Handpans are fantastic instruments, getting more popular every day thanks to their magical, out-of-world sounds and distinct looks.
You may not be familiar with the name, but you sure have seen somebody playing it in the street or in a Youtube video, where hands are dancing on a steel UFO-like instrument. That’s a handpan!
So, if you are like many people out there who got fascinated by this majestical sound and want to simply buy and play one, you may have a tough choice facing you.
As these instruments come in different scales and notes, with each scale having a different feeling in it, it is hard to choose one. Also, handpans are expensive instruments, so the decision should be made wisely.
So that is why today we will cover what you need to know about getting your first handpan and which scale is the best for you!
What Is The Best Handpan Scale For Beginners?
The most basic scales that our ears are used to are natural minor scale variations. So, these are the best handpan scales for beginners as it is easier to create melodies and harmonies with them. Kurd is the most recommended and most popular handpan scale, which is ideal for most beginners.
The most popular natural minor handpan scales are:
Amara (Celtic Minor)
However, as there are limited numbers of notes on handpan scales, you can start with any of them.
It can take a little more time to get used to other scales like major or eastern-originated scales, but it won’t be hard as the handpan is one of the easiest instruments to learn and play.
All that said, experiment and try not to limit yourself.
There are some tricks to get familiar with this instrument and enjoy playing without struggling with creating melodies and harmonies.
Handpans are not chromatic instruments like piano or guitar. This means there are a limited number of notes on them, which are specially selected.
So, each individual handpan has a feeling and specially selected and ordered notes.
Do Not Start With A Mutant Handpan
If you are familiar with the handpan world, you might have seen those fantastic instruments with many notes on the top and bottom sides of the instrument. Although these are great instruments to create diversity and play many different melodies, they are more professional-oriented instruments.
Having more options for notes is great for an experienced player, but if you are just starting your handpan journey, it is better to stick with the traditional 7+1, 8+1, or 9+1 layout. These numbers show that there are 7, 8, or 9 notes on the tonefield, the sides of the instrument, while there is 1 note on the center, which is the root of the scale.
Having more notes can be overwhelming and confusing for most beginner handpan players, as these extended scales require more experience with the instrument. It is also hard to hit and create proper sound with the bottom notes as well as higher notes.
So, starting and learning with a basic instrument and taking the next step to the mutant handpans for later is the best idea. Another important reason is that the mutant handpans are pretty expensive.
Do Not Start With A Non-Tonic Ding (Center Note)
Most handpans have the center note, which is called the Ding, as the root of the scale.
This way, you can play and navigate easier on the instrument, as your home base is in the center. But, not all handpans come with this layout, and non-tonic dings make it pretty hard to create melodies.
To better understand this, you can think as follows. Every scale has a home base, which is the tonic center of the scale.
For example, the tonic center of a D Minor scale is the D note. So, when you play the D note in the D minor scale, you kind of get the sense of rest and resolution. That is why most melodies in the D minor scale ending with a D note.
So, having the root note in the center of a handpan makes it easier to play and create harmonies, while handpans with non-tonic dings give you a sense of unrest and lack of resolution.
They are harder to play and require experience with music theory and a trained ear to play.
So, whatever scale you are going to buy, ensure that the tonic center is on the instrument as the Ding note.
For example, if you are buying a D Kurd scale, the ding should be the D note. If you are purchasing a C Aeolian, the Ding should be a C note, and so on.
Start With A Natural Minor Scale If This Is Your First Musical Instrument
While handpans are pretty easy instruments to learn and play, we recommend starting with a natural minor scale for absolute beginner handpan players, especially for the ones who do not have any experience with musical theory and musical instruments.
This is because most popular songs are created in natural minor scales, and our ears are pretty used to the notes, melodies, and harmony.
Starting with one of these scales will be easier on you, as you will have a familiarity with the note order and intuitively create melodies without thinking.
Natural minor scales tend to have mystical, melancholy, bittersweet, calming feelings. Some highly popular natural minor scale variations for handpans are these ones.
