Handpan Note Harmonics
Each hand pan note is typically an ellipse shape with a long axis and a short axis. Quality handpans have a tuned harmonic on each axis. Typically, there is an octave harmonic on the long axis and most often a compound 5th harmonic on the short axis. (Compound 5th means an octave and 5th scale degree away from the fundamental). For example, if the note is an A3, the fundamental is A3, the octave harmonic is A4, and the compound 5th is E5.
Why do we use an octave and a compound 5th harmonic on each note?
The most common and honest answer is probably because that is what the people before us did on both handpans and steel pans. Sound is the vibration of waves. This harmonic relationship is also the most basic 1:2:3 wave alignment of harmony. There are exactly 2 octave waves and 3 compound fifth waves in the same space as the fundamental wave. In the following diagram, the fundamental can be considered the top line, the octave harmonic as the second line and the compound 5th as the third line.
Some of us have heard other options especially on the short axis. A compound minor or major 3rd or a 4th harmonic was especially common on high notes of the first generation Hang®. Untuned frequencies might randomly be there also on poor quality instruments. In almost every one of these circumstances, the note has always felt to me like it was “crying” as I heard one player describe it.
Because the harmonic ratio is so much more complex. (10:4 or 12:5 ratios for compound major and minor 3rds respectively…or maybe 57298267:685029485 for a untuned harmonic)
“Harmony” basically means a physical wave alignment. The more simple, the more harmonious. A metaphor for life perhaps 😉
On a side note, psychologists have found that our brains are always looking for the most simple harmonic ratios to make sense of the inconceivably complex soundscape around us. Vocal sounds are filled with such harmonics. Handpan notes are kind of like ear candy for our brains. In my humble opinion, this is one of the reasons handpans are so captivating for many of us.
Other Harmonic Options on Handpan Notes?
Are there alternative harmonic options to the traditional octave and compound 5th?
Can another option sound just as good as the basic 1:2:3 ratio?
What if I said YES and as a bonus, another option might allow for tuning the same note on a much smaller note form size than traditionally used harmonics?
Respect to those before me
I have played two notes with alternative harmonics that sounded perfectly fine to my ears. One was a Pantheon Steel Halo from around 2014 with the usual octave harmonic on the long axis and a second octave harmonic on the short axis of an E3. The second was a Panart Gubal with a (normal) 5th harmonic and an octave harmonic on the port. Neither surprised my ear or even got my attention as being different from the traditional 1:2:3 harmonic ratio of octave and compound 5th. It wasn’t until I was told about the E3 and until I tuned the Gubal that I found the novelty.
The Halo note was a 1:2:4 ratio. The gubal port was a 1:(3/2):2 ratio. Both of these are still very simple primary harmonic ratios.
After Sylvain Paslier and I spoke on the Handpan Podcast in September 2020 about harmonic wave alignments, I started thinking more about this equation especially in regards to the lowest notes, which are huge and take up a lot of space.
What if I could squeeze a low note into a much smaller note form with different harmonics?
In theory, it would require only loosening the fundamental a bit more. I successfully tried it on an E2 in late 2020 and decided to pursue it further with more appropriately sized note forms for E2-G2. I just successfully tried it again on a G2 and was very happy with it! (Note that without speakers or quality headphones, you won’t be able to hear the low bass of the G2 fundamental in this video, It will sound quite empty on a phone speaker.)
For perspective, this G2 is about the size of my D3 note but a bit fatter on the short axis. That is 7 note forms smaller (and it was still a pinch too big)!
So what is this A.H. alignment exactly?
Basically, the trick is to put the compound 5th on the long axis and put a second octave on the short axis of the note.
It creates a 1:3:4 ratio on a MUCH smaller note. There are still 3 compound 5th waves (on the long axis instead of the short axis). We now have 4 second octave waves on the short axis. We basically trade the 2 waves of an octave for 4 waves of a second octave.
In the following diagram. Our fundamental is the bottom line. Handpan notes with the traditional harmonics are composed of the bottom three lines.
With this A.H. design, we simply trade the second from the bottom line (“one octave higher”) for the middle line (“two octaves higher”).
