How it works

The notation system


Notepan's tablature system is based on a representation of the subdivisions of the beat. You might already be familiar with that kind of notation, here is what our version looks like:

The following sections cover everything you need to know to fully understand it. And don't worry, it's only 10 minutes of reading. If you are new to the notions of beats, beat subdivisions and bars, you should start with the first part "Rhythm basics". Others can jump directly to the second section "Rhythmic structure in Notepan".

1. Rhythm basics

This section aims at giving you a basic understanding of how the music is structured. This is a bit theoretical but hopefully it will make a lot more sense when you read the following chapters. Let's start by defining some useful terms:


Everyone has experienced the notion of beat. When you hear a song and tap your toes in rhythm, or clap along in your hands, you are actually counting the beats. You can see it like the pulse of the song. More concretely, a beat it is a unit of duration and is determined by the tempo.


This is the number of beats per minute (bpm). If we take a tempo of 60 bpm for example, then each beat is 1 second long.


In music theory, a bar (or a measure) is a unit of time containing a given number of beats. In most of the music we hear there are 4 beats per bar, which is why you often hear musician counting like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. We create a music sheet (or tablature) by adding bars to it. This is the structural unit.

Beat subdivision

As the name implies, it defines a unit of time smaller than a beat. Most commonly beats are evenly divided in 2, 3 or 4 subdivisions. This allows us to play several notes within a single beat.

To sum up:

  • A tablature contains X number of bars
  • Each bar contains X number of beats, usually 4
  • Each one of those beats can be evenly divided in 2, 3 or 4 subdivisions (or more, but this is less common in Handpan music).

Creating music is all about playing notes at specific times. Playing "on the beat" means that you play a note on each beat. This can rapidly sounds boring, that's why we introduce subdivisions to play "off the beat" (that is, at a time other than the start of a beat). Most of the time, you'll realize that your favorite grooves and melodies are built between the beats and not on them.

Let's take a concrete example. With a tempo of 60 bpm, each beat is 1 second long, consequently:

  • A bar of 4 beats lasts 4 seconds
  • Half a beat is 0.5 second
  • A quarter of a beat is 0.25 second
  • Playing "on the beat" means that notes are played each second
  • Playing "off the beat" means that notes are played at any time that is not a whole second (0.25s, 0.5s, 0.75s, 1.25s...)

With that in mind, if you want to improve your playing you need to develop a strong sense of where the beat and its subdivisions fall in time. For that matter, it is really helpful to count the rhythm out loud while you are playing:

  • To count beats subdivided in 2, you would typically fill in the word “and” in between : 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1...
  • Beats subdivided in 4 are traditionally counted like this : 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a 1…

Breaking down the beats like this helps you visualize their structure, hence allowing you to know when to play a note or not. The name of the game is accuracy, not speed: practice slowly and use a metronome to pace yourself. Notepan's notation system is based around the same breakdown of the rhythm. Basically each beat subdivision is represented by a column, that you can leave empty or fill with a note. The following sections cover that more in-depth.

2. Rhythmic structure in Notepan

In Notepan, a tablature is organized in bars of 4 beats by default. Here is the anatomy of a bar:

Bars are delimited by bold vertical lines while beats are separated by thin vertical lines. And you probably guessed, the small vertical lines separate the beat subdivisions. In Notepan beats are subdivided in 4 by default, hence 4 beats * 4 subdivisions = 16 columns per bar. It is the same as counting the rhythm like that:

In the software the structure of a bar can be modified dynamically to fit your needs. The following values are supported:

  • From 1 to 9 beats per bar
  • 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8 subdivisions per beat

To draw a parallel with music theory: if we consider that a beat is a quarter note, then each column in the image above is a sixteenth note. In short, the columns represent the time structure of our tablature. In the next section we'll cover the utility of the rows.

3. Right hand / Left hand

Each bar is composed of 4 rows. These rows are used as a convention, along with the color, to indicate which hand should play a note.

The first two rows (above the horizontal line) are reserved for notes played by the right hand. They are displayed in orange in the tablature and on the instrument. The last two rows (below the horizontal line) are reserved for notes played by the left hand. They are displayed in blue in the tablature and on the instrument.

Notes contained within the same column are played together as a chord. Consequently, we can play a maximum of 4 notes at a time: 2 with each of our hand (octopus are not covered in this article...).

Now, is there a difference between those 2 bars?

The answer is no: both sequences sound the same and should be played in the same way. Let's say note 2 corresponds to the pitch C#4. Whether it is written on the first or second row doesn't make a difference. In both cases it will sound as a C#4 and is meant to be played with the right hand. The same logic goes for notes 4 and 6.

As the goal is to create a uniform notation for Handpan, what we recommend is:

  • Use the first and last rows only to write chords that require more than 2 notes
  • Use the two middle rows (one for each hand) the rest of the time

4. Notation

As you might have guessed, each note position on the Handpan is represented by its number on the tablature.

On the other hand, percussive sounds are represented by letters:

  • Tak : T (a stroke between the notes, in the interstitial space)
  • Knock : K (same as Tak, but with your knuckle)
  • Ghost note : • (not really a letter...)
  • Fist : F
  • Ding : D
  • Ding tonefield : d
  • Ding palm mute : P
  • Slap (Ding shoulder Tak) : S

Apart from Ding and ghost note, there is no real naming convention for these sounds and you might know them under different names. So here is a video to give you an overview of what they are, followed by their representation in Notepan.

Note: some of you might use the opposite for Tak and Slap (i.e Tak is a stroke on the Ding shoulder and Slap is a stroke between the notes). If you're in that case, know that a setting allows you to use this convention in Notepan, instead of the one presented above.

Some effects can be added to our notes. In that case an annotation is added next to the affected note:

  • Muted : M
  • Fifth harmonic : F
  • Octave harmonic : O
  • Finger roll : __ (underline)
  • Grace note : *

Grace note and Flam

First, what is a grace note? A grace note is a very short note, played just before a "principal" note in order to introduce it. In the image above, notes 6 and 8 should be played together, right? Instead of that, note 6 is going to be played slightly before. The offset is subtle but creates the feeling of a transition between note 6 and 8 and adds some relief to the melody. You can see this technique being used a few times here between 2m10s and 2m15s. This feeling of fast stroke rolls is the result of grace notes.

A grace note can also be used to play Flam accent, a drum rudiment where you hit the same note with both hands almost at the same time. As in the previous example, one hand hit the note slightly before the other one, resulting in a broader note.

5. Beat subdivisions

As mentioned before, beats are generated with 4 subdivisions by default in Notepan. You can change this value, independently for each beat, to one of the following: 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8. Here is an example:

Even though the beats are visually different in size, remember that they have the same duration! In the case of 8 subdivisions it just means that the notes are played twice as fast as with 4 subdivisions to fit in the same frame time. To illustrate this point, consider these two bars. From a rhythmic perspective, they are identical:

Split subdivisions

Notepan adds even more flexibility to subdivide a beat, with the possibility to "split" a single subdivision in 2 even parts. To speak in music theory terms: if a subdivision is a 16th note, it can be split into two 32nd notes (our two split columns).

Notice the tiny vertical bar that separates the two split columns, this is the notation that helps you recognize this feature.

This functionality is mostly used for visual convenience. Take the following sequences for example: they produce the same result but the second one (which uses a split subdivision) is more compact and more readable.

It goes without saying that if you split each subdivision in the second bar, you obtain a beat evenly divided in 8. Consequently, these two bar structures are equivalent.

You now have a complete overview of Notepan's notation system. You can start experiencing with the software and you'll be able to read and write tablatures in no time. If you feel a bit lost at first, don't forget to use the player mode to hear what you're writing. It will help you understand how the notation translates into music.

This section is empty, but some video tutorials are coming soon! In the meantime, this page might help you.