How to choose a handpan scale

How to choose a handpan scale

Alison Mikulyuk & Jenny Robinson

If you just recently discovered handpan instruments, you might become surprised or even overwhelmed to learn of the vast number of scales available for handpans. How to choose a handpan scale is a common question.  Isthmus Instruments developed an application to help with this particular question. Here is a screen shot (the link to the site is below):

If you've spent some time looking at videos or listening to handpan sound recordings, you probably noticed that each instrument has its own voice-- some sound happy, others sound intriguing or introspective. The affective quality of handpan music is in part determined by the musician and the creative choices they make, but it is also determined by the notes available to the musician. If the handpan player is a painter, the handpan scale is that painter's palette.

We wondered whether removing the musician from the equation would help us better focus on the musicality of each scale. We decided to build an app that would play a random sample of 'music' based on a user-defined set of notes. The randomness sounds a bit odd at first, and using the computer to generate sound from sine waves has a distinctly robotic or mechanical feel, but we like how this tool can be used to systematically compare different muiscal scales. In the app's two tabbed windows, you can either explore one of many scales used by handpan builders, or you can specify your own set of notes.

For example, here are two random samples drawn from two scales we often build at Isthmus Instruments:

Which scale appeals to you more?

Does your preference remain the same when comparing to actual instruments? Why or why not?


Certainly, this application cannot substitute the process of finding a builder you prefer based on timbre or quality of sound.  However, we do think it is a useful tool that may help you explore a set of notes quickly, and with reduced bias.  With random note generation, maybe it is possible to look deeper into the inherent ability of a set of notes to make patterns that sound like melody to human ears, regardless of the skill of the player.

Let us know what you think!

**Please use desktop versions of Google Chrome, the app won't work in other browsers or on mobile devices**

Want to try it yourself? Click here to travel to the app:

Thanks to Jean-Mattheiu and Julien Aho from the forum for their contributions to the google scale spreadsheet used by this application.

We built this tool in the R environment for statistical computing using the 'Shiny' package:

R Core Team (2016). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL

Winston Chang, Joe Cheng, JJ Allaire, Yihui Xie and Jonathan McPherson (2016). shiny: Web Application Framework for R. R package version 0.13.2.