The accordion belongs to the hand-held bellows-driven free-reed aerophone family of musical instruments and is sometimes referred to as a squeezebox. Due to its right-hand manual, it is considered as a key instrument like piano, digital piano, pipe organ, electronic organs, musical keyboards, synthesizers, melodicas, etc.
How is the accordion? Almost all people have some relationship to the accordion, the musical instrument with bellows that is said to be one of the world’s best-selling. Most will also recognize the sound of the accordion that is very similar to the harmonica. Some have an even closer relationship with the instrument because they are playing it now or they were playing some time ago. I also played the accordion for many years, most traditional and popular music at weddings and dance events. A few years later during my college years, I played at a somewhat higher level in classical music with an accordion orchestra. I even performed with the orchestra on national television playing The Holberg Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Our conductor, who usually played the viola in a well-known national symphony orchestra, explained how he had rewritten Grieg’s arrangements from strings to the accordion. I hardly think Grieg wrote any music for accordion but I can assure that his music sounded great even though it was played by bellows..!
In this post, I will look at various aspects of the accordion, and break down the content like this:
A brief historical summary
Sizes, models, tuning, and systems
The accordion in classical music
“One-man-band” – and a tiny introduction on how to play
Once upon a time people’s favorite musical instrument
A Brief Historical Summary
Christian Friedrich Buschmann, a German organ builder, needed a clean, sustained tone to tune the organ pipes. The pipes he used for this were to blow in and then tune the organ but then he came to put bellows on the various pipes. As the bellows produced long airflow, the “accordion” was a fact. It was not long before the production of the first and very simple accordions with only one row of buttons started.
The accordion is an ancient instrument with roots from both Italy and Russia. The instrument comes in a myriad of variants, with buttons, keys, melody bass and standard bass. It is best known in traditional music, but it is also used in a variety of music genres. In Christian contexts, the accordion is best known from the Salvation Army and other low-church / free-church contexts.
In Europe, something is happening at the same time in several places: In Germany 1822: Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann builds a tuner with bellows. Vienna 1829: Cyrille Demian, an organ and piano builder invents an instrument he calls accordion. The same year in England: Charles Wheatstone builds a similar instrument he calls the symphonion and four years later comes the concertina. Incidentally, the principle of metal slats swinging in an airstream had been in use in China for a long time before our time, in an instrument called tcheng. Throughout the 19th century, there were no standards for how the accordion should look or how the keyboard should be organized.
Common denominators were: bellows, a box on each side with metal tongues and valves controlled by a keyboard. Because of its benefits as portability, powerful sound and the ease of playing (like a harmonica), the instrument spread across Europe and got various shapes and keyboard systems. For example, garmon and Bajan in Russia, bandoneon in Germany and later in Argentina, concertina in the British Isles, and with a piano keyboard, which was especially prominent in the United States.
From the turn of the century until the Second World War, hundreds of waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, tangos, and foxtrots were created by great creative artists, who both composed and performed accordions. Although this was music to dance to, it was to a great extent good musical works.
Sizes, Models, Tuning & Systems
The most common accordion types are:
The piano accordion is the most typical accordion and is used for many musical genres in both traditional and popular music. Another type is the accordion with buttons, which are commonly used in musical traditions such as, Cajun, Conjunto and Tejano music, Swiss and Austrian German Alpine music and Argentine tango music.
Free bass accordion
Many may wonder what is the difference between an accordion and free bass accordion? Technically, the explanation is quite simple. On a regular accordion, the bass side has a system of pre-built chords, which is both practical and ingenious for traditional popular music. For contemporary music / classical, however, this is not so useful. On a free bass accordion, the chord manual can be turned into a single-tone manual. Thus, you have two independent manuals and completely different possibilities.
The diatonic accordion, also called melodeon, is a small accordion in which the sound is produced by free tongues that move, such as on the harmonica and the reed organ (pump organ).
A melodeon is technically very different from today’s more usual chromatic accordions, and is very similar in principle to a harmonica: The melodeon is alternating, ie it gives two different tones for each button depending on whether the bellows are pulled out or pressed. The instrument is diatonic, that is, if you buy an instrument tuned in, for example, G major, you have to adhere to this key. However, the melodeon has two rows of buttons, each button row being its major key.
The bass keyboard’s buttons are usually in pairs. The lower button of the pair gives a root tone, and the upper one a triad. There are many variants, but most commonly it is with four pairs of buttons where the six initial tones of the instrument’s main key type are represented. The sixth chord is usually minor, while the rest are major chords.
