Accordion Facts

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An accordion is a small portable free-reed wind instrument with a keyboard, the smallest representative of the organ family. The sound is made by a thin metal ribbon, a reed, that is held at one end and free at the other, like a ruler on the edge of a table top. The reed is fitted inside a holder plate, air is drawn through the hole in the holder, the reed vibrates, producing sound.

The Sheng
The first free-reed instrument was the Chinese Sheng, which is mouth-blown.  The Cheng plays by blowing air into the wooden mouthpiece that attaches to a gourd and into which are fitted various amounts of bamboo shoots of different lengths. It was invented as an imitation of the Phoenix bird. The approximate date that this instrument was created is unknown, but it is believed to be more then 2,000 years old. It is thought that a traveler to China brought this idea back to Europe.

Bellows are used on the accordion to substitute blowing air by the mouth. This allows strong air pressure and conserves the musician’s energy. Greeks and Egyptians first used bellows before 1500 B.C to heat up furnaces in forges. Although portable bellow-like organs have been found in dated pictures, the person who came up with the idea to attach the bellows to the accordion remains a mystery.

Friedrich Buschmann from Berlin invented the harmonica in 1822. He called his new invention the “Aura”. The year after, he fitted some keys and bellows to his Aura and called it the “Handaoline”. This was good progress to achieve the “expressiveness” everybody was looking for in the early 19th century but it was not yet an accordion. The first basic accordion invented in 1829 by Cyrill Demian in Vienna had only 5 buttons and each button played 2 chords (not single notes), one chord when pushing the bellows and another chord when pulling the bellows thus it was a diatonic accordion. The idea behind Demian’s invention to play only chords was to compete with Buschmann’s harmonica invented in 1821. Buschmann’s harmonica could not be used as an accompaniment instrument. One can’t sing and blow in his harmonica at the same time. Demian’s  accordion was perfect as an expressive accompaniment musical instrument. “Accord” in French means “chord” so Demian derived the name “accordion”.

Replica of Demian’s accordion

The French copied Demian’s accordion, but they eliminated the chords to play single notes. These accordions are still played today and are called many things, Cajun accordions, melodeons, one-row, diatonic accordions, and so on. The modern accordion was achieved beginning in 1897 when Paolo Soprani elaborated the chromatic system.

A diatonic accordion

Diatonic accordions are single-action instruments (bi-sonoric), where as a rule each button produces two different notes, one when pulling the bellows outwards, one when pushing it inwards. The notes are arranged much like on a harmonica.The accordion consists of folded bellows, to which is attached a keyboard with from 5 to 50 keys. The keys on being depressed, while the bellows are being worked, open valves admitting the wind to free reeds, consisting of narrow tongues of metal riveted some to the upper, some to the lower board of the bellows, having their free ends bent, some inwards, some outwards. Each key produces two notes, one from the inwardly bent reed when the bellows are compressed, the other from the outwardly bent reed by suction when the bellows are expanded. The pitch of the note is determined by the length and thickness of the reeds.Generally the longer the reed, the lower the tone, although some reeds have added weights which lower the tone of a shorter reed. . The right hand plays the melody on the keyboard, while the left works the bellows and manipulates the two or three bass harmony keys, which sound the simple chords of the tonic and dominant.

Related instruments include the concertina and the melodeon.

Piano accordion

The piano accordion was developed in Europe in the late 1800’s and has become the most common type of accordion nowadays in most western countries. Familiar to everyone who has ever seen Lawrence Welk, the right hand is laid out like a piano keyboard, so a piano player could play it, though the keys are smaller than on a piano. The left hand plays an array of up to 120 buttons which play bass notes and various chords. The instrument was named and popularized in the United States by Count Guido Deiro who was the first piano accordionist to perform in Vaudeville. He is credited with making the first recordings of the instrument in 1908, also with making the first radio broadcast of the accordion in 1921 and the first sound motion picture featuring the accordion, for Vitaphone in 1928.

The left hand layout of a piano and chromatic button accordion uses “The Stradella Bass System”. This usually features six rows: the second row buttons are called the Fundamental Bass and are ordered in quints, the first row buttons are called the Counter Bass and are major 3rd higher,  relative to the second row. The major chords are in the third row, the fourth row consists of the minor chords, the fifth row houses the seventh chord and finally the sixth row has the diminished seventh chords. Most 7ths and diminished chords consist of only 3 notes – the 5th is omitted for various reasons.
Depending on the price, size or origin of the instrument, some rows may miss completely or the layout is slightly changed. Common configurations are:
“12 Bass” accordion: Fundamental Bass goes from Bb to A (the third to eighth column in the picture above), and only has Fundamental Bass and major chords
“24 Bass” goes from Ab to A, and has Fundamental Bass, major and minor chords
“32 Bass” goes from Eb to E, and has FB, major, minor and seventh chords
“48 Bass” goes from Eb to E, and has all six rows
“72 Bass” goes from Db to F#, and has all six rows
“80 Bass” goes from Cb to G#, and has everything except diminished
“96 Bass” is as 80 Bass, but with all six rows
“120 Bass” goes from Abb (i.e. low G) to A# – that’s 20 columns – with all six rows.

