Choosing a Scale
Choosing a scale is all down to personal preference. Listen to lots of different handpans / pantam online and note what you like. But remember: you may like the style of a particular handpan musician as much as the handpan itself, and there’s nothing wrong with that but just bear it in mind as it will influence your preferences.
Scale names are confusing – Hijaz? Kurd? What does this mean?
Try not to worry about this too much for now. Remember to write down the actual notes of the scales that you like. Every handpan scale can come in a range of keys depending on your choice for your ding and can have a different name depending on the maker. Don’t be confused by this; help yourself by writing down the actual notes of the scales that you like.
Make sure to use headphones
Otherwise you will miss out on the delicious bassy tones, especially in the lower pitched handpans!
Lower ding VS Higher ding
How frequently will you use your ding? Will you play more percussively or compose melodies? You may or may not know the answer to this yet. Something you might wish to note for all handpans is that the lower the pitch of your ding, the bassier and more satisfying the sound is to strike it. With a higher ding in general the top end of notes are higher in pitch and more notes can fit on the top of the pan should you opt for a “mutant” style pan such as this 15 note yishama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dz8NCJPK1nc&feature=emb_logo
For me, I don’t get the same satisfaction from a ding above an Eb anymore but as a beginner 10 years ago I really couldn’t tell the difference.
The majority of handpan scales are a variation on either a major, minor or harmonic minor key.
The major scales are happy and uplifting and popular with beginners, minor keys are moodier and harmonic minor have a more middle eastern flavour full of suspense. Beginners often tend to feel less comfortable with Harmonic Minor / Hijaz scales. My recommendation would be for a beginner to choose a major or minor handpan.
Most scales in music have 7 notes. E.g. C major C D E F G A B or D minor D E F G A Bb C. Handpan scales often omit one or two notes in a scale and this leads to such a wide variety of instruments.
For your ease of comparison I have written out in the scale of D the notes of each of a selection of popular scales, though you will find the scales in reality may have a different central note e.g. La Sirena common in E.
- Kurd / Integral / Annaziska / Protus D A Bb C D E F G A
This scale has many names and is a variation of a minor key. You can choose a ding to suit your preference but most common are C# and D. I like this scale because it is a full scale with all 7 notes and because it is usually in D or C# and I prefer a lovely low ding.
- Amara 9 / Celtic Minor 9 D A C D E F G A C D
Again this is a variation on a minor key, it is less minor or moody than other scales because the minor 6th note – in the case of D minor the Bb is omitted. I like the 9 variation because it has the extra D note at the top. This video is my own amara variation in C#. It has extended notes which are played later on in the video. C# (F#) G# (A#) B C# D# E F# G# B (C#).
- La Sirena D F A B C D E F
This is a minor but with a major 6th note instead of a minor 6th (B instead of Bb) – known as Dorian
- Aegean D F# A C# D F# G# A C#
This is a major scale often found with a low ding. Pentatonic which means it has only 5 notes. It has a more underworldly feel to me than for example the bright and shiny melog below, because it has a raised 4th note i.e G# instead of a G which gives it a calm or even haunting feeling. An unresolving scale great for meditation.
- Melog selisir D F# G A C# D F# G A
Another major scale often found with a higher ding in G. Bright sunshine happiness through and through. The melog is pentatonic (5 note scale) and very accessible to a beginner but I imagine that a seasoned musician could get bored very quickly. Similar to the Melog is “Oxalista” or “Oxalis.”
- Harmonic Minor D G A Bb C D Eb F# G A &
- Hijaz D A Bb C# D E F G A Bb D
Harmonic minor / Hijaz / Klezmara / Tarznauyn handpan scales are very similar as they are variations / different modes of the Harmonic minor scale. Suspenseful scale found in Arabic, Persian and Indian classical music.
What material you would like your handpan to be made of is an important decision – seek further guidance from the maker. In general a handpan made from stainless steel has much greater sustain. This lends itself well to meditation and slow composition but not to fast playing.
440hz vs 432
If you want to be able to play with other musicians choose 440hz. If you are looking for an instrument to be played alone for sound therapy and meditation you might want to consider an instrument with A = 432hz as this frequency is believed to vibrate in tune with the earth and reduce anxiety.