An ever-growing useful glossary of musical words and terms you may come across when learning handpan
Arpeggio (or split chord): A broken chord of at least 3 notes. Unlike standard chords where the notes are all played at the same time, an arpeggio splits them in either ascending or descending order. For example, C, E then G. Or G, E then C.
Ascendo: A dynamics term meaning ‘rising up’ in Italian, ascendo describes a piece or section of music that gets progressively louder (either quickly or slowly). It is often used in notation/sheet music to instruct the musicians what to do. See also its opposite: Crescendo.
Bar (or measure): In music, a bar or measure is a segment of time containing a specific number of beats, defined by the time signature of your piece. When you look at the time signature, the first of the two numbers defines the amount of beats a single bar contains. Dividing music into bars provides reference points to the performer and makes written music easier to follow.
Base note: See Root note
Bending the ding: This involves striking the ding and then quickly, carefully but relatively firmly pressing with one fingertip where the ding meets the shoulder. While the note is still resonating, move your finger back-and-forth or side-to-side. This should ‘bend’ the note up and down in pitch, resulting in an interesting effect.
See also: Singing the ding
Chord: At least 3 notes in a scale, played at exactly the same time, for example C, F and A.
Chord/harmonic progressions: Building the foundation of western music, chord progressions are any sequence of chords (most often, 3 or 4 chords). They can be a mix of major and minor and are usually expressed as Roman numerals running from I-VII (1-7). Major chords are in uppercase letters and minor chords in lowercase letters. For example, in the key of C major, you could see a chord progression of I-vi-ii-V, which would signify the chords of C major-A minor-D minor-G major.
Composition: Any original piece or work of music, either vocal or instrumental. Every piece of music - from full orchestral concertos to pop songs, is a composition. It can also refer to the process of (a composer) writing the piece in notation form.
Cresceno: A dynamics term meaning ‘falling down’ in Italian, crescendo describes a piece or section of music that gets progressively quieter (either quickly or slowly). It is often used in notation/sheet music to instruct the musicians what to do. See also its opposite: Ascendo.
Crochet: See Quarter note
Cyclops notes: These notes/tone fields are placed in the area between the central note and the outer circle of notes. Cyclops pans started out with just one extra note (hence named after the one-eyed giant of Greek mythology), but nowadays you can find pans with several Cyclops notes.
Ding: Term used by PANArt®️ for the large convex or concave note, most commonly located on the top and in the centre of a handpan. It is usually the root/base note of the scale, so if the instrument is in D minor, the ding will be the lowest D note on the pan.
Dojo: A hall or place for immersive learning or meditation, traditionally in the field of martial arts. It has been seen increasingly in other spheres, not least the Handpan Dojo, a rather brilliant school created by David Kuckhermann to teach handpan to students across the globe [biased Editor entry].
Dynamics: Dynamics means volume range and control, in other words how loud or quietly to play music, or a section of music. They are vital for conveying the mood of a piece and/or performing a piece with emotion. Italian terms are used to describe dynamics, ranging from pianissimo (very quiet) to fortissimo (very loud) and sforzando (a sudden, forced loud).
Eighth note (or quaver ♪): In music notation, an eighth note is played for 1/8 the duration of a whole note (semibreve), 1/4 of a half note (minim) and 1/2 of a quarter note (quaver). A single eighth note is easily identified by its little hook or ‘tail’ (♪), however it is often tied/played together with another 1+ other eighth notes by a beam instead ( ). It is one of the most common note types used in compositions.
See also: Semibreve, Quarter note, Time signature
Ember steel: A unique type of stainless steel used to make handpans. It is the newest material in the handpan world. Ember steel was discovered in 2020 by brothers Ralf and Roy of Ayasa Instruments. Differing from other stainless steels in both chemical composition and mechanical properties, it is particularly known for its responsiveness and dynamic range, note precision, long, consistent sustain and rich, ceramic sound.
See also: Raw, Nitrided and Stainless
Forte: A musical term meaning ‘loud or strong’ in Italian, forte describes the dynamic of a piece or section of music and how it should be played.
Fortissimo: A musical term meaning ‘very loud or very strong’ in Italian, this describes the dynamic of a piece or section of music and how it should be played.
