How Accordions Work: The Definitive Guide (2021)

You are captivated by the enchanting accordion sound that instantly transforms the entire place into a lively, groovy, and surreal experience.

Suddenly, it sparks your interest in learning how to play it.

In this article, we will establish a basic understanding of how accordions work. You will not only get to know the parts and types of accordions, but you will also start practicing your musical skill in no time.

What is an Accordion

Accordion, also named a Squeezebox, is a handy square-like musical apparatus that makes sound through bellows. It comprises a bass casing and treble casing that comes with an exterior piano type button or key.

It is one of the free reed instruments along with the harmonium and American reed organ.

Accordionists use these musical devices in different musical genres such as Irish music, Tango, Zydeco, Cajun music, Conjunto, and Musette and Chanson,

Although they are used widely, many people still wonder how these classic devices operate.

 How Accordions Work

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Accordions come with unique variants. They are designed for different individual needs and musical preferences. If the user is experienced in piano, a piano accordion is best for him or her.

Here are the three primary components of an accordion.

The right-hand– comes with a piano key or button layout

The bellows – serves as a bow that can produce sound

The left-hand – comes with chord and bass notes

The right-hand manual shows the fundamental difference among accordions. You will either see a piano-designed keyboard for piano accordions or a set of button boards for button accordions.

Button accordions are further classified into chromatic and diatonic styles.

Diatonic accordions possess up to three lines of buttons on the right-side manuals. Each set of buttons is tuned to a particular key that corresponds to a single note. Different melodies are being played as the bellows expand or contract.

Diatonic accordions are bisonoric as they produce different sounds based on the movement of the bellows.

Meanwhile, chromatic accordions possess three to five lines of buttons on the right-hand manual. Contrary to the diatonic style, these sets of buttons tune to a particular note whether the bellows are expanding or contracting.

Chromatic accordions are unisoric as they produce similar sounds whether pushed or pulled.

If you want to play a similar tone, go for a piano accordion or a chromatic button accordion as they are both unisoric. Otherwise, a diatonic button accordion is an excellent choice for playing different notes.

The left-hand manual accompanies the sound played on the right- part. This applies to both the piano accordion and the button accordion. The buttons are classified into two:

  • Free bass – make a single sound
  • Chord – make three unique sounds to form major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords.

While the right keys are connected to different pallets, this part does not anchor to any.

Once you press the key, the mechanical system will work to activate a set of notes.

For instance, when you press C major, C, E, and G notes will operate. When you press G major, the corresponding notes will naturally activate G, B, and D.

One key can play the complete chord.

You can play the accordion by pushing or pulling the bellows while simultaneously pressing keys or buttons. The pushing and pulling motion causes the pallets to naturally unlock, permitting the air to pass through the reeds.

Accordion builders tune the reeds manually, and every note may activate one to four reeds. Remember, the more reeds activated, the louder the volume.

The air reaching the reeds causes vibration within the instrument. On the opposite reed of each note rests the valves. These valves make the reeds louder while preventing the air to leak from each reed block.

The accordionist plays the melody on the right using finger buttons or keys and the accompaniment such as bass and chords on the opposite end.

To further comprehend the whole dynamics, let us look at some of its most important facts.

Piano Accordions

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The piano accordion is a portable music device with piano keyboards attached to the treble casing part in the right-side manual.

It is equipped with a right side keyboard that resembles an organ or piano. The acoustic mechanism is closer to an organ than a piano because they are both wind instruments.

Usually, a full-sized piano accordion comprises 41 treble keys and roughly over three octaves of notes. The treble part of the piano accordion contains the batch of buttons for bass accompaniment.

Meanwhile, a full-size piano comprises 120-buttons, and other kinds have 140 buttons. Free bass, Stradella bass, or French 3-3 are examples of bass systems.

For a beginner, piano accordions can go with a 12 bass. It possesses 12 bass keys on the left part and two-octave keys on the right. Commonly, a full-sized piano-style key is ranging in between a low F to a high A.

The left-hand side of the accordion is the accompaniment notes that comprise bass and chords.

The piano accordion is classified as unisoric. Regardless of the direction of the bellow, it can still produce the same sound.

When you expand or pull the bellows, it will produce the same note.

It is the most popular type of accordion in the West. Any beginner prefers this type because of its availability and ease of operating. Most piano accordionist uses this in folk music.

Piano Keyboard

It is a feature of a piano accordion that has keys resembling that of a regular piano. They usually attach the piano keys to the treble casing on the right side.

The keyboards are usually smaller, rounder, and lighter to touch, unlike in a regular piano.

Once the piano key is pressed, it will produce sound as long as the bellows are in motion. Note that the sound will emerge regardless of the motion.

Left Hand Side of the Accordion

This part of an accordion is naturally used to match the tunes played on the right-hand. It has 120 key buttons that are used to back up the main melody emerging from the right-hand manual.

As mentioned above, buttons on the left hand are divided into two – bass keys and chord keys.

The free bass keys produce a singular pitch while the chord keys produce multiple pitches.

Right Hand Side of the Accordion

It is the part of an accordion that is where the keyboards or buttons are attached. These keys or buttons determine the sound that your instrument produces.

Once you move the bellows, either by pushing or pulling and press any key or button, a distinct sound will naturally emerge.

The right-hand part of each accordion varies depending on its type. For piano accordions, piano keys are attached to its treble surface. While for button accordions, a set of buttons are found.

In piano accordions, the keys are usually harder to reach. You can only reach it by your hands once you’re used to it. They are naturally smaller compared to a piano.

Now, it’s time to check the different parts of the accordion in a detailed manner.

Components of an Accordion

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In this section, I will set down the universal parts present in almost any kind of accordion.

1. Bellows

Bellows serve as the “lungs” of the musical device as it causes its expansion and contraction. This motion creates not only sound but also defines how individual note sounds. It determines the length, control, and thinning of the sound.
For instance, using bellows vigorously and forcefully in a brief period will generate blaring sounds. In reverse, if you use it slowly and gently, it will create a milder frequency.

Bellows are part of the accordion that you can easily see.

It is made of cloth and pleated cardboard, fortified with metal and leather. It rests at the center of the accordion, in between the bass casings and treble casings.

Constricting the bellows movement produces air pressure. