The mystique of the Free Integral Hang
This is a short video of a Hang that began life as a Free Integral but has now been tuned to C# integral. I had heard it before – it was out of tune and sounding bad. I told him often to just let me tune it but he wouldn’t do it out of fear of ruining it. I have to admit I smiled when he called and told me it had fallen and a few notes were completely knocked out and it was unplayable. He had no excuse now, it had to be fixed. Its original tuning was very close to C# so I did the minimum necessary to get it in tune. The owner tells me it has never sounded better and that he is very happy to have a playable Hang that he can use with his other handpans as well.
Every handpan, no matter how well made, will go out of tune over time. How quickly and how much will of course depends on how often and how aggressively it is played. When the instrument goes out of tune it looses resonance, sustain, clarity and volume not to mention ceasing to be pleasant to listen to and play. Newly tuned instruments are just the opposite. They are a joy to play and listen to and the qualities that are missing in the out of tune instrument are very much present here. When to have a handpan tuned also depends on many factors and this post is about something else so I won’t go into it here. I will say that it is a fairly well known phenomenon that as we play an instrument regularly over a period of time our ears can become accustomed to the less than precise tuning so it often is someone else who notices that our handpan is out of tune before we do. In any case regular tuning by an experienced tuner is good for these instruments not only because they sound more pleasant afterwards but it in fact helps them become more stable.
These are ideas that I think most handpan players are aware of and would agree with but the logic and sense of this sometimes falls apart on the subject of the Free Integral Hang. I don’t know the real history of these Hangs and why they were made but one thing I know for certain is that they do not improve over time “like a good red wine”, a reference I heard once about the Free Integral and why it should never be tuned.
Integral is the name for a Hang sound model and like all sound models gets its characteristic sound/flavor from the specific intervals between notes. I don’t feel the need to go into the theory side of this now as it is again not within the scope of this short piece. I also don’t want to get too much into numbers and tuning concepts here so suffice it to say that the notes of the standard Integral Hang are (D) A Bb C D E F A where the A on the top is tuned to 440hz and all other notes fall relative to that. This is standard tuning for western music in general. Free integral Hangs are Hangs that were tuned with the same interval relationships but without a reference to a specific frequency meaning that whereas the standard Integral is D minor the Free Integral could end up being somewhere in between D and Db for example with reference to the 440hz standard. None of this is a problem in itself. There are lots of people who prefer an A = 432hz reference and sometimes we find other instruments like pianos tune to 442hz.
The problem is, like every other Handpan these Free Integral Hangs will go out of tune - not with respect to the 440hz standard but with themselves. They, Like every other handpan will loose resonance, sustain, clarity and volume and become unpleasant to listen to and play. Then what? As a tuner I want to hear the instrument sounding its best and this means tuning the individual notes as well as adjusting the relationships between the notes on the pan, the intervals that make the sound model. When faced with an out of tune Free Integral (which, by the way is any one that has been played and not tuned since it was created) it is necessary to decide on some kind of reference to tune to. That reference could be anything but the option to tune the Hang to a 440hz reference is not only valid but also means the Hang would be playable with most of the other handpans in existence that are tuned to the 440 reference.
I am saying all this because I want to help dampen the mystique that surrounds the Free Integral. There is nothing special about them. There is nothing in that sets them apart from any other Hang or handpan other than the fact that they were not originally tuned to a standard reference. The most common misconception that I have heard is that tuning them will ruin them. This is an undeniably false statement. Tuning will not ruin them any more than tuning ruins any handpan. They were “tuned” to begin with and as I said right up front if they are played and not maintained by an experienced tuner they will go out of tune and certainly will not improve. The sound will get worse and eventually it will become an instrument that is unplayable, or at least unpalatable. These Hangs deserve to have a life like every other Hang. Have them tuned so that the world can hear them at their best.