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The steelpan (pan) is the National Musical Instrument of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, invented there circa 1935. It is a definite pitch, acoustic percussion instrument consisting of a playing surface of circular cross section made of steel. This is stretched to a concave shape and attached to a hollow, cylindrical resonator called a skirt. The playing surface is divided into an optimum number of isolated convex sections called notes. The steelpan is usually played with hand-held, rubber-tipped, non-sonorous mallets called sticks.

The steelpan is a percussion instrument. Many competent sources including the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards and the Illustrated World Encyclopaedia of Instruments have classified it as an idiophone. In North America and Europe, it is commonly referred to as a steel drum, suggesting that it is a membranophone. Hank Bordowitz in his article entitled Caribbean-More Music Washing Ashore has even called the pan a steel piano. What manner of instrument is this? In order to classify the steelpan, the definitions of idiophone and membranophone must be carefully examined.

An idiophone is a class of musical percussion instrument made from a naturally sonorous material. The source of sound is the vibration of that material, unmodified by any special tension. Idiophones are classified according to the ways in which they produce sound. There are eight basic types - stamping, stamped, shaken, concussion, scraped, plucked, friction and struck idiophones. Typical examples are Tamboo Bamboos, Tap Dancing Boards, Maracas, Castanets, Scratchers, Sansas, Musical Saws and Gongs, respectively. It should be noted that idiophones might be of definite or indefinite pitch. They may have one or more resonators and there may be more than one idiophone on a single instrument. Xylophones and Marimbas are examples of definite pitch struck idiophones, which have many resonators on the same instrument.

Does the steelpan fit into this category? Its constituent material, steel, is naturally sonorous. However, the playing surface is stretched. It is therefore modified by tension. This suggests that the instrument does not satisfy one of the criteria for being classified as an idiophone. The steelpan has also been described as a definite pitch struck idiophone. However, it may be argued that the notes on the instrument are designed to vibrate independently of each other so that the instrument as a whole does not vibrate when a particular note is struck. Thus, it does not satisfy yet another criterion for being classified as an idiophone. Is it, therefore, a membranophone?

A membranophone is a class of musical percussion instrument from which sound is produced by the vibration of a membrane called a head, stretched across a resonator. Membranophones are classified according to their shape. There are two basic types – skin drums and (the lesser known) mirlitons. Membranophones may be of definite or indefinite pitch, having one or two heads. Double-headed drums may be played on one or both heads. To classify a specific membranophone, one usually considers whether there are snares or sticky balls to improve the tone, how the membrane is attached to the resonator, how it is tuned, how it is played and the constituent material of the body of the instrument.

Does the steelpan fit into this category? The instrument may be described as a number of independent, definite pitch membranes attached to a resonator. However the steelpan is not a drum since the playing surface is not a skin and each note constitutes a different head. By definition, a drum has a maximum of two heads, each situated on either side of the resonator. Therefore the steelpan is not a membranophone although most of its characteristics are typical of that family.

It must be concluded that the steelpan cannot be definitively classified as either an idiophone or a membranophone. It is unique and may be considered to be the first truly hybrid percussion instrument invented by man.

©2000 Simeon L. Sandiford

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El steelpan (el pan) es el Instrumento Musical Nacional de la República de Trinidad y Tobago, inventado allí circa el año 1935. Es un instrumento de percusión acústico que tiene un tono claro consistiendo en una superficie tocante de una sección transversal circular hecha de acero. Esta es estirada de una forma cóncava y ligada a un resonador cilíndrico y hundido llamado una falda .

La superficie tocante se divide en un número óptimo de aisladas secciones convexas llamadas notas. Normalmente se toca el steelpan con mazos no-sonoros, con puntas de goma, agarrados en la mano, que se llaman palitos.

El steelpan es un instrumento de percusión. Muchas fuentes competentes entre ellas The Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards y the Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Instruments lo han clasificado como un idiophone. En América del Norte y en Europa lo llaman generalmente un tambor de acero, sugiriendo que es un membranophone. Hank Bordowitz en su artículo titulado Caribbean - More Music Washing Ashore lo ha nombrado un piano de acero.

¿ Qué clase de instrumento es este? Para clasificar el steelpan, se deben examinar con cuidado las definiciones de idiophone y membranophone.

