Updated: Feb 20
It’s official, you’ve got handpan fever. You thought one would be enough but before you know it, you’re already browsing YouTube and Facebook drooling over videos of the newest handpans.
But you’re left asking yourself one big question: What scale should my second handpan be? This question is important and one without a black-and-white answer. Today, we’ll go through the three “C’s” to help you decide how to pick the scale of your second handpan.
Probably the biggest factor in deciding the scale of your second handpan is the scale of the handpans you already own. This is where the concept of the three C’s comes into play.
Our first C stands for “compliment”. A handpan that compliments your current handpan is one that will play in harmony with it seamlessly, requiring almost no effort to blend the two scales. A complimentary handpan can be a great choice for beginners, people without much knowledge of music theory, or people who want to make music with their handpans with friends in an improvisational setting.
Put simply, if you don’t want to have to think too hard when playing your two handpans together then a complimentary handpan is the way to go. The best option for a complimentary handpan is choosing a handpan in either the same parent key as your current handpan or a relative key or mode. These keys will have all of the same notes as the parent key of your first handpan but will be arranged in a different order.
Here’s an example.
C D E F G A B C (C Major)
A B C D E F G A (A Aeolian AKA Natural Minor)
D E F G A B C D (D Dorian)
E F G A B C D E (E Lydian)
While each of these scales will have a slightly different overall mood from the next, they will all blend seamlessly since they are all made up of the same pitches! These examples are just four of the seven different western modes. (In this example we are based on the key of C)
You can learn more about modes here!
If the less common modes are a bit over your head, my advice is to pick a handpan in the relative minor or major scale of your current handpan. This will get you a handpan with a very different overall mood while still being able to play in perfect harmony with your first handpan. Don’t know what your relative scale is? Let me introduce you to the circle of fifths!
Our outer ring of the circle contains all of our major scales, and our inner ring is all of our minor scales. Where these two rings align are our relative keys. So, for example, if we have a handpan in the key of D minor just look to where it aligns above in the outer ring and we will see that our relative major key is… F. Violia! If we have a handpan in the key of G major, we’ll look to what note we align within the inner circle… E minor!
Bonus tip: Range
One important thing to remember when choosing a handpan in a complimentary scale is the pitch range between the two instruments. Even if we choose a second handpan in the exact same parent key as our first handpan, we can still give ourselves some exciting new possibilities by choosing an instrument with notes that extend the range of our key with either note lower or higher than we currently have. This can be a great option to add some new harmonic and melodic possibilities while still having two handpans that harmonize seamlessly.
On the opposite end of our spectrum, we can choose a handpan with a scale that “challenges” our current handpan scale. What do I mean by “challenge”? A scale that challenges our current handpan scale is one with little to no shared notes. Now, why on earth would we want that? While two pans with very few similar notes might not be able to play harmoniously together intuitively it does solve one of the handpan’s big problems, its chromatic inability. When we pair two unlike scales together, they will fill in each other’s gaps giving us the ability to play every pitch! Let’s look at pairing two of the most popular handpan scales as an example.
(D) A Bb C D E F G A (D Kurd 8)
(E) A B C# D# E F# G# B (E SaByeD)
Composite: (D) (E) A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A B
While these two scales might not be the best choice for a two-person improvisation you can see that when combined in the right order we end up with a full one-octave chromatic scale from A3 to A4! Having two instruments that give you a full range of chromatic pitches can be an immensely powerful tool as this will allow you to play more diverse chords, more intricate harmonies, and have access to play in any key!
To know which scale would be a good “challenge” to our current scale we can again use our circle of fifths. Generally speaking, the farther away in the circle two keys are the fewer pitches they will have in common. So, if you are looking for a handpan scale that will expand your chromatic playing abilities, look for a key far away from your current one on the circle of fifths.
It’s important to keep in mind that having two handpans in two vastly different keys can make playing the two together a bit difficult. While your harmonic abilities will be much greater in this scenario, finding the right ways to combine the two handpans will take a good amount of time and practice.
Compromise is just that, a middle ground between our two previous options. We don’t always have to choose a scale that is a note-for-note match for our current handpan, and we also don’t have to choose a handpan that is completely different either. The best way to find a scale like this is to find our current handpan scale in the circle of fifths and pick a scale of one or two positions to the left or right on either the top or bottom ring.
For example, if our handpan is in D minor we could pair it with a handpan in the key of A minor, or perhaps Bb major. These scales will still match six out of the seven diatonic pitches yet be able to give us some new harmonic options! In our example of pairing a D minor with an A minor if we were to borrow the B natural pitch from our A minor scale to replace the Bb of the D minor, we could play the D Dorian mode! If we were to pair our D minor handpan with a handpan in Bb major we could use the Eb in our Bb scale to create an F dominant 7th chord! (F A C Eb) Since these neighboring scales in the circle of fifths still have six of the seven pitches of our primary scale improvising between these scales will still be easy and will match fairly effortlessly.
Hopefully, this article has given you some new concepts in harmony and your brain is buzzing with new ideas for deciding the scale of your next handpan. If you’re in the market to get a new handpan, head over to the Planet Handpan marketplace and see what’s in stock!