For example, the G2 in the video above has a D4 harmonic on the long axis and G4 harmonic on the short axis. The harmonic ratio is still very basic and simple!
Pros to this Alternative Harmonic Alignment?
1. MUCH SMALLER note sizes are possible! 6-8 notes smaller than the traditional harmonic layout!!!
Cons to this Alternative Harmonic Alignment?
1. The note has to be loosened a bit more to drop the fundamental an extra 600-800 cents compared to relative size notes with traditional harmonics. In the case of the G2, the note is about the same size as a D3 for perspective so the fundamental had to be loosened an extra 700 cents.
2. The note needs a bit more work to stabilize the fundamental, which may require more than a beginner skill level as well as some heating in a kiln. This is because the note becomes very sensitive due to the extra loosening.
3. Using these harmonics requires reorganizing either your brain or tuning software to read the right harmonics on the right strobe lines. The hardest part of all of this research for me has been teaching myself that the top bar in linotune was the long axis on the note. I finally opened up another screen and put the harmonic on the bar that my brain was accustomed to reading.
Have these alternative harmonics been used before on a note?
Seems reasonably likely that it has been done before by someone at some point but I haven’t ever heard of it personally. It is quite revolutionary to me at least.
Why hasn’t this evolved to be more popular in tuned steel than the traditional octave and compound 5th?
1. The evolutionary history of tuned steel is still young. Before the 1960s, mostly only fundamentals were tuned. In the 1960s, a tuned long axis harmonic became popular on steel pans. In the 1980s, a tuned short axis harmonic became more common and in the 1990s, tuned shoulder or rim tones became more common on the finest steel pans. There is still much innovation awaiting within the intricacies of tuned steel.
2. Stabilizing notes with this A.H. alignment is a bit more difficult because of the extra loosening. The membrane gets very sensitive.
Low Temperature “Surface Tempering” Heat
This is the variable that I hypothesize might have held this back in the evolution of tuned steel pans.
It is surprisingly still somewhat controversial in the handpan world to say that heating a shell (typically with a kiln) after tuning sessions is not always necessary. Believe it or not, equal if not greater stability can be found without heating some instruments at all during tuning. Many high quality steel pans and handpans have been tuned this way.
Panart is the first company I heard of baking shells in a kiln. Perhaps the idea spread from them? When I started building handpans in 2012 and traveled to numerous steel pan and handpan builders around the world, there was an obvious divide between the US and Europe. Europe was using a kiln, the US was using a torch.
Tuning without heat can be possible particularly on raw steel and nitrided steel instruments. I have personally built hundreds of handpans without any heat during the tuning process, some of which I was surprised to find over the years are among the most stable handpans I have ever played. I am not alone as other well known handpan builders have done the same for years. It depends on architecture, how the instrument is shaped and how efficient and skilled the tuner is. I have also built hundreds of handpans that were baked after tuning sessions. There are no doubt pros to heating with a kiln, especially when forcing a note into a different shape or simply to “reset” and stiffen the sensitivity of the note if tensions go crazy from overwork. Stainless steel handpans are a very different kind of animal in my experience. There is great benefit to using heat during tuning for stabilization. The “surface tempering”, as I call it, is very helpful for some situations including stainless steel.
I have not yet built a Saraz with alternative harmonics on nitrided or raw steel (and may never do so) however my guess is that it will require heat after tuning to stabilize the fundamental. This is because I expect the note will still be too sensitive due to the additional loosening. This is ultimately why I suspect this A.H. alignment was not the common method that evolved historically on steel pans. It simply wasn’t as easily achievable without a kiln. Most steel pan builders were using a torch, which isn’t nearly as precise as a kiln. A very specific temperature for far more than a few seconds is needed to stabilize the tuning. Too hot, and it will ruin the tuning. Too cool and it will not “surface temper” and stiffen the sensitivity of the membrane.
I encourage other builders to explore this method if they wish. I haven’t patented, copyrighted or trademarked it 😉
I believe we are each a part of a much bigger evolving organism of tuned steel. It is older than all of us and will also outlive all of us. We each stand on the shoulders of giants and will be the stepping stones of the next generation of builders that come after us.
Happy playing and hammering
– Mark Garner