What is a scale and why does a Handpan have to be tuned in scales?
The word “scale” comes from Latin and means ladder. A ladder consists of several successive “steps”. If you sit in front of a piano and press a key somewhere in the middle, you will notice that if you press another key on the left, the sound will get lower and if you press another key far away on the right side, it will get higher. Now, let us assume that our ladder consists of 12 steps. The lowest step will be the 1 and the highest will be the 12. We can jump the ladder up and down the way we want BUT we are only allowed to step on the 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 12. If we do this correctly, at some point someone is going to show up and say: “Congratulations, you are playing a major scale!”
In western music, all scales are essentially made out of the same 12 steps. The distance between 1 and 2 is called a “half step” and the distance between 1 and 3 is called a “full step”. The only thing that changes is the rule of our step game. Depending on which steps you are allowed to jump to, you will be playing in a different scale.
One of the most popular scales on the Handpan is the D Minor, also “Kurd” or “Kate Stone” scale. If we want to play this scale then the rule of our step game would be: 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 11, with the 1 being the note D which gives the scale its name. If you take a closer look to a Handpan, you will notice that it has a central note (called ding) in the middle and the rest of the notes are placed around the ding. In this case, the ding will be the lowest note of the scale and it will be separated by a slash / from the others when we write it. This will be very important at the moment of ordering your Opsilon. The note distribution of D Minor on the Opsilon is: D / A Bb C D E F G A, remember, D / is the lowest note and the last A the highest.
How do I pick the right scale?
There are a few ways of choosing your scale.
The first one would be just by ear, e.g. listening to Handpan players, watching videos, etc. This is a rather intuitive way of choosing your scale, since you will be paying more attention to your feelings when listening to a Handpan and trying to figure out which one evokes the magic you felt for the first time you saw a musician playing a Handpan.
Another one would be a theoretical approach. This one will require some research and some background in music theory. Since the Opsilon is a very intuitive instrument you don’t have to worry about music theory at the beginning. Of course, we would definitely encourage you to learn something about melody, harmony and rhythm because we believe that having a deep understanding of what happens when you play will help you create more interesting music and develop further as a musician.
We recommend you listen to different Handpan scales. Try to find out which scales fit your mood best. Scales can be cheerful, sad, melancholic, mystical, mysterious, etc. Try to find that particular scale that speaks to you, that you feel a connection with. Write down the notes it is made of and if you are having a hard time finding out, do not hesitate to ask. If there is this particularly beautiful, spacey, mesmerizing scale that you love, you can try to find it on YouTube by typing Handpan + (name of the scale), for example: Handpan pygmy. Try to compare it with other scales and try to listen to different players play in the same scale with different styles.
If you are new to music or percussion and have little to no musical background and you simply don’t know which scale to choose, we would recommend choosing a scale that we know will allow you an easy approach and a quick development and also the opportunity to jam with others, something like the D Minor (Kurd), Amara or Pygmy tuned in 440Hz. By the way…
Of course, we can tune your Opsilon in 432Hz but you have to now, that having an Opsilon in 432Hz is a rather solitary business, since most instruments are tuned in 440Hz. This includes not only other Handpans but conventional instruments as guitars, pianos, bases, flutes, etc.
So, why can’t we build ALL the notes on one single Opsilon?
Well, it is not that we don’t want to or haven’t thought about it. The reason is that such an instrument wouldn’t sound very nice, to say the least. Each step of the ladder has its own unique frequency and this has to be taken into consideration before even thinking about tuning a handpan. Some frequencies simply won’t work well with others, no matter what you do. Every tonefield has a certain dimension. The space on a Handpan to place them is limited. If they are placed too tight, you’ll activate the neighbour note while playing which leads to overlapping frequencies – and that doesn’t sound nice.
We have a nice collection of videos showing some of the different scales you can have on your Opsilon. Have a look at our Scale classifications and click through to the scale you want to listen to.