The term “accordion” is derived from the German word “akkord,” which means musical chord or concord of sounds. The accordion is a family of the squeezebox, free-reed, aerophone-type instruments. These instruments involve a reed set into a frame over an opening. When air passes through the opening, it causes the reed to vibrate, which produces musical sounds.
History of the Accordion
The accordion originated from free-reed instruments, the first of which is believed to be created in China sometime in the 2nd millennium BC. The instrument was called “sheng” and looked like a mouth pipe organ. It is played even to this day.
The contemporary form of the accordion is believed to be first created by Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann in Berlin in 1822; however, there is some dispute about that. Russian researchers claim the earliest simple accordion was first made by Timofey Vorontsov in Tule in 1820 and Ivan Sizov in 1830.
The first instrument named accordion was patented by the Austrian-Armenian inventor Cyrill Demian in Vienna; however, unlike the modern versions that are popularly used now, this accordion only had buttons, rather than a keyboard and the right hand operated the bellows.
In the year 1828, the accordion was introduced from Germany to Britain; initially, it was not viewed favorably by the British audience, nevertheless, it soon became quite popular. Propelled by the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing of the accordion quickly spread in Europe. By the 1840s, accordions were not just being made in Germany and Austria but also in Russia, France, and Italy.
As the accordion gained popularity, its manufacturers tried to shift its perception from a folk instrument to a more “respectable” instrument. In the 1920s, Hohner, a major accordion manufacturer in Germany, started publishing classical sheet music, successfully moving the accordion from a folk instrument to classical instrument. It also opened up a college for teaching accordion and created an orchestra, which would tour Germany and other neighboring countries, depicting the accordion in a new light. Today, the company has moved its production operations to China, making the country the largest accordion manufacturer in the world.
These days the accordion is not only used to perform ethnic or folk music, but it is also heard in pop music, rock, and pop-rock, and even in sophisticated classical music concerts.
Types of Accordion
Accordions come in many forms and sizes. Some contain piano keys while others come with buttons. Depending on the manufacturer and the year of making, accordions may be made from different material, depict different reeds and the number of keys. Because of this, their design and musical sound may vary from one instrument to the next. Some vintage varieties display ornate decorations while newer models depict technology.
Here are some of the most popular types of accordions.
A button accordion, as the name suggests, is a type of accordion on which the treble side or the melody side of the board consists of buttons rather than piano keys. This is one of the two main types of accordions. The first button accordion is believed to be made by Franz Walther in Vienna in 1859. These accordions come in a variety of configurations and style; however, all button accordions have single notes button on one side and bass and chord buttons on the other side.
Button accordions are used in several European countries and other countries where Europeans settled.
The second main type of accordion is the piano accordion and, as the name implies, it has a piano-style keyboard. The right-hand treble keyboard has the same layout and design as the one in a regular piano. A full-size accordion has 41 treble keys and approximately 3+ octaves of notes. The left-hand side consists of a board of buttons for bass accompaniment. A full-size piano accordion has 120 buttons but there are some varieties that have 140 buttons. The bass system can be free bass, stradella or French 3-3. However, most commonly the bass buttons are configured in the stradella style.
Students who are learning to play the piano accordion start with a “12 bass” accordion, which has 12 bass buttons for the left hand and a two-octave keyboard for the right hand. The most common full-size piano keyboard has a range from the low “F” to a high “A.”
The great thing about the piano accordion is that it is very flexible and can be adapted to play any style of music. In the United States, the piano accordion is popularly used in folk music, though it is now increasingly being used in contemporary pop music, as well. In Brazil, the accordion is even more popular than the guitar and is used in pop music forms like the Forro and Sertanejo. It is also popularly used in Italian, German, and Balkan music.
Another major difference between accordions is their unisonoric or bisonoric nature. These terms refer to how the bellows produce notes and pitches by moving the air through the reeds. In a unisonoric accordion, a key or button produces the same pitch or note regardless of the direction in which the bellows are moving. The pitch of the accordion also depends on the instrument’s size.
A bisonoric accordion, unlike a unisonoric one, produces two different notes or pitches when a button is pressed, depending on the direction of the bellows. When the bellows are pulled out, they make a different note and when they are pushed in, they make a different sound.
Chromatic accordions have buttons for both the right-hand treble side and the left-hand bass side. These accordions have a bass button configuration that is similar to the one found in a piano accordion, which is usually stradella or free bass. This gives the instrument a wider range of pitch with the treble side holding a button configuration of 3, 4, or 5 rows of buttons. The treble side usually has a C-Grif or B-Grif, although the notes are arranged in a slightly different style on the keyboard – with C being in the first row of the C-system and the third row of the B-system.
The C-system works very well for playing chords while the B-system is suited for classical music. Although chromatic accordions are used in a variety of music styles, this is dependent on how the accordion’s reeds are tuned. Today, they are most popularly used in classical music in the accompaniment of free bass or converter, as well, as Balkan and Russian folk music. Although not very common in the United States, these instruments are very popular in Europe.
