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What is a handpan

September 11, 2022 3 min read

If you are here, you must have been captivated by the sound of this unique and original instrument that is the handpan. Still a very recent instrument, many evolutions are to come. To learn more about the origins of the handpan instrument, you can read our article on the PANArt hang. Now let's dive into the characteristics of the instrument. 

What makes a handpan and what compose it 

Generally designed with a diameter between 45 and 60cm, handpans are made of different types of steel such as raw steel, nitrided steel or stainless steel. Their thickness and quality vary according to the manufacturer, but their shape always remains the same. The handpan is always formed by 2 convex domes glued together. The upper part is called "top shell" and the lower part is called "bottom shell".

On the bottom part, you can see a hole called the "Gu". This is a circular opening in the middle part of the shell. The Gu allows the air to escape and produce the sound thanks to the Helmholtz resonance phenomenon. The Gu is often tuned to complement the scale of the instrument. 

On the upper part, called the “top shell” we will find the notes, the ding, the shoulder and all the percussive parts of the instrument. Each note is tuned by the manufacturer following a long process of hammering. For more details about the terms used for the handpan instruments and the composition of the instrument take a look at our handpan glossary.


Handpans are not all the same

There are as many handpan as there are makers. The numbers of notes, the scales used, the materials are different elements that give each handpan its uniqueness. 


If you are looking to start the handpan adventure, you have probably noticed that there are a lot of instruments with very different sounds. This is due to the scale in which the handpan was designed.

Major scales

Major scales gives a happy, bright and peaceful sound. Pleasant to play and relaxing, this scale is great for music therapy and meditation. Major scale is constituted of a pattern of whole step and half step.

Minor scales

Minor scales are complex, sometimes dark and overall more emotional. Having a handpan in a minor scale will allow you to create tension, suspense and a give a sense of mystery to your music. There are 3 types of minor scales, natura minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor each with its own pattern of whole and half steps. 

Flavorful scales

These scales can be either major or minor and are usually distinguished by their cultural touch like Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese and Chinese scales. These types of scales are incredibly beautiful and magical.

The notes

When it was created, the hang consisted of only 8 notes. For a beginner, a handpan with 8 or 9 notes is ideal to start and get familiar with the instrument. With the evolution of knowledge and know-how, the number of notes has evolved. It is now possible to add notes on the lower part of the handpan, called bottom notes. On the upper part, the number of notes can also exceed 9 notes. We usually see handpans with 13 notes but there are handpans with more than 20 notes. Some handpan even have multiple Ding !

How to start playing 

Handpan is not the most difficult instrument to play. Compared to other instruments that require real musical knowledge to start playing, with the handpan you can let go your imagination and start creating melodies. Because of the unique tuning methods of handpans notes, you will learn to play proficiently in a few weeks. The novice period with a handpan, unlike other instruments, is very short.  

But like any instrument, it will take a lot of practice to get really comfortable and improve your technique. You won't be able to play like a pro in the first month of use. What will take you the most time is creating rhythms. There are many rhythms and working on them will improve your playing. Keeping the right rhythm while creating melodies takes work time and practice. 

Playing each note correctly will also take some practice. It's not just about hitting the note, it's about learning to play with varying degrees of force. From fingertips to wider strokes with more contact, or hitting one or two knuckles to get a different sound. Take it easy and develop your playing style, maybe try playing up and down the scale with increasing and decreasing firmness to tune your ear as you play. Over time, you can also add some effects and improve your skills. 

To practice and perfect your technique, I encourage you to watchvideos of handpan rhythms on youtube. The more rhythms you master, the more complete you will be. 

alexandre zunino
alexandre zunino

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