Updated: Mar 23, 2020
In this article we'll understand how a handpan is tuned, what might cause a handpan to go out of tune, and how to get the instrument retuned if that happens.
How Handpans Are Tuned
It's important to understand how handpans work. A handpan consists of two sheets of steel, shaped into a dome where notes are hammered in, to make a musical scale. Each note is carefully tuned by hand using of a hammer. And it takes thousands of hammer strokes for the builder to fully tune a handpan.
In fact, it's the 3D structure of the note that gives a handpan note its tuning. Generally, two or more overtones are tuned into the axis of each tone field. That's a total of 3 notes into each handpan note. On this incredibly delicate balance lays the remarkable sound of the handpan.
Okay, now that we understand that it's the structure of the handpan note that gives the handpan its sound, we can easily imagine how a handpan could get out of tune, right?
Why Would You Need to Retune Your Handpan?
The first (and most logical) reason why a handpan needs to be retuned is in the case of an accident. For exemple, if a handpan is dropped or hit by something, it can go out of tune. That's because the impact (not unlike a hammer stroke) changes the 3-dimensional structure of the note, which in turn changes its tuning. As a result, the fundamental note and possibly its overtones will be dissonant. If this has ever happened to you, you know how disheartening such an accident is... and how, even with just one note out of tune, the whole instrument is no longer fun to play. So, that's one reason you need to have your handpan retuned.
Secondly, handpans can go out of tune if you play too hard. You may not think that you're hitting your handpan as hard as a hammer, but over time, playing too hard with your fingers can still change the tuning of your handpan. Yes, the handpan is made out of steel but remember it's still a fragile instrument. That's why I encourage you to start playing quietly at first to understand the dynamic range of your handpan. Some instruments will naturally sound louder than others but you don't want to push your handpan beyond its limit. One of the cool tricks that handpan players use nowadays is called "ding-bending". It consists of bending the pitch of the ding's isolated overtone like a wah wah pedal on the electric guitar. Be careful not to apply too much pressure on the ding when using this "ding-bending" trick because it can easily get your ding out of tune. And if you're playing on someone else's handpan, you may want to check that the owner is okay with "ding-bending" on their instrument.
Finally, a handpan could naturally drift out of tune. It's sad but true. Indeed, your instrument may shift slightly overtime—even without an accident or playing too hard. For most handpans, that shift in tuning will be barely noticeable. But some handpans might drift faster than others for some still unknown reason. As handpan builders continue to experiment with steel (nitrided vs. stainless steel vs. raw, for instance) they may find that certain materials hold the tuning better than others. But the art-form is still very young so it might take a few more years until we can draw these conclusions.
Curious to hear from the handpan community about their retuning stories, I created a Facebook poll asking folks to select the reason why their handpan went out of tune. The results were surprising!
In 1st place, with 58 respondents was "My handpan drifted out of tune by itself"
In 2nd place, with 33 respondents was "A terrible accident damaged my handpan!"
And in 3rd place, with 7 (honest) respondents was "Uh oh, I think I might have played too hard"
(Thanks to everyone who participated!)
What to Expect When Getting Your Handpan Retuned?
So, we've covered the many reasons why a handpan could need to be retuned, now let's talk about what to expect when that happens.
Sit down and fasten your seatbelt because your handpan is about to get beat up. I'm joking but you should know that in order to actually retune your handpan, the tuner will need to hammer it back into tune... Let me rephrase that: they're going to hit your precious handpan with a hammer. Haha, I'm giving you the heads up because when I first saw my Hang get retuned by Felix Rohner at PANArt, my heart just about stopped beating. But don't worry, it's totally normal. Actually, that's what it takes to get your handpan back in tune.
If you're the curious type, I encourage you to actually watch the process. Here's a short video recorded by Ray Ford showing Kyle of Pantheon retuning a Hang, it's fascinating. But for the faint of heart, just wait outside until it's over.
Where to Get Your Handpan Retuned?
We understand why a handpan might need a retune and what to expect when it happens. That leaves an important question: Where can you get your handpan retuned? In the old days of the Hang, you had to get on a flight to Switzerland and hope that PANArt would retune your instrument. Now, it's much easier.
Your best bet is to go through the maker who built your handpan. They know the material and the tuning techniques used to build it. So, if possible, that should be your first choice.
But if you bought your handpan at an event or online from another state or country, you may want to look into a local handpan tuner near you. Sure, they may not have built your handpan specifically but they should be able to help. Most handpan builders use the same fundamental techniques, so if a tuner advertises retune services, you can trust they will fix your handpan.
I actually want to tell you about my friend, handpan builder and tuner, Josh Rivera. Josh started playing the Hang in the early years of PANArt like I did. He later learned how to build handpans and moved to North Carolina to join the Saraz Handpans team as second tuner. After years of building and tuning Saraz and others makers' handpans, Josh has now opened his own handpan tuning company. It's called Rivera Steel Tuning and it's a wonderful service to the handpan community.
I'm thrilled to know that people like Josh Rivera specialize in retuning handpans. For years, we had to baby our handpans out of fear that an accident would happened because retuning was excessively expensive—or logistically impossible. Those days are gone. Retuning your handpan has become easier and more accessible than ever before. This means that you can have peace of mind as you go explore the world with your handpan. Have no fear (because you can call Josh if something happens).
Listen to Episode 5 of The Handpan Podcast "The Art of Blending with Josh Rivera" to hear a fascinating conversation I had with Josh about the tuning of handpans.