How to Approach Handpan Scales
A typical handpan has 8, 9, 10 or 12 notes. If that sounds limiting... remember that each handpan note holds at least 3 frequencies (the fundamental note, the octave and the compound fifth on a 1:2:3 ratio). That rich layered sound is what makes handpans so satisfying. Besides, the concept of handpans works precisely because of its limited number of notes, not in spite of it. As a result, the handpan is primarily intuitive (not intellectual) which means you get to create music freely without worrying too much about music theory.
But since the handpan is limited to one scale... picking the right scale is still important! But how do you pick a handpan? Look, I don't you know about you... but I'm not classically trained. I never studied music but I did train my ears to recognize the 'sound flavor' in each handpan scale. And I think you can do it too.
All handpan scales pretty much fall into one of two categories:
MAJOR: Does it sound happy, joyful or peaceful?
MINOR: Does it sound sad, melancholic or tragic?
As you listen to handpan videos, ask yourself if the instrument sounds "major" or "minor" or "flavorful". That simple exercice will put you one step closer to knowing which handpan scale is the right one for you.
1) Major: Handpans with Happy Scales
Why wouldn't you want a major handpan scale? While handpans with major scales can instantly bring you feelings of joy, they may lack the tension or the emotion that comes with minor scales.
2) Minor: Handpans with Sad Scales
Minor-sounding scales are much more than just sad... They're complex, classical, sometimes dark and overall more emotional. Having a handpan in a minor scale will allow you to express powerful feelings through your music, to create tension, suspense and a sense of mystery...
Why wouldn't you want a minor scale? Being locked into a minor scale has its down sides too. It can feel emotionally heavy to play your handpan at times when all you really want is a simple moment of joy.
Choosing a Scale
Choosing a scale is all down to personal preference. Listen to lots of different handpans / pantam online and note what you like. But remember: you may like the style of a particular handpan musician as much as the handpan itself, and there’s nothing wrong with that but just bear it in mind as it will influence your preferences.
Scale names are confusing – Hijaz? Kurd? What does this mean?
Try not to worry about this too much for now. Remember to write down the actual notes of the scales that you like. Every handpan scale can come in a range of keys depending on your choice for your ding and can have a different name depending on the maker. Don’t be confused by this; help yourself by writing down the actual notes of the scales that you like.
Make sure to use headphones
Otherwise you will miss out on the delicious bassy tones, especially in the lower pitched handpans!
Lower ding VS Higher ding
How frequently will you use your ding? Will you play more percussively or compose melodies? You may or may not know the answer to this yet. Something you might wish to note for all handpans is that the lower the pitch of your ding, the bassier and more satisfying the sound is to strike it.
For me, I don’t get the same satisfaction from a ding above an Eb anymore but as a beginner 10 years ago I really couldn’t tell the difference.
The majority of handpan scales are a variation on either a major, minor or harmonic minor key.
The major scales are happy and uplifting and popular with beginners, minor keys are moodier and harmonic minor have a more middle eastern flavour full of suspense. Beginners often tend to feel less comfortable with Harmonic Minor / Hijaz scales. My recommendation would be for a beginner to choose a major or minor handpan.
Most scales in music have 7 notes. E.g. C major C D E F G A B or D minor D E F G A Bb C. Handpan scales often omit one or two notes in a scale and this leads to such a wide variety of instruments.
For your ease of comparison I have written out in the scale of D the notes of each of a selection of popular scales, though you will find the scales in reality may have a different central note e.g. La Sirena common in E.
- Kurd D A Bb C D E F G A
This scale has many names and is a variation of a minor key. You can choose a ding to suit your preference but most common are C# and D. I like this scale because it is a full scale with all 7 notes and because it is usually in D or C# and I prefer a lovely low ding.
- Celtic Minor 9 D A C D E F G A C D
Again this is a variation on a minor key, it is less minor or moody than other scales because the minor 6th note – in the case of D minor the Bb is omitted. I like the 9 variation because it has the extra D note at the top.
3. Aegean D F# A C# D F# G# A C#
This is a major scale often found with a low ding. Pentatonic which means it has only 5 notes. It has a more underworldly feel to me than for example the bright and shiny melog below, because it has a raised 4th note i.e G# instead of a G which gives it a calm or even haunting feeling. An unresolving scale great for meditation.
4. Hijaz D A Bb C# D E F G A Bb D
Harmonic minor / Hijaz / Klezmara / Tarznauyn handpan scales are very similar as they are variations / different modes of the Harmonic minor scale. Suspenseful scale found in Arabic, Persian and Indian classical music.
5. E Key Equinox
What material you would like your handpan to be made of is an important decision – seek further guidance from the maker. In general a handpan made from stainless steel has much greater sustain. This lends itself well to meditation and slow composition but not to fast playing.
440 Hz vs 432 Hz
If you want to be able to play with other musicians choose 440hz. If you are looking for an instrument to be played alone for sound therapy and meditation you might want to consider an instrument with A = 432hz as this frequency is believed to vibrate in tune with the earth and reduce anxiety.
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