Handpan: Origins, Unique Features and Playing Techniques

DAN MOI Clemens Voigt & Sven Otto GbR
Handpan: Origins, Unique Features and Playing Techniques - Handpan: Origins, Unique Features and Playing Techniques

The handpan is a mesmerizing musical instrument that has captured the hearts of musicians and sound lovers worldwide. The handpan's alluring features, coupled with its rich history and versatile playing techniques, make it an attractive addition to any musician's repertoire.

In this blog post, we will delve into the fascinating world of handpans. We'll also uncover their origins from Caribbean steel drums over Hang drums to the variety of modern handpans and tongue drums.

Furthermore, you'll discover various playing styles for different effects and learn how handpans compare with similar instruments like steel drums and tongue drums. Additionally, we will discuss the art of crafting these beautiful instruments using traditional manufacturing methods alongside modern techniques.

For beginners looking to venture into the realm of handpan music, we provide guidance on choosing the right instrument based on factors affecting price and quality while offering online resources for exploring different tunings. Finally, you'll find helpful tips on learning how to play your new favorite instrument through local workshops or classes as well as online tutorials.

Join us in celebrating the growing popularity of handpans in music & media – including famous artists incorporating them into their work – along with its therapeutic uses in meditation practices!

The Handpan and Its Unique Characteristics

What is a Handpan Drum?

A handpan is a musical instrument that belongs to the idiophone family, which means it produces sound through the vibration of the entire instrument. It is a type of steel drum that is played by hand, and it produces a unique and captivating sound that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The instrument is made from two hemispheres of steel that are carefully tuned to produce a range of musical notes. The top of the handpan has a series of dimples or indentations that are struck with the hands to produce the sound. Handpans are known for their warm and resonant tone, which has made them a popular choice for a variety of musical genres, including world music, ambient, and meditation music. They are also used in therapeutic settings and have been shown to have a calming and relaxing effect on the mind and body.

Construction of the Handpan

A typical handpan is a large hollow metal percussion instrument that resembles a UFO and that is usually made from two deep drawn half-shells of sheet steel that are fused together, with a series of indentations hammered into the surface to create notes. It typically has a diameter of around 20 - 24 inches and a depth of 8 - 10 inches, although the exact dimensions can vary depending on the handpan maker and the specific model. The top shell is featuring a central dome called the Ding surrounded by seven or more indents representing specific notes, while the bottom shell serves as an acoustic resonator. There is also a resonance hole on the bottom side of the handpan called the Gu. This design allows for optimal sound projection and resonance.

Materials Used for Making Handpans

  • Nitrided Steel: Nitriding is a heat treatment process that hardens the surface of steel, making it more resistant to wear and corrosion. Many handpans are made from this material due to its durability and excellent sound quality.
  • Stainless Steel: Stainless steel is another popular choice for constructing handpans because it offers similar benefits as nitrided steel but with added resistance against rusting. It also provides slightly different tonal qualities compared to nitrided versions. 

Regardless of the material used, handpans are meticulously crafted to ensure they produce beautiful and harmonious sounds that captivate musicians, world music enthusiasts, and sound lovers alike.

The handpan is a unique instrument that has gained immense popularity due to its beautiful sound and ease of playing. Its invention can be traced back to the Caribbean steel drums. The next heading will explore how this evolution leading to modern handpans took place.

Origins and Invention of the Handpan

The modern handpan has its roots in Bern, Switzerland, where it was developed in the year 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer under the name Hang. This unique instrument draws inspiration from traditional Caribbean steel drums, which were pioneered by Ellie Mannette. Over time, the Hang drum evolved into what we now know as handpans, leading to other similar instruments such as steel tongue drums.

Evolution from Hang Drum to Modern Handpans

The original Hang featured a central note surrounded by seven additional notes tuned harmonically. As musicians began experimenting with different scales and tunings, new variations emerged that expanded upon this basic design. Today's handpans come in various shapes and sizes with diverse tuning options to suit individual preferences.

Relation to Caribbean Steel Drums

  • Inspiration: The development of the handpan was heavily influenced by Caribbean steel drums or pans.
  • Tuning: Both instruments use harmonic tuning for their respective notes; however, they differ significantly in terms of sound quality due to differences in construction materials and techniques.
  • Cultural significance: While steel drums have deep cultural ties within Trinidadian music traditions like Calypso bands, handpans are gaining popularity worldwide, especially among world music enthusiasts seeking new sonic experiences.

