If you have spent much time watching Handpan videos or exploring the scene, you have probably come across scale names like: “Golden Gate” , “Ursa Minor”, “Annaziska”, “Kurd”, “Amara” and “Equinox”.
Why are some handpan scales given strange, exotic, and sometimes cosmic names?
Although most scales in western music have names like Major, Minor and Harmonic Minor or modal names like Dorian and Mixolydian, handpan scale names can be quite odd!
Looking back to the beginning, one might guess that it started with Panart, the creators of the Hang®. Being originally Steel Pan builders, they took a leap in creating the Hang® with a single scale as opposed to the chromatic options on Steel Pans. Many of the early First Generation Hang® were based on ethnocentric scale forms that were 5 note pentatonic or 6 note hexatonic scales like the Pygmy, Akebono, Gong Diao and Hijaz. These names reflected the regions, cultures and traditional names of these scale forms. After the creation of the Second Generation Hang®, Panart popularized a 6 note variation of D Minor, which they called the “Integral” Hang®. Perhaps this was the first Handpan with a fabricated scale name?
What does one call a collection of notes that is not a full scale and doesn’t have a previously associated name?
Two of the first Handpan builders after Panart were Pantheon Steel in the USA and Bellart in Spain. Both started producing instruments around 2007. While each builder also produced some ethnocentric scales such as the Pygmy and Akebono, they also started building 5 and 6 note scales that were not ethnocentric scale forms.
Both companies created new names for many of their scales like “Golden Gate”, “Ursa Minor”, “Protus”, “Paradiso”, “Jibuk”, “Equinox” and “La Sirena”. Later companies continued the trend, sometimes creating a new name for the exact same scale that a different builder had previously made. One example is the Bellart “Protus”, which is the same scale as the “Integral” Hang: D/ A, Bb, C, D, E, F, A.
Along with Echo Sound Sculpture in Switzerland, many of Pantheon Steel’s scale names are still very popular. Each company has given public permission for other builders to use their scale names and even considered it a compliment while Bellart stated that they do not want any other builders using their scale names.
– Saraz #1 “Morning Glory” (Our English friends got a great laugh out of the name 😉 )
When Saraz launched in 2012, the scale naming trend was already very well established with many different scale names from Bellart and Pantheon Steel while Echo Sound Sculpture was just starting to create new scale names. At the time, these builders seemed focused on the novel quality of the handpan being an instrument that could be played without thinking about notes, scales, and music theory. One of the handpan’s most amazing qualities is the ability to create music from a place of emotion and pattern instead of mentally thinking “G to C to D to Am to G”.
Also in the early days of the Handpan, Victor Levinson, the creator of the SPB in Russia, was leaning toward more ethnocentric scale names like “Kurd”, short for “Kurd Maqam”, a term used in Middle Eastern Music. He also popularized “Romanian Hijaz” and “Harmonic Minor”. Unlike other builders, many SPBs of this time were full scales instead of the 5 note pentatonic and 6 note hexatonic scale forms (or “sound models” and “sound sculptures” as they are also somes called).
Why we lean toward musical scale names for the Saraz Handpan
We named only a couple original scale names (“Oxalista and Morning Glory”) before deciding to focus on building musical instruments with names that already had extensive meaning for millions of musicians. It also seemed easier than the poetic task of creating a new name for every scale variation that we made. There were a couple experiences that lead to this decision. One evening, while jamming with some friends on various instruments, the other musicians asked what scale the handpan was. The handpan scale name of “Aegis” had little meaning for the other musicians so it had to be explained that the handpan focused on E minor and C major with a pentatonic flavor of C Lydian. Also at one of the earliest Handpan events in the USA, Handpangea, one of the most common conversations was trying to figure out which scales played together. While sometimes strange combinations created the opportunity for very interesting progressions and modulations, most of the time players were looking for perfect matches using a language of scale names that was very young and somewhat confusing to all but the most knowledgeable players and “aficioNERDos” (as our friend Peter Levitov has jokingly called them).
– Photo Credit: Robin Burk: Handpangea
After those experiences, we realized that for anyone who intended to play their handpan with other musicians, they would need to know at least something about the notes and the scale of the instrument. Because many people come to the handpan without any musical background, this also seemed like a great opportunity to get their first lesson in very basic music theory as they embarked on playing their new “gateway” instrument. The simplest solution seemed to be to focus on western musical names whenever possible. While it might seem a bit confusing and frankly incorrect to call a 5 or 6 note variation by it’s 7 note scale name such as “Minor” or “Major”, it is less confusing in our humble opinion than calling it an completely unrelated name that exchanges a great amount of musical meaning for poetic merit. According to some polls, slightly more than half of the human population plays a musical instrument. Among these, many millions of people know some basic music theory about a minor or major scale so using musical names provides significant information about the musical opportunities and limitations of the instrument. Granted, poetic names are a little cooler sounding and they can indicate sometimes overlooked nuances in a handpan layout.
More than Music
In the opinion of many players and builders including us, the Handpan is also more than just a musical instrument. This has been the central theme that we have explored in our “More Than Music” series. Poetic handpan scale names can perhaps celebrate these other qualities of the instrument. In particular, the emotional and kinetic quality of the instrument that frees one from cognitive thought is perhaps emphasized by the popular celestial, exotic, cosmic and nature oriented scale names.
