The instrument known as the Hang drum is more accurately just the Hang. It is a brand of handpan and is known as one of the most mystical, beautiful, and meditative melodic percussion instruments. What exactly is a Hang, when was it created, how does it produce its unique sound, and how does it relate to the handpan?
All these questions will be answered in this complete guide to the Hang. You will also find tips for how to get started learning to play this unique and beautiful percussion instrument.
What Is A Handpan
The handpan is a musical instrument constructed from two half-shells of deep-drawn nitrided steel. They are glued together at the rim to create a hollow shape that looks a bit like a UFO. It is more technically characterized as a convex lens. The top side is called the Ding, and the bottom side is called the Gu.
The Ding has a center zone hammered into the metal and then seven or eight tone fields hammered in, circling the center. The note locations are laid out in a cross pattern in the tone circle from high to low. This means that at the right orientation, the player can ascend or descend the note scale by tapping the handpan with alternative hands.
Each of the individual fields on the Ding has multiple overtones. Typically, there is a fundamental tone and an overtone tuned to an octave above the fundamental. There is then an additional overtone, a perfect fifth above the octave. Tones can be highlighted, muted, or extracted depending on how the player strikes the note.
The Gu is a plane surface that has only one rolled hole in the center. You can play the Gu by striking the rim. This part of the instrument acts as a Helmholtz resonator, which allows or creates air resonance in a cavity. You can hear this kind of air resonance when you blow into an empty bottle, and it is really this that gives the Hang its unique sound.
The instrument is usually played with the handpan sitting in the player’s lap, where the player then lightly strikes the pan with their hands and fingers. Mallets are not used, and the resulting sound is much softer and warmer than the Caribbean steelpan drums that inspired it. It is often described as sounding like a harp or bells.
History Of The Hang
While the Hang was deeply inspired by idiophone steelpan drums played in the Caribbean, it is the result of years of musical research and experimentation. The Hang was created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer in 2000 in Bern, Switzerland under the brand PANArt Hangbau AG.
The creators insist that the drum be called the Hang (with the plural being Hanghang) rather than a Hang drum, as the term drum implies that it can be hit hard with hands or mallets but this will damage a genuine Hang. The Hang is a patented name and invention. The creators ask that those inspired by the Hang use different names for their creations.
The term “hang” is a Bernese German word that means both hand and hillside, referring to the convex shape of the drum which looks like a small hill.
While the company initially exported the Hang extensively, as it became more popular and more copies appeared on the market they heavily restricted access. Now you need to travel to Bern and get your Hang directly from the manufacturers.
The Hang is different from the Halo handpan, which was developed in 2007 by Kyle Cox working at Pantheon Steel, but the Halo is heavily influenced by the Hang and is played in a very similar way.
How To Play A Hang
If you look for online tutorials for how to play a “real” Hang, you will find that they are few and far between. The technique for playing a Hang is very similar to playing any handpan though, so these tutorials can be an entry point into mastering the Hang.
While mastering the instrument is challenging, learning the basics is not that complex since it has fewer notes than most musical instruments and the scales used often allow the instrument to sound right even if you hit an unintended note. The biggest challenge is often maintaining a sense of rhythm when the sound of the instrument does not necessarily feel rhythmic.
You will want to find online tutorials to help you through the learning process, but below are some of the things you can expect to learn as a beginner player.
The Hang and handpans come in a number of different scales, but while the notes may differ, the layout should be consistent. You should position the instrument with the smaller tone fields at the top and the larger ones at the bottom.
In this position, the central note will be your fundamental tone and at the bottom left at the 7 o’clock position you will have your lowest note. As you alternate your hands on either side working upwards, you will also work your way up the scale.
For example, if you were playing a handpan with eight tone fields, and the central note is an A3, you can expect the ascending scale to be: D4, E4, F4, G4, A4, Bb4, C5, D5.
Other popular scales include: Amara (minor) in C# or D, Kurd (minor) in D, Magic Voyage (Minor) in F, Equinox (minor) in E, and Pygmy (minor) in F. Minor keys are more popular than major keys as they tend to produce more melancholic and meditative sounds. The above are popular because they tend to be easier scales to master and therefore are ideal for beginners.
When you are ready to play, start in a seated position with your legs slightly open to support the instrument in your lap. If you prefer to stand, you can purchase a stand to hold the instrument for you. Check out options like the BeatRise Tripod Bracket or the more expensive Meinl Sonic Energy Handpan Stand.