Ghost notes: These are when your fingers lightly touch the notes of the handpan so it makes barely any sound or no sound. Ghost notes are a practical playing tool to help keep timing when playing. Many players use them in every piece. Especially useful for fast patterns, irregular breaks and grooves and complex time signatures.
Grace notes: 2 or 3 quick, quiet notes played before the main note, for example an accented triplet, with the grace notes being the first 2 and the accent falling on the last note.
Groove: This is another word, used generally in the percussion world, for rhythm. It can also refer to the specific rhythmic feel of a piece of music.
E.g. “I really like the feel of this cajon groove.”, “That piece is so groovy.”, “If it makes you nod your head or tap your feet, it has a good groove.”
Gu: PANArt®️'s name for the sound hole in the bottom of the handpan, usually centrally placed and tuned. Using various playing techniques, the Gu produces many percussive and some melodic sounds.
Handpan: The best instrument in the world
Hang: Switz dialect for ‘hand’. Grandfather to the modern handpan, the Hang was created in 2000 in Switzerland by Felix Rohner and Sabine Schärer of PanArt. It inspired a new generation of musicians and instrument makers, which evolved into the many different handpans, pantams and sound sculptures we know and love today.
Harmonics: Physics time! Every tone or note that exists is made by a specific soundwave (sometimes called a signal, frequency or 1st harmonic). Harmonics, also known as ‘overtones’, are related soundwaves with specific higher frequencies (whole number multiples) of the original frequency. With every note on a handpan, it is possible to isolate/play the 5th and 8th harmonics. For example, if your handpan has a C4 note (middle C on a piano), its 5th harmonic would be a G4 and its 8th harmonic (always an octave higher) would be a C5.
Harmony: When two or more notes of different intervals are played (or sung) at the same time, the result is a harmony. Harmonies can consist of chords (3+ notes) and are a fundamental building block of most music.
Heptatonic scales: Scales that have 7 different notes/pitches/tones per octave. Examples of heptatonic scales in the handpan world are aeolian, kurd, ionian, and mixolydian.
Hexatonic scales: Scales that have 6 different pitches per octave. Examples in the handpan world are mystic, amara/celtic minor, equinox and integral.
Interval: Simply put, an interval is the gap (difference in pitch) between two specific notes. Intervals are measured in semitones (half notes). For example, in a C major scale, the interval between C and E - called a ‘major 3rd interval’ - comprises 4 semitones (C#, D, D#, E). The largest commonly used interval in Western music - 12 semitones - is called a ‘perfect octave’, for example, C4 to C5. Depending on the scale and the number of semitones between the two notes, intervals will sound different to the ear - pleasant, clashing, happy, sad, wide, narrow and so on. The common intervals used in Western music are perfect, major and minor, the less common are augmented and diminished.
Measure: See bar
Melody: This is the main element to any tune or song. It is the ‘hummable’ or memorable part. In more formal terms, a melody is the composition of several single notes, played or sung, that form together to make a satisfying musical sequence. See also: Tune, Song
Middle Eight: The Middle Eight is a short section - typically eight bars - in the middle of the piece, which has a different character from the other parts of the song. This difference could be in the key, tempo, tone/mood, instrumentation, vocals and so on. Conventionally-structured popular music (Western, K-pop etc) often include this element to make it more interesting.
On handpan, it doesn’t need to be in the middle, it can be placed anywhere once the initial tempo and tone are set.
Muscle memory: The ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement. For example, muscle memory can be found in mouth shape (as in a flautist’s embouchure), finger span (pianist playing chords), hand shape (tabla players), shift in position (a guitarist switching chords) or whole movement, such as a handpan pattern, scale or even an entire piece of music. All musicians develop muscle memory over time with enough practice.
Nitrided steel: This is the second generation of steel used for handpans. It involves a specific heat treatment to harden the shells, making it stronger than raw steel and with a more ‘ceramic’ sound. Nitrided pans produce higher frequencies, meaning their sound carries further than some other types, particularly outdoors.
See also: Raw, Stainless and Ember steel
Note (see also Tonefield): A singular sound, pitch or musical tone, for example, middle C(4), Ab or F#. In composition and notation, it can also refer to the written symbol donating that tone. Notes on a handpan are also called tonefields.
