The Enchanting Science of Handpans With Mark Garner

What if the magical effect of handpans could be explained? Sylvain and Mark explore the hidden patterns and the unseen structures of the instrument, going all the way back to the roots of the steel pan. A reintegration of both contemplation and enjoyment of handpans.

Read "Meditation in the Toolshed" by C.S. Lewis

Podcast Transcription:

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain. And this is the handpan podcast. Do you remember the first time you heard a handpan, how did it feel and do you know why to help answer those questions, I asked my good friend Mark Garner of Saraz handpans to explore with me the enchanting science of handpans, the intersection where observation and experience meet. So, here we go.

Sylvain: Well, Mark, I always enjoy our conversations and I've been, especially looking forward to this one. So thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Mark: Brother Sylvain, thank you so much for having me on the show. It's an absolute honor.

Sylvain: Yeah, yeah. This was a long time coming. Um, so as with anything in life, in order to go long, in order to go the distance, we must often go deep. And, um, one of the many reasons I wanted to chat with you is because you have gone deep, perhaps more than anyone else. I know you've actually gone back and, and, and read the scientific papers, done the research cataloged and documented all the trial and error, um, that you've experienced with the Saraz, taking it from its inception to today. And so I wanted to have a conversation about, um, the enchanting science of hand pans. And I want to add this, which is we don't need to know necessarily the science behind handpans to enjoy them, but science is a way of accessing truth and beauty. And I thought that with your help, we could all benefit from the, the reintegration of science and art when it comes to hand pans.

Mark: Right on, that's quite the introduction. I must be humble and say, I've only gone so deep, but it'll be interesting to see where our conversation takes us.

Sylvain: Yeah. And I'll let you go with it with some of the questions that I have, uh, you know, take it wherever you want to go with it, but maybe I'll start with this first question, which is what are some of the hidden patterns that happen behind the scenes that can help explain the magical sound of handpans?

Mark: Okay. Uh, well, the first thing that comes to mind is the wave alignment of the notes. And you want to go deep, we'll just go right off the, uh, right off the cliff here into science really quick. And, uh, of course this is a podcast, so it'd be nice to have a PowerPoint presentation to provide with this, but, uh, maybe I can email you a picture or something for your, for your posts. Um, so, uh, most people know what a wavelength looks like, you know, a little squiggly S as a full wavelength. And, um, so there's a really magical alignment. Um, in each handpan note, you know, most decent mediocre to high quality handpans that have been well-tuned with two harmonics and a fundamental. And it's what's, I refer to as a basic, a one, two, three alignment. And so what that means is it's the ratios of each frequency to the next, um, the fraction of each frequency to the next. And so the fundamental we'll call it the biggest wave. Um, the biggest S if it was turned sideways, and then there's the octave harmonic, um, the long axis of each handpan note. And so the wavelength of the octave harmonic is exactly half the size of the wavelength of the fundamental, and this works for every octave going up, um, you know, from C1 to whatever C 57 such a thing exist. And so this is, this is what would be called like a one, two ratio. Uh, and then the short axis is, um, what we in the handpan world called a compound fifth. And that basically it means it's, um, an octave than a fifth above. So, you know, if you have a C4 then fundamental, you're going to have a C5 on the long axis, and you're going to have a G 5 on the, a short axis. And so that short axis is harmonic is exactly one third of the size. The, um, the wavelength of the compound fifth is exactly one third, the size of the fundamental, and this would be a one, three ratio. And so between these, you get this one two three ratio. And when we talk about harmony, we're talking about how do wave forms lineup together. So, you know, a perfect fifth, a perfect fourth an octave. These are all really, really basic fractions, such as one half one third, one fourth, one fifth, um, that create, um, this beautiful harmonies, you know, is, um, the fundamental wave goes by our ear, two of the octave waves go by our ear or three of the compound fifth wave go by our ear. And so this one, two, three pattern is the most fundamental, basic, um, harmony possible. You know, it's a, it can't get any simpler than one, two or one, three, um, you know, one, four, and one five are going to be more complex. And so this is on every single, no to the handhand, you're going to have this really primary basic, um, harmonic alignment of these three frequencies. And then the little, a bit of research I've done into this by no means, am I an expert, but I am curious and happy and curious by the same question that you asked for a number of years and been more as a hobby looking into it. And, um, and I have a little bit of a background in psychology. I've got a degree in psychology, and it's always been a topic of curiosity for 20 years. And, uh, so when we look at a soundscape and how our brains process a soundscape, and we consider the most things are inharmonic, or what we consider in harmonic, and what that means is maybe for every single wave that goes by our ear, the insect made a ratio that would take 10,742 of those waves to line up with the wave of the chair squeaking under you. You know, something like that. They're, um, they're really, they're really complex. Um, basically inharmonic, they're too complex to be harmonic. And so what our brains often doing is trying to simplify the incredible number of sounds that we hear down into really simple ratios. And this plays out, especially with the voice, uh, that has a number of harmonics. And, you know, and I would say I would hypothesize that this is part of the magic of what we're drawn to music is because of these harmonic ratios, but specifically with the handpan, I'm curious. I hypothesize and also, just a question for the, it may be part of the magic of the instrument that every single note is based on the most primary harmonic relationship possible. And to my knowledge, I'm I say this as a challenge to your listeners to please email me and educate me if they know of any other instruments that are tuned like this beyond the steel pan, uh, which is also tuned in this one to three ratio, um, you know, guitar, you play guitar string, and it's going to have, um, I think it's 16 harmonics. Um, some of them are incredibly appealing. Others are not, uh, to my ear, I should say. Um, but you know, mostly stringed instruments are much more complex like the voice, um, but to have such not only, um, prominent loud, uh, high amplitude harmonics, but also with the movement in handpans, pretty much since I got involved with it. Um, more so than earlier on with what Panart was doing early on, um, the goal has been to try and isolate all the frequencies on the instrument down to just the fundamental and just the octave harmonic and just the compound fifth to be nothing but these primary frequencies. So, you know, this in combination with the multi directionality of how these frequencies come off the instrument, you know, the, uh, the fundamentals going in the instrument and off the instrument, the octave harmonic is, um, quite actually shooting away from the note on the long axis. And the short axis harmonic is doing the same thing, uh, shooting perpendicular to that. So, you know, you play a jam on a handpan and the, uh, the frequencies are going all over the room. And so this multi directionality of the instrument in combination with these harmonic alignments, or seems to be at least part of what grabs people and, you know, all of us that have played handpans and played outdoors and played on busking, or, um, played in the park. And, you know, we've all had the experience where someone stops in their tracks and comes over and says, what is that thing? What is that called? And is it made out of metal? Is it amplified? Like how are you getting that sound out of it? Um, so, you know, that experience is what's drawn me to ask these questions. What is it about this thing that grabs people in such a way, and I'm coming to believe that the harmonic ratio is part of it.

