How to Read Steel Pan Music

By Charlotte Johnson ; Updated September 15, 2017
Caribbean music uses steel pans.

Steel pans are the percussive instruments that you often hear playing in Caribbean music. These instruments are also known as "steel drums." Traditional musical notation is used for steel pan music. Learning to read steel pan music is a process of understanding how various pitches and rhythms are written. Once you learn to read steel pan music, you can become a more versatile and skilled steel pan player.

Look at the lines and spaces of the treble clef. Steel pan music is written in the treble clef, which is the upper set of staff lines within a grand staff of music.

Learn the names of the notes that are written on the lines. The bottom line is E. The next four notes moving upward by line are G, B, D and F.

Learn the names of the notes that are written in the spaces. The bottom space is F. The next three spaces moving upward are A, C and E.

Learn the notes that are above and below the staff lines of the treble clef. The D note is just under the first line, and middle C is beneath D. Middle C also has its own ledger line running through the note. G is the note that lies on top of the top line, and A is just above G. A also has a ledger line. The notes below middle C and above high A are written either on or between ledger lines, in an alternative fashion. The notes follow the pattern of the musical alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

Look for sharps and flats. A sharp is written with a "#" symbol, and a flat is written with a "b" symbol. These can occur within a piece, or they may be written at the beginning of a set of staff lines in what is known as the "key signature."

Look at the nature of the notes' bodies and stems in order to determine the rhythmic value of each note. A note that has a black outline and white center, and has no stem, is a whole note--which usually receives four beats. A note that looks like a whole note with a stem is a half note, and it usually receives two beats. A note whose body is completely black and has a stem is a quarter note, and it usually receives one beat. A note that looks like a quarter note except that the stem has a flag or is tied to the stem of another note is an eighth note. Eighth notes usually receive half a beat each.

Play the pitches according to their locations in the steel pans. You can study a note position chart if you are unfamiliar with the note placements (see Resource section). Combine the pitch with the rhythmic value to determine how quickly or slowly to play each note.

About the Author

Charlotte Johnson is a musician, teacher and writer with a master's degree in education. She has contributed to a variety of websites, specializing in health, education, the arts, home and garden, animals and parenting.