Notation: The process of writing down music, in note form, either on music software or, more traditionally, in paper form on stave sheets (music manuscripts). See also: Stave
Octave: This comprises 8 consecutive notes in a scale, starting at a base note. For example, an octave in the scale of C (either C major or minor) would begin on a lower C and end on the C above it, with 6 consecutive notes in between.
Ostinato: Originating from Baroque music, ostinato was a bass instrument or bass voice expressed in looped patterns, providing the foundation for melodic variations composed above it Nowadays, there are harmonic, rhythmic and melodic ostinati. It means any continually repeating rhythmic pattern or musical phrase that lasts several bars/in two or four bar sequences or for the whole piece, for example, a repeated single note, melody line/fragment or short groove. Unlike a motif, which is a musical theme that re-occurs at any interval, ostinato is a sustained pattern.
Overtone: See Harmonics
PanArt: See Hang
Pantam: The middle-eastern/Israeli term for handpan. See Handpan
Pedal note: A sustained or repeated note during which the harmony above, below or around it changes. It is most usually a bass note, often the root note of a scale. Holding a pedal note through changing harmonies can lead to some very interesting tensions with chords. For examples on how to use pedal notes on the handpan, check out our Composition course.
Phrase: This is music’s equivalent to a spoken sentence, a clear thought or a breath in and out. It is a single expression that has a complete musical sense of its own, built from notes, chords and motifs (short, repeated themes), and ends with a musical punctuation called a cadence. You will see phrases tied together, one after another, often on the melody line and in larger sections of music. In handpan pieces, a phrase might consist of a pattern, groove or motif.
Piano: A musical term meaning ‘quiet or soft’ in Italian, this describes the dynamic of a piece or section of music and how it should be played.
Pianissimo: A musical term meaning ‘very quiet or very soft’ in Italian, this describes the dynamic of a piece or section of music and how it should be played.
Pitch: This is any single sound. Pitch is dictated by the frequency of the vibrations of sound waves. If the interval between vibrations is shorter, the pitch goes higher, if the interval is longer, the pitch is lower. In music, this is how notes are formed. Pitch can be expressed as whole tones (natural notes, such as D or A) or semitones (sharp notes and flat notes).
Good handpan tuners work hard to develop reliable pitches for their notes.
Polyrhythm: This is the simultaneous use of two or more independent rhythms, such as 2 beats against 3 beats. Polyrhythms create complexity in otherwise simple rhythmic or melodic patterns. It is also known as a ‘cross rhythm’ when the same polyrhythm carries across an entire piece. Classical European composers such as Beethoven used simple versions and you will find many complex examples in modern music, particularly in jazz and Afro-Cuban.
In the handpan world, we use polyrhythms to assist us with developing hand independence, as well as to create more interesting grooves.
(Harmonic/Chord) Progression: A sequence of Chords or Intervals. Chord progressions build the foundation of western music. A diatonic scale like the Major or minor scale has 7 different notes and on each of these 7 notes, you can build a basic triad (chord). These 7 chords can be combined in many different ways to build many different chord progressions.
Quarter note (or crochet ♩): A quarter note is probably the most common note type used in music. A quarter note is played for 1/4 the duration of a whole note
(semibreve). In 4/4 time, 4 crochets would fill up the whole bar. See also: Semibreve, Time signature
Quaver: See Eighth note
Raw steel: Sometimes called ‘non-nitrided steel’. This is what the first handpans were made from, which created their identifiable ‘metallic’ sound. However, because they lack any protective quality, they are prone to rust. Because of this, plus advancements in research, makers now use nitrided, stainless or ember steel.
See also: Nitrided, Stainless and Ember steel
Resonance: This can mean either the quality of a sound being deep and full (such as a low human voice), or the ‘ring’ of any instrument or note caused by the frequency it is vibrating at. Both descriptions are used for the quality of a handpan’s tonefields/notes. When we refer to handpans as ‘singing steel’, this is all about the resonance (and its partner, sustain).
See also: Sustain
Reverb(eration): This is a type of echo. Unlike sustain, which is a stable, linear sound, reverb fluctuates between frequencies. You can hear it most noticeably in amplified electric guitars (that waah-waah sound) and in handpans when you ‘sing the ding’ or strike a note, pick up the pan so the Gu is facing outwards and move it rapidly back and forth to disturb the soundwaves.