Sylvain: Wow. That is mind blowing. I mean, there's so much you just touched on and so much to unpack. Um, I love the multi direction feature of, of the instrument that you referenced. The fact that these harmonics are loud and prominent. That really, when you play a handpan note, you're activating a chord. I mean, no one really says that. Is there a basis for saying that when you play handpan note, you're really playing a chord cause you're playing three different frequencies or is it not a chord because it spans over several octaves?

Mark: Uh, you know, my, uh, professional music theory is probably even more limited than yours Sylvain, but you know, my, my definition of how I consider a chord is having three different notes. And, um, I don't, at least in my own personal definition, which may be incorrect. Um, I don't define a chord as just a one, three, five, you know, ratio, I think about jazz chords and what it might be like an F sharp minor seven flat nine or something. Right. Um, so maybe we should look it up on Google exact definition, but, um, I've always thought exactly what you suggested that each note is actually a chord. It's not a note.

Sylvain: Yeah. So I did a little bit of preparation before our call, uh, cause I don't know any of this stuff of the top of my head, but, um, so I'm actually looking at one of my Saraz handpans right now. The center note is a G3 note. So the fundamental I looked it up is 196 Hertz. Okay. 196 X 2 is 392 Hertz, which is the octave. It's actually perfectly the octave. And then 196 X 3 is 588 Hertz, which is almost what would be a perfect D5 note, which would be our compound fifth, which is 587.33 Hertz. So what we're super posing here is just basic math and music theory. And so it's interesting, and I don't want necessarily to open a whole new can of worms because we have so much already at hand, but it's not a perfect science, right? Because for the G3 note, which is at 196 Hertz that X 3 is not quite the mathematical value of the compound fifth. So are we cheating? Are we cutting a little bit at those intervals?

Mark: That's a really good question. Um, to take a half a step backwards, uh, you know, a Hertz is, um, it's one wave cycle per second is what that actually means. And so, you know, going back to our, our single wave distances, um, so you'd have 190, uh, six cycles in a given second as what that means. Um, so, uh, you know, you've already gone probably deeper into this than I think about on a regular basis to be entirely honest. And, um, I question whether it might partially be, um, you know, equal temperament and, uh, you know, that's a really good question. I, um, it's really good question Sylvain, I'm not a hundred percent sure.