You can rotate the instrument to position the tones where you like. The most common choice is to place the lowest note in the 6 o’clock position so the notes are evenly spaced on either side with the lowest note centralized at the bottom and the highest centralized at the top on an 8-tone instrument. You can also place the lowest note at the 7 o’clock position so that you have four notes on each side. No position is right or wrong; it’s just a matter of personal preference.
When it comes to actually striking the instrument, you want to use swift, light strokes. This can be done with your thumb, one finger, or multiple fingers. You might treat the instrument like a hot iron that you are testing. Touch lightly, and remove your hand immediately after making contact. If you don’t remove your finger quickly, you will mute the tone; this isn’t something you want to do each time, but is a technique you may actively use as a more advanced player.
You should be striking with only your fingertip or, even better, the first crease closest to your fingertip. This takes some practice, though.
Watch a video on the touch technique for handpan drums here.
When you are striking the instrument, you should be using each hand independently. This can take some practice! You might start with basic 4/4 rhythms to get a feel for the instrument before moving on to more complex rhythms and arrhythmic music.
You will start by striking single notes but soon progress to chords, where you will strike two or more notes at the same time. You might also work on using different parts of your hand to produce different volumes for different notes. This allows you to change the emphasis of notes to create accents.
You can find sheet music for handpans which can be read like other sheet music with notes and rhythms marked, and you will usually find annotations L and R beneath to indicate whether you should be striking notes with the left or right hand. These are just suggestions that you may adjust depending on your playing style. You can find examples of sheet music here.
It is fair to say, however, that most handpan players learn and compose by ear rather than using sheet music.
Why is it called a Hang drum?
The inventors of the Hang were using the Bernese German word “hang” which means both “hand,” which is used to strike the instrument, and “hill,” which refers to the shape of the instrument. It is actually called the Hang, and not a Hang drum. This is to emphasize that the instrument should not be hit hard in the same fashion as a traditional drum.
How does a Hang work?
The Hang produces melodic percussion tones by creating “acoustic membranes” through vibrating tone fields. The air within the Hang also vibrates to produce an underlying Helmholtz resonance.
What is the difference between a Hang drum and a handpan?
The Hang is a specific design of the instrument that was created by PANArt Hangbau AG in 2000/2001. It is a patented design. The handpan was created about seven years later, and is heavily inspired by the Hang and is played in the same way. It is not patented, and there are many brands and variations of handpan. You could say that the Hang is a specific type of handpan, but also the original handpan.
What is the difference between a Hang and a tongue drum?
While both the Hang and tongue drums are steel drums, the Hang uses convex spaces hammered into the metal of the drum to create different note fields. The tongue drum cuts tongues into the metal to create different notes. As a result, tongue drums can contain more notes on a smaller playing surface. Tongue drums also tend to be heavier and made of thicker metal so that they can be struck with mallets. You should not hit a Hang with a mallet, as you will likely damage the drum.
Do Hang drums need tuning?
A Hang will be tuned to a specific scale, and you should choose the scale you want when purchasing your Hang. Your Hang can go out of tune, especially if it’s played too hard. The Hang can be re-tuned, but this will need to be done by a specialist.
How long do handpans last?
You can expect a Hang or handpan to last two to three years before going out of tune if it is properly cared for.
How heavy is a Hang?
You can expect a standard Hang made by PANArt to weigh around ten kilograms (or about 22 pounds).
How much does a Hang or handpan cost?
Both Hang and handpan instruments are handcrafted, so they can be very expensive. Expect to pay between $1,500 and $3,000 even for a relatively basic instrument. Delivery costs can also be extremely high if you can’t collect the instrument in person.
Can I get a Hang from Amazon?
Authentic Hanghang made by PANArt Hangbau AG are not available through resellers such as Amazon, only from the manufacturer. You can find a variety of handpan and steel tongue drums through online retailers, but the handpan options in particular are of significantly inferior quality compared to the options you can get directly from manufacturers or specialist sellers.
Playing The Melodic Hang
Both Hang and handpans are quite expensive musical instruments. This is because they are handmade to create their haunting melodic music. Once you have one in your hands it is relatively easy to learn the basics, but you can spend a lifetime mastering the instrument. While Hang tutorials are rare online, there are plenty of handpan tutorials that can be used to learn to play the Hang as well.
You can read our complete guide to how to play steel drum instruments here.
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