C – system accordion

Another type is the chromatic accordion. Usually these have buttons instead of piano keys, but they have the same 12-note Western scale as a piano accordion. The buttons are ordered chromatically in three rows, one row up/down means one halftone up/down, one button up/down in the same row means 3 halftones up/down. Larger chromatic accordions can have up to three auxiliary rows, with secondary buttons playing the same tones that already appeared in the first three rows. This layout makes transforming songs into other keys much easier than on the piano accordion. The chromatic accordion is definitely the choice for classical music, as a lot of more buttons than piano keys can be packed on the same space. Therefore artists can play intervals of up to two octaves using only one hand, this is especially important for pieces that include more than two voices. There are two different layout systems, the C layout and the B layout. If you turned a C layout keyboard on its head you would have a B layout and vice versa. The B system is preferred for classical music, and is very common in Eastern Europe whereas the C system is common in Western Europe, particularly in France. In Russia and several other countries the B system chromatic accordion is called a Bayan. The Bayan is a special class of chromatic button accordion, the keyboard is closer to the front of the instrument than on Western European accordions. Also the reeds are rectangular in shape, rather than trapezoidal, broader, and are often mounted in groups to brass plates, giving them a brighter, louder sound, and making the instrument much heavier
B – System

Piano accordions and chromatic accordions are double-action (uni-sonoric) instruments: each key or button plays the same note or chord, whether the bellows are being pulled out or pushed in.

Free bass, Bariton bass or Melody bass accordions, favored by classical accordionists, have a left-hand button board with individual bass notes over several octaves, rather than the single octave of bass notes and the preset chords provided by the traditional “stradella” left-hand button system and works exactly the same way the right hand on the chromatic accordion does. There are “converter” accordions offering both systems in one instrument, and the so-called Bassetti bass instrument (now fairly rare) has three extra rows of free bass buttons in addition to the 120 Stradella.
Many folk cultures have their own version of an accordion, including the Russian bayan, Alpine helikon instruments, North Mexican conjunto accordion, the bandoneon, Louisiana Cajun accordion, Irish 2 row b-c type instruments, Russian Garmon’ and others. These can have either a unique note layout, a different sound, or all of the above.

One company in particular managed to establish itself in the industry hierarchy. The Hohner Company was to the accordion industry what Henry Ford was to the automobile. Beginning in 1902 the company expanded from harmonicas into accordions and rapidly grew its product line and established a mass production line.

In Italy the accordion appeared for the first time in 1863. A pilgrim passing through the territory of Castelfidardo on his pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the “Black Madonna” of Loreto, stopped by chance in Antonio Soprani’s farmhouse.

He was carrying a rudimentary music box with him; The Accordion, a queer object arousing the curiosity of Paolo Soprani, Antonio’s eldest son. Young Paolo opened the instrument, disassembled it and immediately perceived the possibility to build other similar items. The accordion was given to him as a present, and the ex-farmer soon successfully opened a small handicraft laboratory and sold the aesthetically and musically improved product mainly in nearby Loreto, the destination of a continuous, considerable flow of pilgrims.

So was born, between history and legend, the Italian accordion industry. Thirteen years later, in 1876, at Stradella near Pavia, Italy, Mariano Dallape, also started to produce considerable quantities of accordions, made in view of the curiosity aroused by Damian’s Accordion in Tirol. Mariano Dallape is often credited with the invention of the Stradella bass system, but there is some doubt about this.

Soprani and Dallape did not know each other and never met, but they both had the same intuition as far as the development of the musical instrument is concerned; first improving the Viennese patent, succeeded in making the instrument known in all areas of the country; the second prepared the way for the modern accordion by applying basic innovations.

From these two centers of development, but especially from Castelfidardo, the construction of the accordion expanded very quickly, also thanks to the large number of craftsmen who first worked in the two pioneers’ laboratories and then started production on their own.

During the first years of this century the accordion became better known all over the world. In Western Europe, Russia and in the Americas the accordion was already known but it was the Italian immigrants that have been the real propagators of the accordion; very often those immigrants trying to find a job, especially in the Americas, brought the accordion with them, to make them feel nearer to their homes, to their families and to their far away native country when listening to its music.

The early 1950’s was undoubtedly the golden era of the accordion. As a matter of fact, the instruments exported from Italy totaled 200,000 pieces a year, and the same quantity was exported from Germany. During recent years the development of electronics has had its influence also on our popular instrument Felice Fugazza, a music composer and teacher at the Bologna Conservatory was the first to introduce transistors into the accordion in 1960.

Today the instrument has fans all over the world and it has earned the right of entry into universities and conservatories throughout Europe, China, Russia and South America. Unfortunately in North America the accordion’s appeal has declined since the late fifties and Dr. Joan Cochran Sommers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City teaches the only accordion programs in the U.S. where music majors may use the accordion to earn Baccalaureate through Doctorate degrees.