What is a Hang Drum?

It’s the most unusual, awesome and extraterrestrial thing to come to melodic percussion in the 21st century, of course.

There are a lot of debates about these “drums” in the world of music, including whether a hang (pronounced “hahng,” or “hung,” per its German roots) is even a drum. However, since it is played through hitting the surface of the drum, it is a percussion instrument. Some would say it is an idiophone. We just say hanghang (the plural form of the word) are awesome.

Hang drums are really quite new to the world of music and percussion, having first made their debut in 2001 at the Musikmesse Frankfurt. Invented by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer (PANArt Hang Manufacturing Ltd.) in Bern, Switzerland, in 2000, hang drums have been seen many improvements over the last 14 years as different metals are used in their construction and various techniques are applied to the tuning of the instruments. According to the PANArt Hang website, hanghang are no longer being produced by that company, but, they are introducing the Gubal®- yet another evolution of the hang.

Essentially, hang drums are two bowl-shaped pieces of metal that are attached together to create a shape resembling a UFO. On the top, there are seven “tone fields” (called the “chorus”) that are tuned around the center “Ding” in order to provide a melodic scale. The bottom of the hang (the “Gu”) provides a resonant bass sound from the instrument being played on the top (the “Ding”). This resonance is actually the same type of sound you get from blowing across the top of a glass bottle, and it somehow all comes together in a weird and wonderful way. There are comparisons between the hang and talking drums or udu drums, especially considering the melodic capacity these drums are best known for, yet hanghang were based on steel pans or steel drums.

Getting the hang of the hang requires a bit of practice, as the tone fields are laid out in a crisscross pattern. With the hang sitting in the lap, both the right and left hands are able to play around the Ding by simply striking the metal with the fingers. The undertones and overtones created through this method provide much of the instrument’s interesting sound, but, the tone itself is certainly a unique experience. Some hang players also rub or scratch their fingers along the surface, thereby putting a personal spin on an already unique sound. Truly, the tone possibilities are endless, and it is truly delightful to play and to experience such a creative instrument.

Whether your first experience with a hang is in a drum circle or on YouTube, there cannot be any doubt as to the uniqueness this instrument brings to the world of music. The popularity of hang drums and hand pans is growing, and more people are interpreting the design into their own versions using the original instrument as an inspiration for innovation. As musicians and percussionists, we all know that music is an expression of our thoughts and emotions, as well as a form of talent that demands recognition. Hang drums, hand pans and other instruments symbolize how music can be redefined, through a different style of instrument or even how an old favorite is played.

We cannot think of a better tribute to the pursuit of music and percussion than creating more music (and percussion), especially on a metal, UFO-shaped “drum” that defies logic, yet, keeps making more sense each time we hear it play.

12th Sep 2014 Kristin Stancato

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