In the words of Aaron Ximm, who coined and designed the layout of many of the sound models at Pantheon Steel, “the specifics of a sound model determine much of the character and feel of the instrument as well as the individual differences in timbre. It’s 2/3 the precise enumeration of notes, representing of course a subset of a scale; 1/3 the fall of those notes on the instrument: adjacency and layout and center note all strongly informing the sound of the model in play. They have a very strong identity, specific to their embodiment exactly as they are found on handpans. Alter one note, rotate them one element–they change completely in feel, particularly for the player. The handpan offers liberation through constraint.”
Consider the following two videos for example. The first is “La Sirena”, the name coined by Aaron Ximm. While it is a hexatonic variation of E Dorian that omits the 4th note in the scale (A), it has a very distinct personality as it starts it’s first side note on G3 and goes up to a resolving B4. The second video is a full scale of E Dorian with the same E3 center, however the lowest side note is a B3 while it also goes up to a B4. In regards to scale, the only difference is a G3 in the “La Sirena” is traded for an A4 in the full scale of E Dorian. However, the layout of notes is also different, which leads to different inherent chord progressions.
After building hundreds of different variations, we agree with Aaron 100%. An another example of his point on note adjacency can be found in comparing a D “Kurd” with a D “Celtic”. On each, we have naturally adjacent chords running up each side of the instrument. On one side of the D Kurd, we have A, C, E, and G. On the other side, we have Bb, D and F with the highest note being the resolving A4 that can be used with either side. One side of the instrument highlights an A minor 7 chord while the other side highlights a Bb major chord and D Minor chord. Conversely, on the D Celtic, we have A, D, F, A on one side and C, E, G, C on the other side. One side highlights a D minor Chord while the other side highlights a C Major chord. The main difference between the two is that the Celtic omits the Bb3 and adds a C5 to the top of the scale. The two scales can of course be played flawlessly together because they are both relatives of D Minor. The feel of the D3 center note is also important as the rest of the scale is playing off of the 5th scale degree of D (A note). This is quite different compared to some scales that might jump an octave from the center note to the first side note such our scale variations in B Minor.
The end of Handpan Scale Naming?
There seemed to be a “Golden Age” of Handpan Scale naming that took place before 2015 and has since been dissolving. Some newer builders have created novel scale names for their instruments, however they are rarely if ever embraced by the wider community of handpan builders as happened in the past. This is perhaps simply because there are now hundreds of handpan builders instead of only a few. Scales come and go in popularity. A couple well known companies might still have other builders occasionally use their new scale names if the scale becomes popular, but the golden age of naming the next variation of D Minor or E Dorian and having the name embraced by the world seems long gone.
We list many of the most common and popular handpan scale names in our Offered Scale List in addition to the musical scale, mode, or ethnocentric scale closely related to it so that players can connect the dots between these strange and often poetic handpan terms and their musical scale relatives.
In summary, there are some very good reasons why you might want to know a bit more about your handpan than it’s poetic scale name as well as some reasons that it doesn’t really matter at all. It really just depends on what you intend to do with your instrument and how you wrap words around your playing experience.
5 reasons why you want to know more about your handpan than the strange scale name.
- Knowing which instruments go together – If you are ever in a room of Handpans, it is very helpful to know which scales will play with D minor instead of simply a wide array of names like Kurd, Protus, Integral and Celtic.
- Playing with musicians on other instruments – Other musicians will be confused at best if you tell them the strange name of your handpan when they ask as it means nothing to anyone with a musical background. This can lead to the awkward situation of trying to figure out which notes are on the instrument.
- Handpan as a musical instrument – Some feel that beyond branding, these strange names make the handpan sound more like a new age meditation device than a musical instrument. By focusing on more widely known musical terms, it embraces the enormous world of music and it’s very well established universal language.
- Some identical scales have different names – This can be very confusing to those that are not well versed in handpan scale names. Terms like “Kurd”, “Annaziska”, and “Minor” can all mean the same thing in some situations and not in others for example.
- Preconceived meaning – Millions of people understand the very basic music theory of at least major and minor scales while there are relatively very few people that can translate handpan scale names into the actual notes or the overall scale name. Even builders themselves usually can’t memorize the many names and what they mean. If you are in any situation that you might need to play with others, it is best to at least know what musical scale your instrument is based in. Even if you don’t know the exact notes, just knowing the scale can give other musicians a great deal of information about how to play with you.
5 Reasons why knowing the musical scale name really doesn’t matter
- If you only play alone – If you will never be playing with anyone else, then you probably won’t ever need to communicate about the scale or note names.
- If the handpan is not a musical instrument for you – Some people feel that the handpan is more akin to a meditation or relaxation device that is built for achieving a relaxing and hypnotic state of mind. For this type of use, the name doesn’t matter either way. The poetic name may even suggest a certain experience for your meditative contemplation while playing.
- If you are focused on the healing and therapeutic side of this majestic instrument – For some players who play in hospitals, hospice, nursing homes or during sound therapy sessions, they are typically playing alone and so there is no need to know the name of the scale. However some players, such as our friend Billy Zanski At Skinny Beats Drum Shop, often play handpans with other instruments such as crystal bowls. In this case, it is helpful to know the handpan notes or scale to compare bowls and other instruments for pleasing combinations.
- Play now and think later – This age old quote about handpans from our friend, Colin Foulke, says so much. It is sometimes nice to simply forget about the complexities of music, scales, and notes while instead just playing from the heart.
- To learn more about why handpan scale names may or may not matter, check out our friend Mark D’Ambrosio’s blog on the same topic. Mark is a great player and a trained professional musician with far more music theory knowledge than most. We also have to agree with him that “La Sirena” does indeed sound far more fun, poetic and mystical than “a hexatonic variation of E Dorian” even if the musical meaning is traded for linguistic illustration 😉