In summary, although closely related to traditional Caribbean steel drums both conceptually and historically, the contemporary handpan has carved out its own identity within the world music scene thanks largely to its distinct appearance, sound quality, and playing techniques.

The origins and invention of the handpan are a fascinating journey, culminating in an instrument that has become popular around the world. With its distinctive shape and captivating sound, mastering the handpan can be both daunting and gratifying. Now let's explore some playing techniques for this multifaceted percussion instrument.

Comparing Handpans with Caribbean Steel Drums & Steel Tongue Drums

The handpan, Caribbean steel drum, and steel tongue drum are all captivating percussion instruments that share some similarities but also have their unique characteristics. Let's dive into the differences and similarities among these three types of instruments.

Differences between Handpans and Caribbean Steel Drums

While both Caribbean steel drums and handpans are made from metal, they differ in shape and sound production. The Caribbean steel drum is traditionally made from a metal barrel and uses its outer ring as a frame. The top surface is hammered concave to the inside of this frame. And on this hemispherical shell there are the areas for all the notes evenly distributed, whereas the handpan features a central dome (Ding) surrounded by indents representing specific notes.

Steel drums are often much larger and louder, with the distinct Caribbean sound. They are played with mallets and are typically used in calypso and reggae music. In terms of sound quality, Caribbean steel drums produce bright tones while handpans create more gentle sounds rich in harmonics due to their construction and playing techniques.

Differences between Handpans and Steel Tongue Drums

The steel tongue drum is a percussion instrument that looks similar to the handpan at first glance. However, the construction is very different: the material thickness of steel tongue drums is much stronger than that of handpans, making them both more robust but also heavier. The top has a series of slots or "tongues" cut into the metal that are tuned to specific pitches by adjusting their length and width.

A handpan is easier to play quickly, while a steel tongue drum requires more accuracy and precision to get the best sound from the tongues. But steel tongue drums can be played more aggressively - even with mallets, with louder sounds and shorter sustain, making them better for rhythmic playing and accompaniment.

Similarities Among All Three Types of Percussion Instruments

  • All three instruments - handpans, Caribbean steel drums, and steel tongue drums - belong to the idiophone family which generates sound primarily through vibration without using strings or membranes.
  • They each require skillful hands-on playing techniques for creating beautiful melodies as well as percussive effects such as slaps or beats on different parts of their surfaces.
  • Their origins can be traced back to various cultures worldwide: Swiss innovation inspired by Trinidadian music traditions for handpans; Ellie Mannette's pioneering work on developing steelpan music culture within Trinidad; ancient African slit-drumming practices influencing contemporary tongue drum design concepts found today across continents globally.

Comparing Handpans with Steel Drums and Steel Tongue Drums has given us an insight into the similarities and differences between these three percussion instruments. Now, let's explore the art of crafting handpans to gain a better understanding of their traditional manufacturing methods as well as modern techniques for production.

Art of Crafting Handpans

The process involved in crafting high-quality handmade handpans is a delicate and intricate art form. Various approaches are utilized to construct these captivating instruments, each possessing its own distinctive features. However, the general process can be broken down into three main steps:

  1. shaping and fusing the half shells
  2. tuning
  3. finishing

Traditional Manufacturing Methods

In the traditional method, artisans use hammers to shape the metal into two hemispherical shells that will eventually be joined together. This requires immense skill and precision as any imperfections can significantly impact the sound quality of the final product. The notes are then carefully tuned by hammering specific areas on the surface until they produce their desired pitch. This elaborate approach is very rare.

Modern Techniques for Handpan Production

Modern techniques involve using deep-drawn methods or water under pressure to form the shells. These processes allow for more consistent results compared to traditional hammering techniques but still require expert craftsmanship during tuning stages to ensure optimal performance from the finished instrument.

No matter which manufacturing technique is employed, one thing remains constant: attention to detail is required throughout the entire creation process to guarantee the highest possible level of sonic excellence.

Playing Techniques for Handpans

The handpan is a versatile and expressive instrument that can be played using various techniques to create unique soundscapes. To play the handpan effectively, musicians use soft mallet-like strokes with their fingers or even slaps, beats, and knocks on the edges around it. This idiophone generates sound primarily through its own vibration while allowing Helmholtz resonance that creates immersive sonic experiences.

Different playing styles for various effects

  • Finger tapping: By gently tapping the notes with your fingertips, you can produce clear and melodic tones.
  • Slapping: For a more percussive effect, slap the surface of the handpan with your palms or fingers to create sharp accents.
  • Muting: Placing one finger on a note while striking another will mute certain harmonics and change the overall timbre of your music.
  • Bass tone manipulation: Applying pressure to different areas around the central Ding dome will alter bass frequencies in fascinating ways.

