Beginners guide to choose a Handpan / Pantam

Written by Matthieu. Posted in caten.

Last update 17/09/2017. Article translation


How to choose a handpan if you are a beginner ?

For the people discovering this music instrument: in a first place it is good to know that the Handpan (also called Pantam, Cupola, sound sculpture) development is today supported by a worldwide community. Mainly the actors of this community are:

  • professional musicians, always going further with the instrument, exploring the limits, they are a big source of inspiration
  • passionate people, gathering together in some occasions, playing for themselves and close friends, or any other place
  • event organiser, from the little family meeting to the festival, gathering thousands of people together
  • Handpan makers, sharing their knowledge and out of a concurrence logic

Being part of this community had changed positively many people's life and the feeling of joy coming from the handpan always get stronger when a new person is getting part of it.

When are ofter contacted from people wishing to buy their first handpan, here are some information to help you to make a choice. This text, written as a question/answer, is the result of a collective thought between a few makers and musicians.


Can i start with a "low quality" handpan ? Isn't it enough in the beginning?

As a beginner, it is especially important to choose a good quality instrument. We often meet people thinking that a "low quality" instrument is enough to "have an idea" before going further. We think it is a mistake! If a percussionist musician is able to play something beautiful with two simple spoons, it is an art that needs a lot of practice. As beginner’s handpan player you will need an instrument that leads you up and "call" you to play with intuition, naturally. It is mainly the sound quality and the instrument's simplicity of playing that makes it possible. Later, when some people start to feel very comfortable with the instrument, and enjoy the intuitive play, they will then go more deeply, with the "touch" of the instrument, others will develop melodic compositions and/or work on the rhythmic aspect. There is also some handpan classes to work on this different things.

To choose you first handpan we recommend contacting a maker and talking with him, to feel in agreement with his philosophy, to try different instruments and to choose the one that you really feel connected to. Going to a handpan gathering is a good way to have the opportunity to try different instruments. Everyone has personal preferences about the sound and the scales. These preferences are often hard to explain with words. Our best advice to choose a first handpan is to try a few of them and having a crush!

As the handpan is handmade, there is not two identical instruments. It is not also possible for a maker to imitate another maker's instruments. Also, the outside looking of the handpan doesn't mean anything about his quality as a music instrument.


What helps to recognise the pantam quality?

The coming questions can help you to understand a few quality criteria. You should be specially careful about the red advices, some important aspects to not waste your future relationship with the instrument.


Is my future instrument in tune ? Each not has 3 component : one fundamental, one octave, and one fifth. Sometimes the upper notes are tuned with a third or a forth until of the fifth. An instrument can be :

  • not tuned
  • almost not playable because not well tuned
  • appreciable even though not perfectly tuned
  • nice because well-tuned
  • perfectly tuned with also some tuned 'shoulder tone' (high notes when you play on the outside of the central note)


Does my future instrument have sustain ? It is the duration in time of each note, and an instrument can have :

  • A too short sustain needing an advanced percussive play to be appreciable
  • An acceptable sustain adapted to a melodic play fast or percussive
  • A long sustain more adapted for a slow and meditative play


How is the dynamic of my future pantam? This point is important and your way of playing must evolve depending on that.

  • Some notes saturate very easily, as soon as the touch become stronger
  • One or few notes seems to have a less and/or stronger dynamic and/or sound timbre difference, this can be part of the instrument spirit but your play will be “coloured” with this personality
  • A dynamic starting very low, a very gentle touch will be enough for the note to vibrate, it can help sometimes the beginners to learn
  • A dynamic adapted for a strong game with powerful notes, it can be tiring in the inside but enjoyable for a busker
  • A very large dynamic, from the lowest to the strongest


What about the coupling effect between notes ? The coupling is the interaction between notes during the play.

  • Some coupling can be disharmonious (for example two notes aside, apart only from a half tone would be specially embarrassing)
  • An harmonious coupling between two notes aside, becoming a chord, it will give a sound texture and be "less pure", this is part of the instrument nature but it is better if the coupling isn’t too strong
  • A coupling between a low note and its octave, colour the sound of the instrument, again it gives a special nature but it is hard to get out of it. Some inverted coupling (up to low) is sometimes very enjoyable.
  • The coupling can also be very balanced and it would be a mistake to avoid totally the coupling, it could take away some subtlety from the instrument


What important details ?

  • The opening under the bottom is it sharp or well finished and nice to touch ?
  • Is this opening tuned on the outside and is this tuning matching with the instrument's scale ?
  • The hole frequency (Helmotz resonator) is it tuned with the central note, is it easy to use this bass from the upside of the instrument ?
  • The steel sound, outside of the note is it close to a "cooking pot" or is it “dry” and “matt” ?


What future for my instrument ?

  • He is made from a rust resistant material (nitrated steel or inox) or he is from a steel with no treatment and needs more carry on ?
  • Does some people accept to re-tune my instrument or this mission will be complicated and expensive ?
  • Will it be possible some day to exchange my instrument if I want to change for a different scale (it is a common wish and only quality instruments are exchangeable)?

Finally, here is an excellent article about the sound quality of a Handpan/Pantam: the-cupolist / what-makes-a-great-sounding-handpan



What scale to choose for my first instrument ?

Each handpan maker propose a list of the different scales he makes, sometimes it is possible to ask for a special request. Some scales can be easier to play for a beginner and pushing toward a melodic intuitive play (for example the D Celtic minor is a good start).

