Updated: Mar 23
All handpans looks roughly the same but they can sound vastly different from one another. That's because the handpan is a diatonic instrument. This means it is tuned into a specific musical scale unlike chromatic instruments which can play all musical notes (all the black and white keys on a piano).
A typical handpan only has 8 or 9 notes. While this may seem like a restriction, the handpan is special because it's simple. Less is more. You get to create freely without worrying too much about music theory. But since playing the handpan means playing in a specific scale, choosing the right scale is important.
Here are some of the scale names you might stumble upon when looking into the topic of handpan scales: F Pygmy, Kurd 9, G Mixolydian, La Sirena, C# Celtic Minor, Golden Hour... Hmm, what do these all mean?
Handpan makers have been creative in naming specific sound models over the years (beyond the use of traditional scale terminology). And since the handpan art form is still young, scale names have not yet been standardized across all makers. This might result in interesting situations like a specific scale having two different names (for instance, "Raga Desh" is also called "Sapphire"... I know, confusing).
If choosing the scale of your first handpan feels confusing indeed, this article is for you. It will shed some light on this topic and help you identify which scales you might be drawn to the most.
Quick Tip to Approach Handpan Scales
Unless you have a deep knowledge of music theory to understand the scale's structure through proper terminology, don't worry too much about names yet. Instead, you should train your ears to recognize the different flavor in each scale.
I once heard all handpan scales pretty much fall into one of three categories (and so far, it seems to hold true):
Major: Does it sound happy?
Minor: Does it sound sad/melancholic?
Flavorful: Does it sound exotic? (whether that's Indonesian or Middle-Eastern, etc...)
As you listen to handpan videos online, ask yourself if the instrument sounds major, 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, cheerful and overall happy. Handpans with major scales tend to be relaxing and pleasant to play. They're very well suited for meditative play or music therapy.
Why wouldn't you want a major handpan scale? While handpans with major scales can bring you joy instantly, they may lack the tension and 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 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 making it difficult to work around that predominant flavor.
So, which handpan scale is the best? That's completely subjective and up to you to decide. But I hope the pointers in this article helped you along your discovery of this remarkable instrument. And who knows, perhaps you will want to get a handpan of each category (major, minor and flavorful) over the years.
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