Exploring percussive possibilities on the 'shoulder' of the Ding

In addition to playing individual notes on a handpan's surface, you can also explore its full range by utilizing other parts such as shoulders (the curved area surrounding each note) or even the Gu hole located at the bottom side which allows Helmholtz Resonance to occur inside the cavity when struck correctly. Experimenting with these regions opens up new rhythmic patterns and textures, giving endless creative options within reach waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by both listeners and players alike.

The different playing styles for handpans can open up a whole new world of possibilities, allowing the player to create unique and interesting sounds.

Choosing the Right Handpan for Beginners

If you're new to the world of handpans, selecting the perfect instrument can be a daunting task. With various factors like material quality, craftsmanship, and tuning to consider, it's essential to do thorough research before making a purchase. In this section, we'll discuss some crucial aspects that beginners should keep in mind when choosing their first handpan.

Factors Affecting Price and Quality of Handpans

  • Material: High-quality materials such as nitrided steel or stainless steel are more durable and produce better sound than cheaper alternatives.
  • Craftsmanship: Skilled artisans create well-tuned instruments with precise note placement and excellent resonance.
  • Tuning: Different scales offer unique sonic experiences; choose one that resonates with your musical preferences. Some popular tunings include D minor, C major, or F# minor.

Online Resources for Exploring Different Tunings

To help you decide which scale suits your taste best, several online platforms provide samples of various tunings played by professional musicians. Websites like Master The Handpan and YouTube channels dedicated to handpans offer valuable insights into the instrument's sonic identity. These resources can be instrumental in guiding you towards an informed decision.

Handpans are unique instruments that offer a range of sounds and playing styles. If you're interested in similar instruments, you may also want to explore steel tongue drums, Caribbean steel drums, or kalimbas. However, handpans have a distinct sound that sets them apart from other instruments, making them a popular choice for musicians worldwide.

Selecting the appropriate handpan for novices may be challenging, yet with some exploration and direction it is feasible to locate an instrument that meets your requirements. Perhaps one of our handpans or steel tongue drums suits your taste.

Now let's move on to learning how to play the handpan - there are plenty of resources available both online and in-person.

Learning How to Play the Handpan

For those wanting to learn how to play the handpan, there are a variety of resources available including local workshops and classes as well as online tutorials. From local workshops and classes to online tutorials, aspiring musicians have plenty of options for mastering this unique instrument.

Finding Local Workshops or Classes

One way to learn is by attending a handpan workshop or class in your area. These events provide hands-on instruction from experienced players who can teach proper playing techniques as well as care and maintenance practices required for ensuring longevity and enjoyment derived from ownership use over time. To find upcoming workshops near you, try searching on social media platforms or joining handpan-related groups where members often share information about upcoming events.

Online Tutorials and Learning Resources

  • David Kuckhermanns YouTube Channel: This channel offers numerous video tutorials covering various aspects of playing the handpan, including basic techniques, scales, rhythms, and more.
  • Master The Handpan Online Course: This comprehensive course provides step-by-step guidance through lessons designed for beginners all the way up to advanced players looking to refine their skills further.

In addition to these resources mentioned above, don't forget that practice makes perfect. Dedicate time each day to playing your handpan and experimenting with different techniques, as this will help you develop your own unique style and improve over time.

Learning how to play the handpan can be a rewarding experience, as it is an instrument that has become increasingly popular in modern music. As its popularity continues to grow, we will take a look at some of the notable appearances of handpans in media and art.

The Growing Popularity of Handpans in Music & Media

As the handpan gains popularity, it has found its way into various music genres and media productions. Its soothing sounds have captivated audiences worldwide, leading to a surge in interest for this unique instrument. Many artists are now incorporating handpans into their work, showcasing the versatility and beauty of these instruments.

Examples of Famous Artists Incorporating Handpans in Their Work

  • Manu Delago, an Austrian percussionist known for his innovative use of the Hang drum with Bjork and Anoushka Shankar.
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela, a Mexican acoustic guitar duo who incorporate handpan playing techniques into their performances.
  • David Kuckhermann, a German percussionist recognized for his mastery over both frame drums and handpans.
  • Daniel Waples: A pioneer in the handpan world who has garnered millions of views on YouTube and has performed in over 40 countries.
  • Hang Massive: A duo consisting of Danny Cudd and Markus Offbeat, who have captivated audiences worldwide with their mesmerizing performances and compositions.