Do not confuse the natural minor scales with the harmonic minor, and the melodic minor scales as these are all different scales. The latter two need more musical background to get used to.
Types Of Handpan Scales
Kurd is the most popular handpan scale, which you can find almost in every handpan maker’s shop. The scale is often created with a D root note, and the notes go as D as the ding and A-Bb-C-D-E-F-G-A on the tonefield.
With the Kurd, you have all the notes in the D minor scale, which is excellent for creating melodies and playing as you like.
Amara (Celtic Minor)
Amara is one of the most popular scales on the handpan and a variation of the minor scale derived from Irish origins.
It has one of the most common and easy-to-play handpan scales. The root note can be any note between the C and F range.
The D Amara or D Celtic scale goes as D in the ding, A-C-D-E-F-G-A-C notes on the tonefield. The lack of the Bb note, which is the 6th step in the minor scale, creates a slightly different feel with a more suspended mood.
Another one of the popular scales is the Integral scale which is also a natural minor variation.
It lacks the 4th step in the minor scale, creating a more mystical feeling. Integral handpans often have center notes between C# to F#.
The most popular integral scale is the D Integral which has the D note as the Ding and A-Bb-C-D-E-F-A notes on the tonefield.
Besides the natural minor scales, there are also handpans in major scale variations. These handpans are also beginner-friendly but not as common as the natural minor scales.
Without any musical background, you can easily play major scales just like natural minor scales.
Major scales tend to have more of a happy, joyful, uplifting, sometimes epic, and triumphant sonic character. Most common examples are called Major, Mixolydian, Sabye, Ysha Savita, Oxalis, and Oxalista scales.
Handpans with oriental scales is the most exotic-sounding instruments in the handpan world.
These scales are derived from eastern scales and are great to have sounds from the Middle East, North Africa, India as well as Japan, and China.
However, as our western ears are not really used to these scales, it is relatively harder to create melodies and harmonic partitions with these scales. Building chords and musical sentences are a bit more challenging with these handpans.
However, if you like these exotic and ethnic tunes and are familiar with some, they are great and do not take very long to get used to. The most common examples are Hijaz, Akebono, Tarznayun, Romanian Hijaz, and Saladin.
There are also harmonic minor scales, which sit halfway between oriental scales and natural minor scales.
Harmonic minor scales are not considered beginner handpan scales, as it is a bit hard to create melodies without knowledge of music theory.
What Is The Most Popular Handpan Scale?
The most popular handpan scale is the D minor handpan called D Kurd.
These handpans commonly come in an 8+1 layout with the root note D at the center along with A-Bb-C-D-E-F-G-A notes on the tonefield. The scale has all the notes in the D minor scale and is pretty easy to play.
How Do You Pick A Handpan Scale?
Picking a handpan scale mainly depends on personal taste as well as experience with musical scales and instruments.
If handpan is your first musical instrument and if you are not familiar with different scales, it is best, to begin with a common scale-like minor variation such as the D Kurd scale.
Do Handpans Go Out Of Tune?
Handpans are very fragile instruments that need to be taken good care of. With proper care and playing technique, it can stay in tune for years.
However, if you bump the instrument to a hard surface, or anything falls on it, or if you hit it hard while playing, the notes can easily go out of tune.
It is a very hard process to tune a handpan which requires to be done by experienced hands. As it is a delicate process made by hammer hits, you can not tune a handpan by yourself.
If your handpan goes out of tune, the best is to send it to the maker who made the handpan or find a reliable maker and ask for a retune.
How Do You Identify The Notes On A Handpan?
It is easy to identify notes on a handpan using any kind of tuner application. A guitar tuner app can easily identify the notes for you to learn the scale.
Also, most handpans come with a certificate showing the notes on the instrument.
How Many Notes Can A Handpan Have?
The makers are pushing the limits of handpans these days, stuffing lots of notes on a regular handpan.
These handpans with many notes are called mutant handpans and can have up to 30 notes in total on the top and bottom shell.