What Are The Differences Between Handpan & Steel Drum?

Percussion instruments come in various sizes, shapes, forms, and materials. In this article, we'll be taking a look at two particular instruments built with a comparable concept and build material: the handpan and the steel drum. Despite their metal build and similar pitched configuration, their distinctions are also hard to miss and worth pointing out.

What are the differences between handpan and steel drum? The differences can be abridged as follows:

  • Handpans are convex and small. Steel drums are concave and large.
  • Handpans have a narrower pitch range and deliver fewer overtones than steel drums.
  • Steel drums are played with sticks, while handpans are played with the hands.

This article will discuss the distinctions between handpans and steel drums.

Related articles:
• Top 11 Benefits Of Learning & Playing Drums/Percussion
• Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn How To Play Drums

The Backgrounds Of Handpan And Steel Drum

There's been a trend in recent years to design minimalistic instruments that resemble those utilized from the earliest days of music.

Furthermore, both instruments are closely related to one another beyond the fact that handpans were created by steel drum makers, notwithstanding that they're generations apart.

Without further ado, let's dive into their history. Let's begin with the steel drum, which is the oldest of the two.

The Background Of Steel Drums

Steel drums (typically called “steelpans”) are iconic drums that, as of this writing, embody Trinidad & Tobago's culture and heritage. They were the result of a pioneering stage that was set into motion during the late 19th century. This was a time of great commotion as the British government attempted to strike down carnival celebrations and banned sticks and drums.

This led Trinidadians to search for ways to circumvent these prohibitions. They eventually came up with the tamboo-bamboo, consisting of bamboo sticks that would be hammered against the ground or banged together. These would be made in different sizes to create different tonalities and pitches.

These sticks were widely utilized until they too were banned in 1934. Down the road, people began utilizing steel cans, buckets, trash bins, and, of course, steel pans. This development paved the way for the modern steel drum. By 1955, these steelpans began having a more standardized construction, with 55-gallon oil drums being utilized as the base material.

These “drums” were beaten with wooden sticks, and different notes came out by repeatedly “rolling” on their dents. This would prompt steelpan manufacturers to produce highly defined dents for more accurate tuning. The instruments would also progressively be made of higher-quality steel for more resonance.

It was not the first time in music history that political and social turmoil became a driving factor in creating musical instruments, especially percussion instruments. In addition, like with instruments such as the clave or the cajon, the origin of the steel drum was deeply linked to African musical tradition.

The Background Of Handpan

The handpan's appearance came much later. In fact, it's only been a few decades since the instrument was first introduced to the public. The handpan appears to be inspired by the steel drum, though, on this occasion, there were no political or social motivations behind its development.

The handpan was created in 2001 by a Swiss-based company named PANArt, and it was originally named “Hang” (“hand” in Bernese German). The people responsible for the handpan's design were Swiss artists and steelpan makers Sabina Schärer and Felix Rohner. However, they did not plan to mass produce these instruments at first, yielding only a few hundred units per year.

Eventually, they received so many requests that they had to devise a way to filter buyers. They would require interested parties to pen down a handwritten letter, and the chosen customers would then be invited to the PANArt workshop to buy their handpans in person.

More recently, the original creators stopped producing handpans to focus on another instrument called the Gubal. Meanwhile, Kyle Cox – an instrument maker who showed increasing enthusiasm for the instrument since its earliest days – partnered with contractor Jim Dusin. Dusin met Cox while the latter was in the process of crafting a steel drum. They would then formulate a revised version of the Hang called the Halo, which started being retailed through their newly-registered company called Pantheon Steel.

Yet, as of this writing, only a few manufacturers produce handpans, and, just like PANArt, they would keep austere production numbers to maintain optimal quality standards.

The Similarities Between Handpan And Steel Drum

As stressed earlier, the handpan and the steel drums share too many characteristics, almost to the point where the handpan could be considered a type of steel drum. These are, in a nutshell, some of their most noticeable similarities:

  • Both handpans and steel drums are made of metal, oftentimes of high-quality steel.
  • Both handpans and steel drums are pitched percussion instruments.
  • Both instruments are idiophones.
  • Handpans, just like steel drums, are designed with dents distributed strategically across their body.
  • Both instruments are curved, although in different directions.

The Differences Between Handpan And Steel Drum

Now, it's time to deconstruct the distinctions pointed out in the first few paragraphs of this post.

Difference 1: Shape

In the initial answer, I stated the following:

“Handpans are convex and small. Steel drums are concave and large.”

There is not much to add concerning this point. It's fairly easy to discern both instruments by merely looking at them.

The handpan, while carrying the same dented concept as the steel drum, resembles a flying saucer. It's comprised of two metal half-shells bound together and forming a hollow chamber inside. It could be argued that the design of the handpan is an inversion of the traditional steel drum design.

A handful of variants of the original handpan preserve the concave shape, albeit with some distinguishing features. The tongue drum, for example, carries a similar oval outline, but the “tone fields” are markedly different, as they contain piercings on the steel, which result in stark tonal discrepancies.

The steelpan or steel drum is shaped more like a traditional drum, but with a concave drumhead and a skirt attached around it. It also tends to be larger than the handpan, with more dents of different shapes and sizes hammered across the drumhead. This specific trait will become relevant as we cover the next distinction.

Difference 2: Pitch And Sound

At the beginning of this writing, I affirmed the following:

“Handpans have a narrower pitch range and deliver fewer overtones than steel drums.”

The handpan has from 8 to 9 different playable notes. However, you may get different layers of sound for each tone field, and you'll be capable of playing with the different harmonics. You'll find diverse handpans designed to play different scales at specific keys. You could likewise play additional scales when you flip the handpan upside down.

The steel drum, by contrast, can be played in any key since you will have the entire chromatic scale at your disposal. You can render two octaves and a major third with a high tenor steel drum, though you may get an even higher range with the quadrophonic pan, which contains four pans and creates notes across almost three octaves.

Another difference – though rather minor – is with respect to tonal profiles. While the steel drum and the handpan deliver comparable tones, upon closer inspection, the steel drum carries slightly more noticeable overtones, which can be heard during each note's decay. However, this is only noticeable if you pay close attention.

Despite the above observation, it's interesting to note that the handpan, when played with sticks, closely matches the sound and feel of the steel drum (as seen in this video). This could lead to the belief that distinctions in sound are owed more to how these instruments are traditionally played, rather than with any regard to construction or design.

Difference 3: Playing Style

The last difference I pointed out was the following:

“Steel drums are played with sticks, while handpans are played with the hands.”

While, in principle, both instruments could be played with beaters or mallets, the handpan is almost meant to be played with the hands.

The handpan is very sensitive to the touch, able to produce sounds by merely tapping on the “tone field” with one finger. Using different techniques, such as slapping or tapping, you can render remarkable tonal variations, which is one of the major selling points of the instrument.

On the other hand, the steel pans would not be conceivably played in any way other than with mallets or beaters.

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. Check out his music here.

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