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There aren't many instruments versatile enough to make up entire bands by themselves, but the steel pan drum is a truly special exception. Developed in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930's, the steel pan drum isn't actually a drum at all, but an idiophone. The entire instrument vibrates to make the sound – not simply a drum skin – allowing it to create a range of pitches no drum could dream of. The round steel surface, traditionally repurposed from an emptied oil barrel but now often created to instrument makers' specifications, is sunken into a concave bowl shape before having any number of pitches hammered, molded and tuned into specific areas of the surface.
If you're thinking about your first steel pan, you might want to take a look at the pentatonic steel drum in G. Designed for use on a table or other flat surface, each of the 6 pitches on this pan is perfectly tuned to the pentatonic scale, so nothing sounds like a mistake. The applications of this melodic percussion instrument – from Afro-Caribbean to Jazz – are virtually endless. The mini diatonic steel drum in the key of C is tuned to an accurate A 440 and can span a generous 1 ½ octaves, making it more appealing to intermediate players. Or if you're looking for maximum melodic ability, the double mini chromatic drums, when played together, are able to sound an even more complete range of notes. The different but complementary tuning of each drum in this set makes complex chromatic melodies possible, while the clearly-defined area and pitch markings make learning easy.
An array of different tunings and note arrangements are available on the steel pan drum because no standardized pitch layout exists yet. Being the only new acoustic instrument invented in the 20th-century, the steel pan is still in development, making it an exciting instrument to experiment with. Like Trinidadian steelbands themselves – who pride themselves on unique arrangements of unexpected music, such as jazz, film and pop tunes – the steel pan drum is adaptable to a variety of different musical styles and its full potential is yet to be discovered.
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