Sylvain: And obviously there are so many variations to the sound of any given hand band. Um, so really that G3 may not actually be tuned to 196 Hertz. It could be 197 or 98 or 99. Um,

Mark: One of the things that came to mind was, um, there's two variables that are really going to influence the math, the perfect math. Um, one is equal temperament, um, which doesn't play out so much with octaves. I'm not a hundred percent sure on fifth without doing some math and research, but the other part is something that, um, I call octave stretching. I'm not sure if that's the official term, but I think most tuners would be fairly familiar with the idea. Uh, and it's, so the perfect example, I guess, is probably tuning a piano. You can tune the whole piano to perfect 440 relativity. Um, however it ends up sounding, um, stagnant or, uh, kind of thudy and dead, or, you know, it's hard to find the right English word for it, I suppose, but it doesn't have life in the same way. And the reason is because the, uh, wave forms quite perfectly line up. Uh, and the reason is because sounds when you go from a single point, such as G3 the further out you go, the sound waves, get to meet perfect harmony, they stretch a little further. And so let's see, try and explain this the best way for a podcast to put, let me put it in slightly different terms. So in handpan tuning and most tuning, um, you know, many people who use lino tune or other tuning software, um, we all talk in a sense. And so there's a hundred cents, um, between two tones between say a G3 and a G#3. Um, if we're thinking about this on a piano that's, um, between a white key and a black key, there's a hundred sense. And so when we think about, say an entire octave, now we're looking at 12 notes on the piano before it repeats and go from C4 to C5, there'll be 12 notes. So across that entire octave, there's about two or three sense of stretch. I think about it almost as like, um, you know, as opposed to like, um, a circle or a spiral going around the notes, you know, if you had a, the circle of notes and you're just doing a perfect circle and you keep going up through the octaves, it's actually a little bit more of a spiral and it's spiraling outward a little bit. And what, and what this means is that when I tunes a G3, I might tune the G4 a couple of cents sharp. And if I tune a G5 relative to it, I might tune it three or 4 cents sharper, um, to bring it into a bit better alignment. And we, I, you know, we're really like splitting hairs at this point and getting down to, um, what I consider what I jokingly call the personality of a note, uh, in these relativities. And so that might also be a variable and why the fifth isn't perfectly lining up. You've got me curious now, as I'm probably going to get online and research this after we talk.

Sylvain: I do like that phrase, the personality of a note and handpan notes are so dynamic in that sense, they're not static at all. And also they kind of drift over time and they might change according to the temperature or the air pressure. Um, so it's, it's quite fascinating and there are so many variables, but I think what's wonderful about all of this, which again is way over my head, um, is that artistry and mathematics have a lot in common: joy, the wonder, the surprise, the enchantment, the handpan is an experience of the mind as it is an experience of the heart. And, you know, I, if someone wanted to describe experience of a rollercoaster at Disneyland, they could talk about it experientially, but you could also have the engineer that designed it, talk about the velocity and the gravity. And so I find it really cool to at least it's my hope that we can with these facts. Um, we can, reenchant science for the disenchanted.

Mark: I love your metaphor about the, um, the roller coaster. It's so true. You know, how do we, how do we think about anything in life? Is it science? Is it art? Is it spirit? Is it, you know, something, the mystery of it all.

Sylvain: So if you had to make a case for this, what would you say to the fact that each hand pan is truly unique? In other words, what are some of the variations that affect an instrument and what makes one handpan using one certain type of steel in one certain scale, different from another that's seemingly identical.

