: Get your steel tongue drum for relaxing sounds

There are many ways to use the steel tongue drum, from meditation classes, yoga sessions, music therapy, and space clearing to balancing your chakras. 

The steel tongue drum is made by cutting out bases of nearly 20 lb steel or metal alloy propane tanks and expertly cutting out its tongues to produce varying notes depending on which scale the maker chooses to base it on. 

The steel tongue drum can be crafted in different sizes and aesthetics to match your needs and tastes.

It takes nearly no effort at all to learn how to play the steel tongue drum and bring out its wondrous notes, no matter its scale. Should your tongue drum ever fail to bring out the desired frequency or note, you can quickly recalibrate it using simple tools such as a tuner.

Ready to start incorporating the soothing sounds into your practices?

Get a well-priced and beautiful steel tongue drum from Calm Panda!