Some varieties of the chromatic accordion include the Russian Garmon and the Finnish C-system. Both these varieties have slightly different keyboard style and layout but they are not as common as B-system and C-system chromatics.
These types of accordions are widely used in folk and ethnic music. Most diatonic accordions are button accordions that have one to multiple rows of buttons. The main difference between a chromatic and a diatonic accordion is that the reeds are bisonoric for diatonic accordions. This means the pitch is different when you pull out or push in the bellows. This is the same for bass notes and chords that are different depending on the direction of the bellows.
Since it has a diatonic style, these accordions can only play certain keys. A model with three rows of buttons may come with C, F, G keys or Eb, B, and F keys. Other keys are also available.
Single row diatonic accordions are very popular in Celtic music and Norteno and Cajun musicians use this form of accordion almost exclusively. The diatonic accordion is also used in Zydeco music.
As technology advances, accordions have also hopped onto the microchip bandwagon. Digital accordions come with onboard electronics while the free reeds may or may not be present. However, even these accordions have the look and feel of the traditional accordions. The big advantage is that they can now produce many more types of sounds, contain effects like chorus and reverb, and are MIDI compatible.
Although not a “true” accordion, the concertina has enough characteristics that it can be classified as a variant of an accordion. Concertinas are small hand-held free-reed instruments that are unique from the previous accordion. Because of their compact size, these accordions are great for traveling and are often associated with sailors, who take the musical instrument on their voyage.
Concertinas have several different types of systems including the English, Anglo, German, and Duet concertinas. This instrument is very versatile and can be unisonoric like the chromatic accordion or bisonoric like the diatonic button accordions. Concertinas are very popular in Europe, especially Ireland, for playing traditional folk music.
Special Type of Hybrid Accordions
There are several unique and unusual types of hybrid accordions that are used in various countries.
The Russian garmon is a button accordion with two rows of buttons on the treble side, which play the notes on a diatonic scale and at least two rows of buttons on the left side, which play the primary chords and the relative harmonic minor keys. Many instruments come with additional right-hand buttons for accidental notes and additional chords for playing related keys and a row of additional free bass buttons for bass melodies.
Besides Russian traditional music, the garmon is popularly used by the Armenian, Azeri, Ossetian, Cherkess, Georgian people and the Mari folk in the Ural and Volga region. It is also an important instrument in Slovenia. Some modern music can also be played on the garmon and it has gained some popularity in the United States and Europe.
This accordion has a treble side of a chromatic button accordion and a bass side consisting of diatonic, bisonoric 12-button keyboard. This accordion is named after the traditional combination of two violins, clarinet, or accordion and contraguitar known as Schrammelquartet.
This is a type of bisonoric diatonic button accordion popularly used in the traditional music of the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Austria, Bavaria, and the Italian South Tyrol. This accordion is characterized by its richer bass notes and the presence of a single key per scale row that produces the same pitch regardless of whether the bellows are pulled out or pushed in.
Also known as the Swiss organ, the Schwyzerörgeli consist of a treble side with three rows of diatonic buttons and 18 unisonoric bass buttons in the bass side. This instrument is used almost exclusively in Switzerland and is very hard to find beyond the borders of the country.
Also known as trikiti, this accordion is a two-row diatonic instrument that is typical to the Basque people. It contains a bisonoric treble and a diatonic, unisonoric bass with 12 buttons. This is the national musical instrument of the Basque Country.
This is a Russian chromatic button accordion developed in the 20th century and named after the 11-century minstrel, Boyan. Bayan has broader and more rectangular reeds than western button accordions. The melody-side keyboard is attached to the middle of the body and the reeds are not tuned in with the tremolo. There are other differences in style that give the Bayan’s bass a much richer sound than its Western counterparts.
British Chromatic Accordion
This is the most preferred accordion in Scotland. The left hand follows the stradella system while the right hand is bisonoric. This accordion has an elite type which is considered to be “Shand Morino,” a German-manufactured accordion, produced by the Hohner.
This special type of accordion is often used in Polish traditional music. It has a pair of characteristic pump organ-like bellows.
The Bandoneon is a type of concertina. The bandoneon appears quite larger than its smaller, compact concertina relatives and needs to be supported on the knees during the performances. Unlike the regular concertina which is popularly used in folk music, the Bandoneon was created by Heinrich Band to be used in the religious and popular music of the 19th century. Bandoneons are often used in tango music as they produce a distinctive sound which is perfect for that type of music.
One of the most famous Bandoneon players is Astor Piazzolla who revolutionized the tango by incorporating elements of classical music and jazz into the music style.
The accordion is used worldwide but it comes in many different styles and forms. Because of this, it is very versatile and can be used in many genres of music. In America, it is often used in jazz music, in France, it is used in musette waltz, in Ireland and Scotland, it is used in lively Celtic music and in Russia, it has been elevated to classical music. Wherever you go, the accordion can provide you with a unique, fun, and versatile style of music.