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Handpan glossary

August 21, 2022 5 min read

handpan : Basic terms (terminology)

Handpan : Generic term for a hand-played pitched percussion instrument crafted from steel with notes on the top surface.

Hang : Trademarked name of the original sound sculpture invented by PANArt. 

Hang Drum : Common term for Hang and handpans.

PANArt : Original manufacturer of the Hang.

Pantam : Other generic term used for handpan instrument. This term comes from an Israeli music store owner and is a combination of the words ‘Steelpan’ and ‘Ghatam’. 

Sound Sculpture : Generic term used for handpan or similar instrument.

Tongue Drum: Metal percussion instrument with cut out tongue-shapes that produce sound when struck. Tongue drums are made from steel, though their predecessors were also made from wood.

Gudu : Gudu refers to a handpan that has two openings on the bottom shell, one typically smaller than the other. The name comes from its constructional similarity to the Udu.

handpan : Making process terms (terminology)


DC04 : Common grade of steel used to manufacture handpans.

Raw/Regular steel : One the different steels used in handpan shell construction. 

Nitriding :  Process used to harden steel by diffusing molecular nitrogen into the steel matrix. It also creates a thin layer on the surface useful for fighting rust formation, tuning stability and sustain.

Pang : Term used by PANArt to describe thoroughly nitrided steel with specific mechanical properties.

Stainless steel : Used in handpan shell construction. Stainless steel handpans often involve a chromium or titanium alloy particularly resistant to air and water and less liable to rust.

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handpan : instrument parts terms (terminology)

Shell : A handpan is made up of two shells. The top shell (Ding shell) and the bottom shell (Gu shell) are glued together at their rims.

Bottom shell / Gu shell : Metal dome that forms the bottom of the handpan. It contains the sound hole (Gu) and it is becoming popular to add notes on this bottom part. .

Gu : Circular opening in the bottom of handpan instruments. The Gu allows air to escape, and activate the Helmholtz resonance. Gu also helps makers to tune the handpan from the inside.

Port : Generic term for the Gu.

Top shell / Ding side : Contains the central Ding and most of the notes of a handpan.

Ding :  Center note on the top of a handpan which can be concave or convex in shape. It is the lowest note on the instrument and the root note of the handpan scale.

Innie : A ding that is shaped inwards.

Outtie : A ding that protrudes outwards

Dimple / Dome : The deformed area of the steel in the center of a note. Can be dented inward or outward.

Apex : Dome of the center note when dented outward. 

Inpex : Dome of the center note when dented inward.

Flange / Rim : Non-resonant metal edge that connects the top and bottom shells of the handpan. It is protected by a ring of rubber or rope.

Interstitial : Areas of the handpan that are not tuned. These areas, used for percussive techniques, are positioned between the tonefields, rim, Ding and Gu. 

Shoulder : Flat area around the base of the Ding that connects the Ding to the interstitial parts of the handpan.

handpan : Sounds and scale terms (terminology)


Tone Fields / Notes : Notes surrounding the center note of the handpan.

Chord : A minimum of 3 notes played at the same time.

Arpeggio : A broken chord split into a series of notes that can span more than one octave and include repeated notes.

Crosstalk :  Undesired activation of neighboring notes when hitting.
Happens when the sound from one or more notes interferes negatively with others.

Fundamental : Lowest pitch of a given note.

Harmonics : Partials above the fundamental frequency of a given note. Most handpan notes have a fundamental pitch accompanied by harmonics of a fifth and an octave above the natural note.

Isolation : independence of a note from neighboring notes when struck.  The lack of isolation between notes creates ‘crosstalk’.

Shoulder Tones : Upper harmonics found on the very edge of a tonefield usually around the Ding. It can be heard when striking the shoulder area of a note. 

Sound Model : Set of notes arranged for a handpan. 

Stability : Amount of pitch modulation when striking notes. The less modulation upon striking indicates a more stable note.

Stability (of tuning) : Ability of a note to stay in tune over time, dependent on playing technique and care of the handpan.

Sustain : Length of time a note resonates after being hit.

Sympathetic Activation : When a lower octave of a note activates its higher octave note elsewhere on a handpan.

Chromatic scale :  Musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone, also known as a half-step, above or below its adjacent pitches

Diatonic scale : Includes five whole notes and two half-steps or semitones, such as C–D–E–F–G–A–B.

Dynamics : Full range of volume from quietest to loudest.

Flat : Musical note a semitone lower than the natural note. For example, the distance between D and Db is a semitone and the distance between D and C is a whole tone.

Groove : Rhythm, sense of swing or repeated pattern.

Impedance : stifled or dissonant pitch due to the diameter or depth of an instrument. Caused by sound frequencies that do not correctly align when traveling through the shell. 

Major scale : Scale which is naturally more upbeat and happier than minor scales and can start with any note (E#major, G# major, Cb major…)

Minorscale : scale which is naturally more mysterious and melancholy than major scales and can start with any note (D#minor, F# minor, Bb mino…)

Mode : A mode is a type of scale (doh re mi fa so la si).  Alter just one of those notes and you can call your scale a ‘mode’.

Pattern : Melodic phrase of notes sequence used when playing and composing.

Resonance : Vibrations of a note when struck.

Scale : A series of notes ordered by pitches.

Time signature : Used in composition and as a way for players to follow music, the time signature defines the pace/tempo, the rhythm and details the number of beats in a bar. Usually expressed as a fraction on sheet music.

Tone : Quality of sound of a note or a whole instrument.

Tonefield : The flat, oval-shaped part of the note around the dimples on a handpan. The flat part around the ding is also a tonefield.

handpan : Playing techniques terms (terminology)

Tak : Percussive sound you make on the side of the handpan.

Slap : Percussive technique using a slap of the hand, fingers or part of the hand on any area outside of the tonefields.

Singing the Ding : A ding can be ‘sung’ from friction created by a smooth back and forth rubbing movement on the dome of the center note with either a player’s palm, side of the hand or finger(s). 

Knock : Percussive technique using knuckles, or bones such to create a clear drum sound.

Helmholtz Resonance : This is the type of ‘wind throb’ effect handpan players can attain with the Gu/sound hole. Cupping or curving the hand over the Gu creates a sound similar to blowing over the top of an empty bottle.This frequency is created by the existence of the cavity of the handpan.

Bending : Pressing along the axis of a tuned harmonic on a note, commonly the center note, to modulate the frequency to add an effect.

alexandre zunino
alexandre zunino

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