Tunable Tongue Drums – Play your Favourite Scale


One great feature of steel tongue drums is that some come with adjustable tuning, allowing you to change the Key and scale to fit your mood.

How to tune a steel tongue drum? – Tongue Drums with adjustable tuning use a simple magnet system. By moving the magnets up or down the tongues you are able to either raise or drop the pitch of the note. This allows you to choose the key and tune to any scale you want to play.

For more information on tongue drums that you can change tuning on, please read on. I look at a range of instruments in the tongue drum class that are tuneable, and how to undertake the process.

Recommended Tunable Tongue Drums

There are a few makers creating tunable steel tongue drums on the market but my favorite, from a range of available instruments, is the Idiopan lunabell. There are both smaller and larger versions of the Idiopan available, but the Lunabell is perfect for portability being neither too large or heavy to cart around.

Idiopan Lunabell 8-Inch Tunable Steel Tongue Drum [Check Amazon for Current Price]

For more recommended tongue drums, including fixed tuning options, please take a look at my recommended tongue drums page

Is it Hard to Tune a Tongue Drum

It is not hard to retune a tongue drum using the magnet technique, but do not expect to get that magnet in exactly the right place at the first time of trying. The more you retune the better you begin to be able to locate the correct notes and the quicker you will be able to complete the task.

The magnets will be super strong and you will find that a smooth side is not quite as easy as you might imagine. Rather they will suddenly jerk forward or back, so getting the precise location of the magnet in the center of the tongue as desired is not straightforward. You will have to make many tiny adjustments to get it just right

Also, you will need to have a tuning device to check you have it positioned in the perfect place to reproduce the note you want to play on that tongue. Amazon has a range of inexpensive electronic tuners. The Korg TM60BK is a good example and also will help if you want to retune the frequency too.

Check the Tuning Regularly

If you were playing guitar, most players have got into the habit to check the tuning, prior to playing. Try to get into the habit of checking the tuning of your tongue drum each time you play. This way you can ensure it remains perfectly tuned and therefore reproduces precisely the sound and tunes you want to create each time you pick it up.

How Long do They Stay in Tune

All things considered, if the magnets are good quality, super strong, (as they are in pretty much all cases), your steel tongue drum should not go out of tune. However, if you play quite hard, especially with mallets, it is possible that over time, tiny movements of the magnets will occur and a note or two may become slightly out of tune.

This is easily rectified by moving the magnet back to its correct position.

Can you change the frequency from A440hz to A432hz?

Yes, this is also possible, so you have the option of selecting 432hz frequency for whatever your personal reasons, remembering that you will not be able to play with other instruments tuned to 440hz, but can easily switch back to 440hz when you want.

For more information on the difference, arguments, and potential benefits of 432hz tuning, please take a look at my guide to 432hz tuning, where I share more information, beliefs, and thoughts. It is handpan based but applies to tongue drum too.

Idiopan has made is relatively easy to retune a tongue drum yourself, by leaving a hole in the top of the drum, for easy access to the magnets that sit on the underside of the tongues.

By moving these magnets inward or outwards, you can retune each tongue to the required note to produce the scale you wish to play

Why Would I Want to Change Scale?

If you own a steel tongue drum that has magnet tuning that you are able to retune yourself, you have a distinct advantage over someone who has a fixed scale instrument.

As your mood changes, or if you become a little tired of one scale, you can quite simply change it to another.

Let’s say, you have been playing a joyous and happy scale, perhaps a Major scale in C, but feel a little more melancholy, and want something a little moody, you could quickly retune to C Minor for a more obscure and sad scale.

D Major is a very popular scale given its uplifting and happy sound, but perhaps, again, you want to play something more thoughtful and solitary. A movement of the magnets would allow you to move then to retune to B Minor scale.

Recommended Scales for Tunable Tongue Drums

There is a range of scales you can select by changing the pitch of each tongue. Although you will be limited to those that work best with 8 notes on the Idiopan. I have taken the following information from the Idiopan Site for the 8-Inch Lunabell. This is as high and as low as you can go with the supplied magnets.

  • Tongue 1:  E4, F4   (largest tongue)
  • Tongue 2:  G4, G#4, A4
  • Tongue 3:  A#4, B4, C5
  • Tongue 4:  C5, C#5, D5
  • Tongue 5:  D#5, E5
  • Tongue 6:  E5, F5, F#5, G5, G#5
  • Tongue 7:  G5, G#5, A5
  • Tongue 8:  A#5, B5, C6

Many more scales can be achieved by purchasing more magnets to go with this tongue drum.

Check out this guide to scales for more details. An in-depth look at the various scales and how they are constructed, along with a note list, so that you can select the 8 notes required to create the scale on your tunable tongue drum.

For now, these are recommended pentatonic scales to get started with with the Idiopan (Standard magnet set)

ScaleNotes
A Major E4 A4 B4 C#5 E5 F#5 A5 B5
A Minor E4 A4 C5 D5 E5 G5 A5 C6
Melog-Selisir    F4 A4 A#4 C5 E5 F5 A5 A#5
 Akebono  F4 A4 B4 C5 E5 F5 A5 B5

What is Melog-Selisir?

I knew you might ask that. It is another Pentatonic scale, which is also known as the Ionion Pentatonic scale. It is produced by dropping the 2nd and 6th notes of the Major scale

What is Akebono Scale?

The Akebono scale is a Japanese scale and can also be referred to as an Aeolian Pentatonic. When you say this name out loud, you get the Japanese connection. Right?

What is a Pentatonic scale?

In short, it is probably the most widely used scale in music in the world and consists of 5 notes in an octave

This question deserves an entire post to itself, but I’m not going to go there, rather I will refer you to a far more qualified and in-depth answer.

Musical Key Descriptions

These are some fun descriptions. I have taken a moment to try to describe how each sounds. As you can see by reading through the list, the major chords are more cheerful and uplifting whilst the major keys will provide a melancholic and thoughtful sound.

You will note that the tongue drum I have recommended on this page, is in A Major which is both spiritual and uplifting.

Idiopan Lunabell 8-Inch Tunable Steel Tongue Drum in A Major [Check Amazon for Current Price]

KeyDescription
C majorLight-Hearted, Fun
C minorsaddened, lonely
D majorHappy, bright
D minorSerious
Eb majorHarsh
E majorEnergetic and cheerful
E minorSad and mournful
F majorEnergetic
F minorUncertain
G majorElaborate and beautiful
G minorEarnest
A majorSpiritual and Uplifting
A minorKind and effectionate
B majorCruel and dicatorial
B minorLonely and individual
Bb majorMagnificent and pleasurable
Bb minorFearful

What Type of Magnets are Used in Tongue Drums?

Neodymium magnets. They are the most widely used permanent magnets in the world. Developed in 1984, they are used in most power tools, fastening applications and these days, hard disk drives. Super strong you will find them on the back of the tongues in your tunable tongue drum.

Which Tongue Drums are Tunable?

Outside of Idiopan there are other manufacturers producing tunable steel tongue drums. I can not directly recommend or endorse any of the following as I have no experience of them. That said I will give a shout to Kaizen having seen and heard them many times in the past

NOTE: At the time of writing, Levi at Kaizen is taking a break and all business is being referred to his partner Satori Drums

SteveM

I enjoyed the unpitched appeal of percussion prior to discovering handpans in a 'moment' I was experiencing. I've been writing ever since.

Recent Posts