What is a Hang Drum? (Or Why It’s Not a “Hang Drum”)

 

A “Hang Drum” is hand-played tuned steel instrument consisting of two hollow shells glued together to form an empty cavity.  On the top shells is an arrangement of tone fields or ‘notes’ that can be tapped by the fingers to produce a sweet melodic tone.

However, it should be stated that using the term “Hang Drum” is actually incorrect.  The word Hang, meaning ‘hand’ in Bernese German, is actually a trademark of PANArt, the manufacturer of the Hang and many other similar tuned steel instruments.  This is much the same as “Kleenex” being used to refer to any brand of “facial tissue”.

A more generic term for these instruments would be “sound sculpture” or “handpan”.  The term handpan is also widely debated, as a ‘handpan’ is built like a steel pan in terms of note shape and tuning methodology.  The Hang from PANArt is not built or tuned like the steel pan, so the term “handpan” is quite inappropriate to use for it.

However, the word handpan can be appropriate for most other similar looking instruments available today which are built by other manufacturers.  While these handpans may use the traditional methods of building steel pans, the sound of the handpan is somewhat the same, especially to un-trained ears.  This is where the confusion lies, as many people cannot differentiate the sound of a typical handpan versus the sound of the Hang or other sound sculptures built using the same techniques involved in producing the Hang.

Also, using the term ‘drum’ is widely debated as well, as both the Hang and the handpan should not be played as ‘drums’.  Using the term drum can improperly imply that the instrument should be hit with force, whereas the opposite is true for any of these sound sculptures.  Also, drums are technically classified as membranophones, which utilize a skin or similar material stretched and put under tensile stress over a “body”.  Metal sound sculptures do not use tensile stresses, and in fact use compressive stresses in each note field.

Other incorrect terms seen on the internet and in society used to describe the Hang or other similar sounding instruments would be “hang pan” or “handpan drum”.

One other term that is trying to be popularized is “Pantam”.  It is a combination of “Ghatam” and the “handpan”.  While some manufacturers and musicians are trying to popularize this term, it is quite difficult to compete with “handpan”, which already has gained wide acceptance.

In short, to refer to the original sound sculpture from PANArt, use the word Hang.  To refer to hand-played steel sound sculptures built using steel pan building techniques, use “handpan”.  For others, terms like “sound sculpture” or “pantam” can be appropriate.