Notable Appearances in Film/TV Scores

Besides live performances, the enchanting soundscapes created by handpans have also been featured in film and television scores. For example:

  • The movie "The Hundred-Foot Journey" (2014) features a soundtrack composed by A.R. Rahman that includes mesmerizing handpan melodies.
  • The TV series "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (2013) has also incorporated handpan music into its score, adding an ethereal quality to the show's atmosphere.

With the ever-growing interest in handpans, it is evident that these instruments have a bright future in both popular music and media productions. Their unique sound and captivating presence continue to inspire artists and audiences alike.

The growing popularity of handpans in music and media has been an exciting development, as these instruments have opened up a world of creative possibilities for musicians. Moving on to the next topic, we will explore how handpans are being used in therapeutic settings such as music therapy and meditation.

Are there any handpan festivals?

Yes, there are several handpan festivals held around the world that celebrate this unique instrument and bring together enthusiasts, performers, and makers. Some notable handpan festivals include:

These events typically feature concerts, workshops, and opportunities for attendees to connect with the handpan community.

In Music Therapy and Meditation

Handpans have been increasingly used in music therapy due to their soothing and meditative sound. The instrument's resonance and rich harmonic spectrum can promote relaxation, reduce stress, and facilitate emotional expression. Music therapists use handpans for individual or group sessions to address various therapeutic goals, such as improving communication, enhancing cognitive function, and fostering emotional well-being.

The handpan's unique sound and frequencies make it an ideal instrument for music therapy and meditation. Its captivating tones have become increasingly popular due to their ability to create an immersive atmosphere during therapy sessions.

The potent resonant qualities of the handpan can aid in relaxation and release stress and tension, providing effective treatment for severe mental health problems. This is particularly beneficial for those suffering from anxiety or depression disorders, which are common among today's society members worldwide.

  • Sound healing: Handpans are often used in sound healing, where practitioners use vibrations from various instruments to promote wellness in the body and mind.
  • Meditation: The soothing sounds of a handpan can help facilitate deep states of meditation by calming the mind and promoting focus on breathwork or other mindfulness practices.
  • Yoga classes: Many yoga instructors incorporate handpan music into their classes as a way to enhance relaxation during savasana or other restorative poses.

In addition to its therapeutic applications, the handpan has also found its place within spiritual communities who appreciate its ethereal soundscapes. For example, some people use this instrument as part of their personal spiritual practice or during group gatherings such as kirtan events (sacred chanting sessions) that aim at connecting with higher realms through sonic exploration.

To experience these benefits firsthand, consider attending workshops focused on playing techniques specifically designed for using handpans in music therapy settings. Alternatively, explore online resources like Handpan Journey for tutorials and inspiration. 

FAQs in Relation to Handpan

What are some interesting facts about the handpan?

The handpan is a relatively new instrument, invented in 2000 by Swiss musicians Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer. It has gained popularity due to its unique sound and versatility. The instrument is typically made of steel or nitrided steel, with different tunings available for various musical styles. Handpans can be played solo or as part of an ensemble, often used in meditation and music therapy sessions.

What is the science behind the handpan?

The science behind the handpan lies in its unique construction and tuning method. Each note on a handpan consists of multiple overtones that create a rich harmonic resonance when struck. This results from carefully shaping and hammering each tone field to achieve specific frequencies based on Helmholtz resonance principles. The combination of these tuned notes creates complex chord structures that give the instrument its distinct ethereal sound.

What culture invented the handpan?

The modern-day handpan originated from Switzerland. However, it's important to note that this instrument draws inspiration from Caribbean steel drums (steel pans) which have roots within Trinidadian culture.

What is the real name of a handpan?

The original name given to this type of percussion instrument was "Hang," derived from Bernese German word meaning "hand." Over time, however, people started referring to them as "hang drums" or simply "handpans." Although many variations exist today under different brand names, the term "handpan" has become widely accepted as a generic name for this family of instruments.


In conclusion, the handpan is a unique and versatile musical instrument that has gained popularity worldwide due to its captivating sound and portability. Learning to play the handpan can be an enriching experience, and there are various methods to start your journey, whether through self-teaching, workshops, private lessons, or online courses. Handpans can be found in various musical genres, from street music and world music to film scores and video game music. The instrument has also found a place in music therapy and meditation practices, where its meditative and calming effect can promote emotional well-being and mindfulness. Finally, the handpan community is vibrant and growing, with handpan festivals held around the world, providing opportunities for handpan enthusiasts to connect, learn, and celebrate this unique instrument.

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