Many accordionists prefer the sound of the accordion with a built-in cassotto ‘sound chamber’ containing one or more reed blocks of the treble side of the instrument. Cassotto is usually found in more expensive models and gives a warmer, less sharp sound than in accordions without. Oftentimes the cassotto sounds will be described as warm and chubby.
What we associate with musette is the vibrating sound created by two or three sets of reeds, which are tuned a few cents below and or above each other. This way of tuning was introduced for the sound to be strong and penetrating, and because this way of tuning made fewer demands for material quality and accurate tuning. Gradually the fashions changed and the tuning became “drier”. The term “dry” is used for tuning where the sets of reeds are tuned the same, ie no vibration, “wet” tuning produces vibration. One can get an accordion tuned from “dry” to all degrees of “wet”.
Bandoneon or bandoneón is a type of accordion that was constructed in 1846 by the German instrument dealer and music teacher Heinrich Band (1821-1860) and named after him. The bandoneon and the closely related German concertina quickly became popular in Germany, and numerous bandoneon orchestras were formed with amateurs who often played popular songs. Most orchestras, however, disappeared during and just after World War II.
In the 1880s, the bandoneon came with German sailors and immigrants to Buenos Aires in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay and soon played a central role in tango music, which at that time was being created precisely in these cities.
Multiple keyboard systems
Today, three keyboard systems are used on chromatic accordions: the piano system and two types of button systems:
The B-system also called the “Norwegian system”, is most commonly used in Norway, Russia and the Balkans.
The C system often referred to as the “Swedish system” is mirrored to the B system. This is most commonly used in Sweden, France, Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe.
Different systems are popular in different countries and continents. In Scandinavia, about 90% of the accordions are button system and about 10% are a piano system. In the US it is just the opposite! How an accordion sounds, has nothing to do with the keyboard system. A piano accordion can sound as much “musette” as a button accordion.
The Accordion In Classical Music
The accordion has traditionally been used for dance music and entertainment. Classical composers focused very little on the instrument and very few compositions were written. Some composers put in small parts for accordion in their works just for the effect. Finally, the free bass accordion came and single tones could be played in the left hand. This was liked by the composers and the interest in composing classical music for the accordion increased. Eventually, several composers opened their eyes to the unique features of the accordion, and many independent works for the instrument were composed. In a way, the accordion had a renaissance and was recognized as a serious musical instrument but perhaps not yet quite equal to the piano, violin, etc.
“One-Man-Band” – And A Tiny Introduction On How To Play
Playing the accordion at an easy level is something many can do well. The accordion is suitable for solo and interaction, and in cities all over the world, you can hear street musicians playing with varying quality, either alone or with other instruments. Because of this diversity, the accordion has been given a slightly fringe status as a musical instrument, and therefore many do not like the sound of the accordion.
The accordion is considered by many as a “one-man-band” as it needs no accompanying instrument. The performer plays the melody line on keys or buttons on the right-hand manual, while accompanying himself with buttons for bass and preset chords on the left-hand manual. To make a sound, the bellows must be pulled or pressed (squeezed in and out) and blow air into the reeds that open when the buttons or keys are pressed. It is then very important to keep a steady movement in the bellows for the airflow and sound to be smooth. If a more dynamic way of playing is required, the bellows must be pressed more strongly for powerful sound and more gentle pressure for a softer sound.
In larger accordions, there are several pairs of tongues for each key or button, which can provide multiple sound combinations. While playing, the sound character can then be changed by pressing register buttons. Some concert models even have registry buttons that can be pressed by the chin if the musician doesn’t have time to take his fingers away from the keys ..!
To become proficient at playing the accordion, it is recommended to take lessons with an accordion teacher and learn how to play by musical notes and practice good finger techniques.
Once Upon A Time – People’s Favorite Musical Instrument
This post should attempt to shed light on the question “How is the accordion?” If I did, I would be happy, but if not I hope many have learned something new about the accordion. My idea was to highlight some of the features that might be hiding behind the bellows. The accordion is, or at least it was for some time the people’s musical instrument, something that everyone could relate to and gained a relationship with, especially in the countryside. In its heyday, the accordion had a great influence on cultural and social life, it played the main role at dance events, at weddings and parties, and like today’s pop artists, the most popular accordion players traveled around the country and abroad to hold concerts. – Once upon a time.
If you have any questions about this blogpost or anything related to the topic please leave them below and I will be more than happy to help you out.