How to Read and Find Music for Steel Tongue Drums

Unlike most drums, a steel tongue drum is a tuned instrument. That means you can play tunes with it, and there are steel tongue drum notes that help you play from a sheet. This is a great assistance as you want to go beyond pure meditative improvising. If you have no experience with this musical instrument, a question inevitably arises: How does one read the notes for the hank drum? The answer is: easily, and here we’re going to tell you how to read the notes and play them.

Notes for Steel Tongue Drums

As a tuned instrument, a steel tongue drum (a.k.a. panda drum, or hank drum) can produce different notes when you hit different tongues. There is no standard tuning for it, though, so there are no standard specific notes. Instead, the producers might have used the standard notation. The problem is that the instrument is famous for not requiring any musical education, hence its traditional turnings that just don’t have disharmonic notes.

But how do you read the notes and apply them? For the connection, numbers are usually used. They are either engraved on the tongues themselves or come as stickers with instructions telling you how to stick them correctly. Then it’s easy: To produce a note, hit the number that signifies it. When you memorize them, you can remove the stickers.

Along the notes, there are also intervals that define when each note should be played. It’s also simple to understand, but is it simple to read? The answer is ”yes.” There are ways to write down the steel tongue drum tunes that are legible even if you’re a stranger to the staff.

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Do You Need the Ability to Read Notes?

There are examples of steel tongue drum songbooks written with a classical notation, on a traditional staff. Yet the notes are also marked with numbers, for you to see which note relates to a particular tongue. It can be useful if you either know musical notation or want to learn it with the instrument you own.

However, it’s not necessary at all. There are songbooks that use something like a piano roll you find in modern drum machines and their digital analogs (like FL Studio, etc.). Instead of the staff, there are patterns where one field equals one note (usually 1/16, though the time signature can vary). So, yes, knowing the notation helps, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

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How to Read the Sheets for Hank Drums

A steel tongue drum is a drum. The sheets for it might resemble drum machine patterns more than a traditional staff. As you program a sequence with a drum machine, you record it by hitting a button at a certain moment, and then, at the playback, it lights up when the sample is played. Treat steel tongue drum sheets the same: They can look like rows of rectangular blocks (like drum machine buttons). When the moment comes, hit the right tongue according to the number written above that block. To make that clearer, the numbers sometimes are positioned on different heights, as they would be on the staff. Sometimes, to help you with the timing, the blocks have different colors. This can help you see the rhythm they set.

In a good songbook, there are prefaces to all the songs, showing you which tongues are used in it. It makes it easier for you to focus on them while playing. After some practice, it will become automatic, but as you’re learning, it’s priceless.

It’s great if you have a metronome that sets the rhythm. If you don’t have one, you can download a metronome app (Android, iOS) and use it while playing. After some practice, you’ll be able to use an imaginary metronome in your mind.

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Where to Find Songbooks?

If you buy a factory-made steel tongue drum, it often comes with a manual and a songbook. The most precious thing about the manual is that it has the scale the drum is tuned to. It can also show you how to hold the drum if the tongues look the same. If there is, say, a logo in the center of the surface, the manual shows you how it should look as you’re holding the drum.

The songbook is optimized to fit the drum perfectly, and its number sheets are written for this particular instrument. It also has instructions on reading them.

If it doesn’t, though, or you want more songs, you can do the following:

  • Get yourself some paper songbooks. There are many of them on Amazon, for example. I’d recommend buying a paper book as you can take it with you anywhere and not be distracted by your smartphone or tablet.
  • Find songbooks online (like this one, for example). As it comes with an 8-tongue model of a steel tongue drum tuned in E major, you’ll find it compatible with other drums with 8 tongues tuned in E major, but you’ll need to do some transposing to use it with other models. This requires some understanding, so if you aren’t sure, you’d better search for something specific for your model or a similarly tuned one. There is more stuff, for example, for Kindle.

NB: If you decide to google some books yourself, you’d better type the tuning of your drum into the field so that the results are more relevant.

  • Learn notes! This takes time, but you have a tuned instrument that will help you practice. As you master this art, you’ll be able to find notes intuitively or read them from generic notation.
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The Hank-lusion

Though the steel tongue drum is famous for its simplicity even for those who can’t read notes, for you, it can be the entrance to the world of written music. Improvising is pleasant, and it’s great for meditation, but it can only get you so far. On the contrary, if you let your curiosity lead the way and start figuring out the notation, a steel tongue drum is a great companion in this journey.

 

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