Updated: Jul 20
Have you noticed that even though all handpans look roughly the same, they sound vastly different from one another?
That's because, unlike chromatic musical instruments which have all the notes (like a piano or a guitar), handpans are diatonic instruments. This means they are tuned to only certain notes that make up a scale — which we also call a tuning or sound model.
From the outside, you really can't tell the scale of a handpan. But it turns out the names of handpan scales aren't all that helpful either... You might have come across names like these when researching handpans: Pygmy, Kurd, La Sirena, Celtic Minor, etc.
So, what do these all mean?
The handpan art form is still young and the names of sound models haven't been fully standardized across makers yet. Apart from a few handpan tunings that are actually based on the traditional scale terminology it can 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.