My Longmont, Colorado studio is nearly wall to wall with handpans from around the world, each from different makers, made from different materials, in different styles, and of course, different scales. When I’m not performing, teaching, or writing new music I often find myself one-on-one with future handpan players, walking them through each of the different handpans to help them find which specific one is going to be best for them. So naturally, I get asked this question quite a lot. Over the years my answer has evolved. Today I hope to share with you a few perspectives on how to set yourself up for success when choosing your first handpan scale.
We’ll answer this question in two ways. First, the short answer, and second, a bit more of an in-depth analysis.
The Short Answer: Whichever scale you like best.
I know, I know this is a bit of a “the answer was inside of me all along” kind of Disney movie answer, (we’ll get more detailed in a bit, I promise.) but it’s not wrong. The bottom line is if you are really in love with a certain handpan scale then choose that scale! It’s as simple as that. Remember this because it is the one cardinal rule going forward with what I’ll outline next. So really, when you are deciding on a handpan scale above all else go with your gut. Even if it’s a bit of a more unusual or uncommon scale. If you really love the sound, chances are you will be very happy owning one of your own.
Okay, with that out of the way let’s get into a bit more of a technical breakdown of some things we can keep in mind for choosing the best beginner handpan scale.
The Long Answer:
To know what constitutes a good beginner handpan scale, it actually might be easiest to go through some traits you may NOT want in your first handpan scale. Let’s go over some of these.
1. Avoid "mutants" / "monsters"
Remember that crazy video you saw of that handpan with like, a million notes? Yeah, as cool as that video might have been, a handpan of this level of complexity might not be the best choice for a first time handpan player. Most beginners already find themselves pretty overwhelmed with only seven or eight notes, so anything more than this can just become confusing and frustrating. For beginners, I think basic is always better. Not to mention that many “mutants” can come with quite a hefty price tag. So unless you are ready to put up big bucks right away, I would advise to keep it simple.
2. Avoid “non-tonic” central notes
This one is HUGE. If there is one single thing I see again and again it is first-time handpan players regretting the scale they picked with nine times out of ten this being the culprit. What do I mean by “non-tonic” central notes”? For those of you who don’t know much about music theory terminology, you can think of it like this: Every key has a “tonic”. The tonic is sort of a home base where the notes in the key kind of naturally want to resolve to. (Think of the closing note of “Happy Birthday” or “Row row row your boat”) The tonic is always the letter named in the scale, for example in C major the tonic is C, in D minor the tonic would be D, etc. Because the tonic provides a sense of rest, resolution, and finality it is commonly used as the central note of many different handpan scales. However, this is not always the case. Handpans scales that use notes other than the tonic as their central note often leave the player with a feeling of unrest and lack of resolution. This is because the central note plays such a pivotal part in the handpan music-making experience that when this pitch is anything other than the central note something just feels…off. Having our tonic pitch as our ding provides a sort of home base beginners can go to where they know it will just sound right.
3. Avoid harmonic minor based scales.
Before I receive any criticism for this let me say, I love harmonic minor based scales, I really do. However, I don’t think these types of scales are a good choice for most beginners. Let me explain why. Two of the most common scales in western music are the major and natural minor scales. Likely 90 percent of the music you listen to on the radio, Spotify, or anywhere else is written with these scales. One of the reasons that these scales are so particularly useful (especially for the handpan) is that they are in a sense two sides of the same coin. Every major scale has a relative minor, and every minor scale has a relative major. These relative scales are made up of the exact same pitches, just arranged in a different order. That means that if your handpan is in, let’s say, D natural minor and thus more suited to playing darker more somber sounding music, by shifting your resolution point to the relative major pitch (in this case F) we can play much brighter, happier sounding music! Conversely, if our handpan is in a major key, let’s say, E major, by shifting our resolution point to the relative minor pitch (in this case C#) we can drastically change the overall mood of the music we are creating.
So where does the harmonic minor scale fit in with all of this? Well, unlike the major and natural minor scales, the harmonic minor scale doesn’t have quite the same duality. Meaning that when you play a harmonic minor based pan, you might feel just kind of stuck. Typically, the harmonic minor scale and its subsidiaries evoke feelings and images of exoticism, particularly eastern. While this can be enticing in a five-minute YouTube video, oftentimes beginner handpan players with a harmonic minor based instrument will eventually feel like they are trapped wandering in an eternal desert of sand.
So where does this leave us?
Now you know a lot about what to avoid when picking a first handpan scale, but what WOULD be a good pick?
Well if you saw the thumbnail of this article you probably already know what my personal pick is…
Yes, the ever-popular Kurd scale is my #1 choice for the best beginner handpan scale and let me explain why.
Before I jump into my reasoning here let me address all the handpan builders reading this who may have just done a spit-take upon reading Kurd. Yes, I realize the Kurd scale might not be the most issue-free handpan scale ever created, it has its problems, but in the end, I think the pros outweigh the cons.
So why Kurd? Let’s go through our checklist from above.
1. It’s a simple layout typically just 8-9 notes with no gaps in the tone circle plus the ding making it easily approachable for beginning players.
2. The central note is the resolution point (tonic) of the key.
3. It’s a natural minor based scale making it both versatile (easy to play in the relative major) and approachable.
And there is more!