See also: Sustain, Singing the ding
Roll: In percussion, a roll is a playing technique that allows for notes to be played in quick succession. There are three common types of finger roll for handpan:
~ The ‘Single stroke/Finger roll’ is played between alternating hands/dominant finger(s) (R/L/R/L/R etc) with your fingers acting like drumsticks. Usually played with just your dominant finger in each hand, or thumbs and first fingers, or thumbs, first and second fingers. They can be as short as 3-beats up to almost unlimited beats.
~ The ‘Single hand roll’ (always on the same hand), made by a rocking/twisting wrist motion, sometimes between thumb and dominant finger, sometimes several/all fingers.
~ The ‘Double-handed roll’ can be any combination, with both hands doing the same rolls, or two different rolls.
~ There are also 4- and 8-’Nail rolls’, involving striking the notes with 4 or 8 fingernails (from a loose fist shape, you fan your fingers downwards onto the pan, then do the same with the other hand).
Most rolls start on the dominant hand and finish with an accent.
Root note: Also known as the base note, this is the fundamental note in a chord, a scale or the key of an entire piece. In terms of the chord or scale, the root is usually the lowest or first note. For example, the root note of chord C, E and G would be the C note. In scale (or key) terms, this chord suggests that the root is the C major scale.
Scale: One of the most important concepts in music, a scale is an ordered sequence of notes, either going up (ascending) or going down (descending) in pitch. In classical and most types of modern Western music, scales span an octave (8 notes, for example, Middle C4-C5), with higher or lower octaves repeating the same pattern.
From this octatonic (8 note) scale, there are many variations. The most common are:
~ Chromatic (all 12 tones/semitones - every black and white key - in an octave)
~ Pentatonic (5 notes per octave lacking certain semitones, popular in Asian music. Sometimes referred to as the ‘black key’ scale)
~ Hexatonic (6 notes per octave, common in Western folk music).
Depending on a scale’s interval patterns, they can either be ‘major’ (generally the happier scales) or ‘minor’ (generally sad or reflective), both of which have 12 variations (based on the 12-note chromatic scale, for example, C# major or A♭ minor).
Scale variations for handpan are very broad-ranging - with Celtic, Kurd, Hijaz (Arabic/Romanian), Persian etc and unique, custom scales.
Shoulder: In handpan terminology, the shoulder is the circular rim between the outer edge of the flat plate around the ding and the rest of the pan sloping downwards. From the shoulder, it is possible to play all of the ‘overtones’ of a handpan. With 3 overtones for each note - the main tone/note (fundamental) and the 5th and 8th overtones (harmonics) - there are many musical possibilities when playing the shoulder.
Singing the ding: This is a playing technique which uses friction in your finger/edge of your hand (using dry hands or violin rosin) to activate an ethereal, sustaining note on the ding. It requires a dragging movement along either of the two ‘harmonic’ lines across the ding (the 5th and 8th harmonics), which creates vibrations and causes those overtones to ‘sing’ with the root note.
Slap: One of the most common handpan techniques, the slap produces the purest percussive (versus melodic) sound, by firmly striking the side of the pan with a flat finger, between/below any two notes. The slap is used in most handpan compositions and improvs.
Song: Often wrongly confused with a tune (an instrumental piece), a song is a whole musical piece that is defined by having lyrics and/or vocals.
Split chord: See Arpeggio
Stainless steel: An increasingly popular type of steel used to make handpans. Stainless steel is a completely different alloy to its predecessors (raw and nitrided), with different properties and mechanical qualities. It is known primarily for its resistance to rust, bright metallic sounds, touch sensitivity (wide dynamic range) and long sustain.
See also: Raw, Nitrided and Ember steel
Stave (or Staff): This is the 5 horizontal lines where we write (‘notate’) a musical phrase, piece or work. The 5 lines and 4 spaces represent different musical notes or ‘pitches’. The notes can fall above or below these lines, depending on pitch, but the stave forms the basis of all written music.
In piano and non-soloist music, the staves are formed in two sets - the top 5 lines are the treble clef (for the right hand, or higher range of notes or instruments) and the bottom 5 are the bass clef (for the left hand, or lower range of notes or instruments). In choral and orchestral music, you get multiple consecutive staves - one for each voice type or instrument part.
