JJC Professor, Student Embark on Unique Mission to Map Vibrations in Steelpan

What started as an honors class project for JJC student Joseph Garcia and natural sciences professor Dr. Andy Morrison has morphed into a very unique scientific research project, combining science and music.

“We set out to discover how vibrations travel when a steelpan is played,” said Morrison. “When you play a piano, one key strikes one string at a time, making one note. In a steelpan, all the notes are embedded in that one piece of metal.”

Image of a second resonance of a note on a steelpan.

Originating in Trinidad and Tobago, the steelpan (sometime referred to as a steel drum) is a musical instrument created from the careful hammering on the bottom of 55-gallon barrels. Individual notes on the instrument are tuned by skilled tuners. Lead steelpans (tenor steelpans) are tuned to a chromatic scale. Most instruments access the chromatic scale by manipulating a 1-dimensional environment, like a string on a guitar or an air column in an oboe. What makes the steelpan unique and interesting to study is that the vibrations of different notes are all coupled together because the notes are all embedded in the same piece of steel.

As they began the project, seeking to answer the question of how related vibrations propagate in different areas of the steelpan’s surface, they began to realize that data collection was going to require a lot more time than just two people could devote to it.

“We have captured two dozen movies of the vibration of steelpans with a high speed camera at up to 30,000 frames per second, and therefore have a lot of images to go through,” Morrison said. “Currently there are no computer programs that can analyze these images, so we are looking for volunteers to look at these images and locate areas of maximum vibrations (called antinodes) in the images and to count concentric circles or ellipses.”

Answering this question not only helps to quantify the steelpan’s timbre, but also leads to a better understanding of how coupling vibrations may occur in other surfaces.

Morrison said that anyone can volunteer to be part of this project; expertise in science or music is not required.

In December, Morrison and Garcia are planning to present their research on this project at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in New Orleans, LA.

For more information about the project and more details on how you can be a part of it, visit: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/achmorrison/steelpan-vibrations


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