For beginners, we recommend to try different scales from a same maker and different instruments of the same scale. The sound timbre is as important as the scale to make a choice. Even though the best way to choose is to follow your heart, we wish to share with you a few informations about the different scales :

The scales can be organised depending on different things :


How many notes for each octave

  • Pentatonic (5 notes for each octave, the scale is easy to play, the lower notes and higher notes are well balanced, but it is harder to get out of the global ambiance of the scale).
  • Hexatonic (6 notes for each octave, between pentatonic and heptatonic. One component is missing - example the second is missing for the celtic minor scale)
  • Heptatonic (7 notes for each octave, more options for the melodic play are possible but you will have less or no higher notes after the tonic dispatching.)

As an example, here are 3 scales matching together, showing the 3 categories :

  1. Pentatonic : D Voyager D-F-A-CDEF-A-C
  2. Hexatonic : D/A Minor Celtic D---A-CDEFGA-C
  3. Heptatonic : E/A Aeolian. -E--ABCDEFGA--

What space between two notes ( OR - How many half tones between 2 notes)

An other scale classification is possible based on the 7 Greek modes (ex: aeolien or natural minor scale, ionien or major scale,...) or the harmonic minor modes (ex: Hijaz scale which is the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale, he has an oriental sonority).

The Aeolian mode (natural minor mode) can be explain this way : "2122122" which is the "A Aeolian" scale (A being the starting point) :

  • 2 half tones between A and B
  • 1 half tones between B and C
  • 2 half tones between C and D
  • 2 half tones between D and E
  • 1 half tones between E and F
  • 2 half tones between F and G
  • 2 half tones between G and A

To use the same notes, starting with C : "2212221", it is the Greek mode "Ionian" or usually called "major" mode :

  • 2 half tones between C and D
  • 2 half tones between D and E
  • 1 half tone between E and F
  • 2 half tones between F and G
  • 2 half tones between G and A
  • 2 half tones between A and B
  • 1 half tone between B and C

The C major scale (ionien) and A minor (aeolien) have the same notes, only the starting point change and these two scales would be easy to play together intuitivly. To give more details, the scales C ionien, D Dorien, E Phrygien, F Lydien, G Mixolydien, A Eolien and B Locrien all have the same notes, only the order of the half tones alternation change. The different Greek modes can have any starting point even though the notes we just shown are the more usual to help memorisation (it is nothing else than the white touch of a piano).

What position each note have depending on the first (tonic) :

The ionien mode can be written like this : Tonic, 2nd Major, Third Major, Fourth, Fifth, 6th Major, 7th Major.

The analysis of each component can determine if a mode is minor or major (depending on the third position).

On a chromatic scale, the 12 components are :

  • Tonic
  • m2 / second minor
  • M2 / second major
  • m3 / third minor
  • M3 / third major
  • 4th / fourth
  • Triton / triton
  • 5th / fifth
  • m6 / sixth minor
  • M6 / sixth major
  • m7 / seventh minor
  • M7 / seventh major

If we consider the tonic is a D, the F is the third minor and the A the fifth.

An article presenting the scales realized by Shellopan is available here:



What scale to choose to have complementary instruments ?

This question always arrive when someone wish to buy a second handpan or if two persons want to play together. There is no universal answer, but we can propose three way to understand this complementarity depending on everyone's specificity :

  • I want to add a few notes to my actual instrument : this can change the scale of my handpan, replacing one note or the other. The second instrument will be used only in this purpose and any scale having the notes you wish to add or change will be good.
  • I want to play easily with other people : to play easily with someone else, to have many notes in common is the best. Two handpan with the same notes, one being lower or higher than the other give good results. If one or two notes are not the same, it is not a real issue, if there is more then it will be a bit harder to play, less intuitive.
  • I want to play and compose alone or with other people some music tracks : to compose your chromatic set might be good for you, each instrument would ideally have as less notes in common as possible. Because of the notes placement, they will be hard to memorise, some note's suites could be very technical.

Now you must be able to understand what is your need, for your second instrument. Sometimes it is useful to also consider the sound timber to choose this complementary instrument, we recommend in this way to choose more likely a same quality instrument (or not too far from each other), and to try it before buying would be the best.


Can I buy a handpan in stores or on the internet?

Too many people have bought a bad handpan in a music store or classified ads and have never managed to have fun playing. Worse, some felt devalued because unable to make music enjoyable with this instrument while it is reputed as the most suitable to allow access to the pleasure of making music.

To be very clear, to date, there are no good handpans in music stores or on online sales sites, they are also rare on auction or auction sites and are often sold more price than any connoisseur would accept to invest in terms of the quality of the products presented. In addition, no Handpan / Pantam tuner will accept to retune these instruments.

(You are a reseller and you feel hurt by the firmness of this position? We will correct this article if instrument dealers present instruments whose quality and prices are collectively recognized as acceptable).


"Ok, i understood all your i would like to buy a HangDrum. I heard the swiss don't make them anymore. When can you send me my future HangDrum ?"

We wrote this question with humour, mix of a few request we receive sometimes :-)

The Hang is a trade mark owning by PANArt (CH) company. The Hang isn't then name of a family instrument. It is a sound sculpture which is, from the conception, unique and impossible to copy. No instrument from the Handpan family have the same sound timber than the Hang (even though they have the common point to be made out of steel and playable with hands). The PANArt company was pioneer and the research results they had share when they created the Hang inspired many actual makers. For this reason, they are respected in the Handpan community.

The PANArt company still make some music instruments and their last creation is called Hang Bal (2016). If your wish is to get one of their creation, the best way is surely to contact them directly.

(ps: it is better not to use the HangDrum expression, it was part of the humour in the question, the term is unadapted).



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