Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Have you noticed that all handpans look roughly the same and yet they sound very different, one from the next? That's because, unlike chromatic musical instrument like a piano or a guitar, handpans are tuned to only a few notes. Those specific notes go well together and form a musical scale—or tuning or sound model.
From the outside, you can't tell the scale of a handpan. But it turns out the names of handpan scales aren't all that helpful either. I'm sure you've come across names like these when listening to different handpans: Pygmy, Kurd, La Sirena, Celtic Minor. What does it mean?
The handpan art form is still young and the names of sound models haven't been standardized across makers yet. Apart from the few handpan tunings that are actually based on the traditional scale terminology it's hard to navigate handpan scales.
If choosing the scale of your first handpan feels confusing, this article is for you. After reading this, you'll be able to broadly recognize handpan scales and you'll know how to pick a handpan that resonates most with you.
How to Approach Handpan Scales
A typical handpan has 8 or 9 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 three categories:
MAJOR: Does it sound happy, joyful or peaceful?
MINOR: Does it sound sad, melancholic or tragic?
FLAVORFUL: Does it sound exotic or ethnic? (e.g. Asian or Middle-Eastern)
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
Major-sounding scales are bright, peaceful, cheerful and overall happy. Handpans with major scales tend to be relaxing and pleasant to play. They are very well-suited for meditative play, music therapy or sound healing.
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.
3) Flavorful: Handpans with Exotic Scales
Flavorful scales can be both major and minor but they typically stand out because of their cultural flavor — differing from western music. Indian, Middle-Eastern and Chinese scales are some of the most common flavorful handpan scales. These types of scales are incredibly beautiful and magical. You only need to close your eyes and the melodies of these handpans will transport you to the ends of the world in an instant.
Why wouldn't you want an exotic handpan scale? These scales can very specific and lock you into a narrow musical repertoire, thus making it difficult to work around that predominant flavor. If you go for a flavorful handpan scale, make sure you absolutely love it.
So, what's the best handpan scale? That's 100% subjective and up to you to decide. But now you know how to pick your handpan among major, minor and flavorful scales. Ultimately, you might want one of each! :)
Did you know I partner with reputable handpan makers so you can buy a handpan on my website? I've put together a great selection of major, minor and flavorful scales for you starting at $1,199. Click here to view the scales available right now.