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?