Mark: Ooh, good question. Uh, well, I think we should start at the foundation and work our way down to the finer details to answer that. Um, even if we start with a deep drawn shell and it starts with the exact same shape, um, most builders I know are going to end up with minutely different shape, um, to the final shape of the instrument. Um, because you know, you've got to form, the notes, and you've got a form, the dimples, and you've got, um, manipulate what's called the interstitial space between the notes, um, to get it to where it's ready to tune. And then there's my new differences in those things after it's tuned as well. And so that would probably be the most fundamental quality, even starting with the exact same shell, the exact same metal from the exact same batch of metal, the same, you know, whatever it may be, nitriding or stainless steel. Um, you're going to end up with a minutely different shape and will, why does that matter? Um, the shape is gonna be the foundation of the internal, um, push and pull of the tensile strength and the, um, detentions. And what does all that mean? Right. Get into these technical terms really fast to put it very simply quite often, either the space between the notes or the note membrane itself is pushing or pulling on the other. So either the space between the notes, pushing on the note or the notes pushing on the space and, um, balancing this out is, um, in my humble opinion, um, something that comes with, uh, experience and is the goal of the final product stability, but this internal tension that we can't, we can't really see it. We can see things that hint at it. Um, but it's often much more or subtle than the eye can see my experience. We can't smell it. We can't taste it. We can't, we can kind of feel it with the balance of the hammer and the reflection of what happens when we hammer it. Um, but it's mostly an invisible force to our perception. And, um, so this is this invisible force, this push and pull this internal tensile strength, this tension, elasticity. Um, all of these words are attempting to, uh, describe the spores that's in the steel itself. This is what really makes each instrument unique. Um, so then we look at, okay, well, how does it make it unique? Um, if the push and pull is really strong and unbalanced on say one side of a note, say on the short side of, um, the short axis of a note, uh, it might choke up that heart Monica. It might mute that harmonic turned down the loudness of it turned down the amplitude of it to where it won't be as balanced it's in, in the note overall and, and, you know, good tuners, um, use this to their advantage, um, and use this. I often think back to I'm really early on spending some time with, um, Rob at, uh, Ellie Manette's shop. And, um, he said something to me like tuning's easy, it's, um, balancing the instrument. That's the real, real trick. And so manipulating this invisible force we'll coninue to call it a is really what that means. It means finding that balance. And so maybe no, it's really Blairy. Okay, well, add more tightness to it. Add more constriction or tension to the border. We'll balance that back out. So getting these balances between the two harmonics and the fundamental, um, that's one of the things that really creates the uniqueness of an instrument, uh, at an individual note level, but then at the overall full instrument level, how do the notes all balance each other? Um, does one note have a really hot loud compound pound fifth, and the next note it's almost completely muted, um, or have they been balanced out and when you get into these really fine details, um, I don't know of anybody that makes, you know, every, every instrument's unique by every builder, in my opinion, I've never seen two that are exactly the same and, you know, I'm Kyle and the guys that the folks at Pantheon, I mean, they've gone to incredible lengths to mechanize some of their processes, really technological brilliance that you and I both seen firsthand and still every one of their instruments is unique. You know, once it comes down to the person tuning it, Jason or Kyle, or, and what's quiet, um, actually thousands of hammer strikes, um, by hand or pneumatic hammer that deviate from one instrument to the next. Um, otherwise I think there's finer details. You know, there's things like, um, tones around the shoulders of the notes and, um, you know, the, the overall texture of, um, of the alloy itself like, um, are two sheets of steel ever really the same, really talk to metal fabricators. No, they're not. And that's the difficulty of, um, engineering machinery to work with metal is the, the alloy itself does deviate from one sheet to the next. Um, we've seen it firsthand, you know, the diff it seems like, like consider carbon content, for example, um, the carbon content and a piece of steel, cold rolled steel. Um, I've worked with everything from, uh, three, one hundredths of a percent up to, uh, eight, one hundredths of a percent we're talking 0.03 or 0.08 of, um, 1%. And it's, um, it's profoundly different. I mean, it sounds like it's such a minuscule amount, but when you look at those two figures relatively, there's almost three times as much carbon in one sheet as the next. And, uh, the, the sound of the instruments are obvious really obvious if they're nitrided it. The nitriding is obviously different. Um, the bounce of the hammer is obviously different. Um, I, you know, got a couple folks that have sank a lot of Saraz shells over history, and it was always funny when we'd get a new batch of steel and, um, one of them be like, is this a new batch of steel? It feels completely different than the last 30 shells I'm saying like, well, yes, actually it is. So, yeah, it's, um, yeah, there's, there's really a number of variables that make each one truly unique.

Sylvain: That's so incredibly remarkable. And to me, it just adds to the romanticism of this instrument. Um, it's a good instrument for contrarians or for people who like exclusivity because when you own a handpan it's a, one of a kind instrument, no one else in the world has the same. Ah, that's cool.

Mark: Yeah. You truly, you're really, really true. They're Sylvain it's each one is its own thing. It deserves its own name, you know, becomes a member of the family.

Sylvain: Yeah. So I want to switch gears really quick and, um, hear more about your story because you and I met at handpangea in 2013 and, um, that's when you had brought a prototype Siraz at the, um, what did your handpan journey look like leading up to that event? And then the second part of the