Science behind the steel drum Music: Researchers are amazed at the rich tones hammered into old oil containers by island masters. Their magic has captivated the world.

July 09, 1996|By William J. Broad | William J. Broad,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Steel drums turn out to vibrate with a wide range of subtle resonances that are captivating not only listeners but physicists who investigate how musical instruments cast their distinctive spells.

Scientists are discovering that steel drums, the funky Caribbean folk instruments made out of oil drums and struck by twin mallets, produce a surprisingly rich array of harmonic overtones and couplings between notes that fuse to form haunting sounds fast catching on around the world.

Born in Trinidad, the steel drum or, as its creators call it, pan (pronounced "pon," like the Caribbean "mon" for man), is being increasingly heard globally because of its rich sound and relative ease of play.

Steel orchestras and steel-pan soloists are popping up in places like Stockholm and San Francisco, Tokyo and Toronto. Movie soundtracks, like Disney's "The Little Mermaid," feature steel pans. And for some reason, perhaps because of the icy winters, Scandinavia abounds in steel bands and sounds evocative of Caribbean waves and soft breezes.

Calypso rhythms are traditional, though large steel bands cover nearly the full range of symphony orchestras and can roam over five octaves to tap out everything from pop and classical to jazz and reggae.

Dr. Thomas D. Rossing, a physicist at Northern Illinois University who studies musical instruments, got hooked on the sound after his school became one of the first the United States to form a steel band. He has been analyzing the instrument for nearly a decade, laboring to uncover its secrets.

"It's a surprisingly complex instrument," he said. "As you increase the amplitude of an area that you're exciting, you get a lot of sympathetic vibrations."

Writing in a recent issue of Physics Today, a monthly journal published by the American Institute of Physics, based in Woodbury, N.Y., Dr. Rossing, D. Scott Hampton of Northern Illinois University and Dr. Uwe J. Hansen of Indiana State University lauded the pan.

It is "probably the most important new acoustical [that is, nonelectronic] musical instrument developed in the 20th century," they wrote.

Rossing, a co-author of "The Physics of Musical Instruments" (Springer-Verlag, 1991), became so interested in steel pan that he not only analyzed it with lasers and other scientific tools but journeyed to Trinidad to study its roots.

There he visited instrument makers, sat in on steel-band rehearsals and attended the island's Panorama Steel Festival, a competition held during the Carnival season in which steel ensembles of up to 100 players and 300 pans compete against one another.

Trinidad and Tobago lie just off the coast of Venezuela and are rich in sugar cane and coconut palms, oil and rum. The nation, which won independence from Britain in 1962, is one of the Caribbean region's most prosperous.

Around the turn of the century, Trinidad's colonial rulers banned the playing of African drums during Carnival because the strong rhythms made with stout sticks often ended in riots and bloodshed. So innovative Trinidadians took to playing buckets, frying pans, garbage cans, brake drums, tins and, eventually, oil drums.

The main evolution of the instrument took place after World War II, as exhausted navies left thousands of 55-gallon oil drums on island beaches and as the celebrations of Carnival resumed with a vengeance, enhanced by the cheerfully hollow, percussive sound of the pan. It was born in the ghettos; for a long time, it bore a stigma because of its association with the poor.

Making a pan involves swinging a sledgehammer to pound down the end of an oil drum into a shallow concave bowl, which forms the playing surface. That is grooved with a metal punch to define the areas of individual notes, which are raised slightly in convex curves. After the pan is tempered over a wood bonfire, more hammering carefully tunes each note.

Notes are arranged around the playing surface in rings. On the outside, nearest the pan's rim, are large notes with low pitches, while nearer the center are smaller notes with higher pitches. A pan can have up to three sets of rings, with the notes of each ring usually an octave apart.

Arranged on one side of the playing surface are notes corresponding to a piano's white keys, and on the other side are the sharps and flats corresponding to the black keys.

Part or all of the oil-drum wall is retrained in the manufacturing process and used as a baffle, which separates the top and bottom of the instrument and prevents the cancellation of radiated sounds.

Reverberations across the top of the pan are boisterous or gentle, depending on the force of the mallet strike. Part of the instrument's charm is undoubtedly the fact that rich music emanates from something that looks suspiciously like a garbage can.

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