Sustain: The steady state of a sound at its maximum intensity before it fades into silence. In other words, the length or the act of prolonging a sound or note. If resonance is the ‘ring’, sustain is how long that ring goes on for. Sustain cannot exist without initial resonance.
See also: Resonance, Reverb
Tempo: The speed at which a passage or piece of music is, or should be, played. These are expressed as Italian terms in compositions/sheet music to guide the musicians. There are 5 common tempo ranges, measured in beats per minute (bpm): Adagio (slow and expressive, between 55-65bpm) Andante (at a walking pace between 73-77bpm), Moderato (between 86-97bpm); Allegretto (moderately fast, between 98-109bpm); and Allergo (fast, quick and bright, between 109-132bpm).
There are less common tempos which lie below, between and above these tempos, such as Largo, Adagietto, Lento, Vivace and Presto.
See also: Time signature
Tihai: Concept in Indian music. A phrase is repeated three times with the last stroke of the tihai ending in a specific spot, most often the 1st beat of your cycle (bar). Tihais can be played on percussive instruments like tabla or mrndangam, but also on melodic instruments or in vocal performances.
Time signature: Think of a classic waltz. It goes 1, 2, 3, | 1, 2, 3 | and so on. It is 3 x quarter notes (crochets) per bar. Basically that is what a time signature is - it tells us all about the pattern of the beat, i.e. the length of each beat and how many of those beats are in one bar (versus tempo, which tells you how fast the waltz should be).
Otherwise known as ‘metre signature’ or ‘measure signature’, the time signature is one of the most important and useful concepts for any composer or musician. They comprise two numbers, written like a fraction (3/4, 7/8 and so on). The bottom/last number, typically a power of 2, shows us what length of note is equivalent to one beat in a bar (for example, a 4 would be quarter notes/crochets, 8 would be eighth notes/quavers). The top number shows us how many such beats make up a bar (for example, 3 (crochets) or 7 (quavers)). 4/4 time, also known as ‘Common time’ is the most simple - it means there are 4 quarter notes (crochets) in every bar. So, if you count 1, 2, 3, 4 out loud at a normal pace, chances are, you are talking in 4/4! Other popular ‘simple’ time signatures include 2/4 (2 crochets per bar); 3/4 (3 crochets per bar, like a waltz); and 3/8 (3 quavers per bar). There are compound time signatures, duple and triple metres, and the effects that tempo can have on time signatures, but that is all a little complicated and perhaps better for a new Handpan Dojo course
Tonefield: In the handpan world, tonefields (or notes) are the concave dimples around the top and bottom of the instrument, plus the convex or concave dome-shaped ding, which is usually located in the centre at the top. The bigger the shape of the note, the lower its tone.
See also: Note.
Tonic: This is the first (and last) note in any diatonic (major or minor) scale. For example, in a D major scale, the tonic is D. The tonic is the most important note of the scale, serving as the focus for both melody and harmony. On a handpan, this is most often the Ding note (for example, D2 may be the Ding/tonic note for a D celtic, with D3 and even D4 placed elsewhere).
Transpose: A very useful tool/skill for composers/musicians, this is the process of moving a phrase of notes or, most commonly, a whole piece of music up or down in pitch by a constant interval (scale). Basically, it is the rewriting of music into a different key in order to work better with your handpan(s), more comfortably fit a singer’s range, assist players of instruments not set to concert pitch (for example, a B♭ clarinet) or simply for personal preference, such as moving a piece from D major to its relative minor of B♭ in order to make it sound more reflective. Nowadays, there are many apps and tools to help us to transpose music.
Tune: Generally refers to a whole musical piece, as well as its main musical theme (whereas a melody, a more formal musical term, is only the latter). A tune is always instrumental. If there are lyrics/voice, it becomes a song.
Tune is also a verb used to describe the act of tuning (either creating a specific scale and perfectly pitched individual notes, or correcting out-of-tune notes). Note stability is vital to handpan players. There are now many specialised handpan tuners around the world. You will come across the word frequently in the handpan community as our instruments have a tendency to de-tune with time/use/environment.
Whole note (or semibreve): In music notation, this is a single note that lasts as long as 4 quarter notes or crotchets. In other words, it takes up a full bar in 4/4 time. It is the longest note in common use in modern music (with only the double whole note or breve being longer, at 8 quarter notes/crotchets).
Let us know which handpan terms you are missing. 🙂👍