Handpans Are Everywhere

Posted by Alina Larson on

If you've been paying attention, you've seen handpans explode in popularity in recent years. They can be heard on commercials, movie soundtracks and it seems like on just about every NPR podcast.

The handpan is a relatively modern instrument, and you may be surprised when you find out where it was invented! The handpan is related to the steelpan (though it is a concave version of this instrument). It is sometimes also referred to as the Hang™ ... this latter name may ring a bell, thanks to Hang Massive – the duo who helped popularize this ethereal and wonderful instrument. 

The handpan is constructed from two metal half-shells that are fused together to form a resonant hollow chamber. Each handpan is tuned to a fixed set of notes organized around a center tone. Handpans are played by gently tapping the tone fields with your fingers. The resulting music is characterized by dreamy and hypnotic sounds. The best handpans are ones that are painstakingly hand-tuned from high-quality materials, so as not to go out of tune over time. Each instrument requires thousands of hammer strokes, making for a very long process of tuning.

But you may be wondering where this lovely instrument originated, and what kind of instrument it is exactly...

The story begins in Bern, Switzerland... Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer started a company called Hangbau AG. They had a familiarity with the steelpan, and a dream to take it in a new direction. The term "hang" is in fact a Bernese German word with a dual meaning: hand, as well as hillside. Because this word is trademarked, it has not been widely used, but there is also some controversy over the use of alternate names for the instrument, and over the classification of the instrument itself!

Felix and Sabina, the inventors of the Hang do not endorse the use of the term "handpan" and instead refer to the instrument as a "hanghang." Likewise, they reject the classification of the instrument as percussion/drum, and they themselves are not in the business of creating mass-produced instruments, but they consider each instrument to be a "sound sculpture" designed to resonate with the soul of the person who interacts with it. (http://www.hangblog.org/newsletter-panart-may-19th-2010/)

As far as the ethereal sound goes, the handpan/hanghang acts as a Helmholtz resonator, which means that it works much the same way as blowing a note over the top of a bottle. However, as it is classified as an idiophone, it is important to note that the sound produced results primarily through the vibration of the metal, without the use of air flow. Much of the air is trapped inside the body of the instrument (with only a small round opening on the bottom), so the vibration of the metal allows for the projection of a good deal of the sound.

While its relative, the steelpan, is played with mallets, the handpan/hanghang rests in the player's lap and is used with light but rapid tapping of the fingers. This allows for the instrument to ring out in such a way that overtones are produced, and creates a softer and warmer sound than you would hear from a steelpan. The instrument produces a fundamental tone, an overtone (one octave above), and an additional overtone (a perfect fifth above that octave; a tritave).

Because each instrument takes so long to come to life in the hands of a master craftsperson, the price of these instruments is accordingly high. Hardly any makers out there are able to keep up with the demand for this beautiful instrument, and so it is that many imitators of the original Hang have arisen over the years. Some are of high quality – being tuned by hand for hours on end, out of a robust metal that holds its tuning over the years – and others are less high-quality. If you see a handpan for sale, and it strikes you as being underpriced, beware! Even if you play it and you think it sounds beautiful, the sound quality may degrade over time. It's best to trust makers that have a reputation for high-quality work. We are happy to offer a selection of such instruments in our store.


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