Un idiophone es un tipo de instrumento de percusión musical hecho de un material naturalmente sonoro. El origen del sonido es la vibración de este material, no modificada por ninguna tensión especial. Se clasifican los idiophones conforme a la manera en que se producen el sonido. Son ocho tipos básicos de idiophones - pateamiento, patada, sacudido, conmoción cerebral, rallado, pulseado, fricción y golpeado. Unos ejemplos típicos son Tamboo Bamboo, Tablas para el Zapateo, Maracas, Castanuelas, Ralladores, Sansas, Sierras y Gongos Musicales respectivamente. Se debe notar que los idiophones pueden ser de un tono claro o impreciso. Pueden tener uno o más resonadores y puede haber más de un idiophone en un sólo instrumento. Los Xilófonos y las Marimbas son ejemplos de idiophones de un tono claro y golpeado que tienen muchos resonadores en el mismo instrumento.

¿ Pertenece el steelpan a esta categoría? Su material constitutivo, el acero, es naturalmente sonoro. Sin embargo, la superficie tocante está estirada. Es modificada por la tensión. Esto sugiere que el instrumento no satisfaga uno de los criterios por ser clasificado como un idiophone. Sin embargo, se puede sostener que las notas del instrumento son diseñadas para vibrar independiente de cada una de modo que el instrumento en su totalidad no vibra cuando se toque una nota particular. De este modo, no satisface aún otro criterio para ser clasificado como idiophone. ¿ Es, por consiguiente, un membranophone?

Un membranophone es un tipo de instrumento de percusión musical del cual el sonido es producido por la vibración de una membrana llamada una cabeza, estirada a través de un resonador. Se clasifican los membranophones según su forma. Son de dos tipos básicos - tambores de piel y (los menos conocidos) mirlitons. Los membranophones pueden ser de un tipo claro o impreciso, con una o dos cabezas. Se puede tocar los tambores de doble- cabezas en una o ambas cabezas. Para clasificar un membranophone específico, uno considera generalmente si hay trampas o bolas pegajosas para mejorar el tono, cómo se liga la membrana al resonador, cómo se fina, cómo se toca y el material constitutivo del cuerpo del instrumento.

¿ Pertenece el steelpan a esta categoría? Se puede describir el instrumento como un número de membranas independientes, de un tono claro ligadas a un resonador. Sin embargo, el steelpan no es un tambor puesto que la superficie tocante no es una piel y cada nota constituye una cabeza diferente. Por definición, un tambor tiene un máximo de dos cabezas, cada una situada en cada lado del resonador. Por lo tanto, el steelpan no es un membranophone aunque la mayoría de sus características de esa familia.

Se debe concluir que no se puede clasificar el steelpan como idiophone o membranophone. Es único y puede ser considerado el primer instrumento de percusión verdaderamente híbrido inventado por el hombre.

© 2000 Simeon L. Sandiford

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Steelband - The Instrument,
The Orchestra ... Steel Pan

The Steel Pan is the only new family of acoustic instruments to have been invented in the last 100 years. It is the National Music Instrument of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It was invented there circa 1940.

The Steel Pan is a definite-pitch, acoustic, and percussion instrument. It consists of a circular steel playing surface stretched to a concave shape, attached to a hollow, metallic, cylindrical resonator called a 'skirt". The playing surface Is divided into an optimum number of convex sections called "notes", each of which is acoustically isolated and tuned to a definite pitch. The instrument is usually played with a pair of hand-held rubber-tipped, non-sonorous mallets called "sticks". Persons skilled in the art of playing the Steel Pan are called 'Pannists'

An ensemble or orchestra, which usually consists of a family of Steel Pans encompassing a range of approximately six chromatic octaves, is known as a Steelband or steel orchestra. It is often supported by a rhythm section (commonly called the engine room) consisting of a variety of other indefinite pitch percussion instruments which, when played in harmony, regulate the tempo of the music. The most highly regarded features of Steel Pan playing of the whole orchestra are demonstrated through the extended arrangements of Calypsoes called "Panorama Music".

Simeon L. Sandiford

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Pan In Concert

Today's Steel Pan has evolved to a level of majestic sophistication. It has demonstrated the capacity not only to extend the range of orchestral music but also to replicate the sounds of many other instruments. Pan's very nature permits it to faithfully render entire symphonies. Yet no other instrument possesses the bell-like echoing, the silver purity, of the Steel Pan. These features are most pronounced in the concert hall setting and in the playing of European classical music.

Panorama is acknowledged as the foremost Pan playing event and is a fixture in the major Carnival celebrations in Boston, Brooklyn, Miami, Notting Hill and Toronto. But the potential of Pan has steadily developed and a "Pan in Concert" tradition is evolving rapidly. Pan is now presented in prestigious and far flung places from its indigenous roots: Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. and Symphony Hall, Boston; and in countries like Japan and Morocco. And it is in this concert setting that the many facets of Pan are displayed and its best players exhibit their extraordinary artistry.


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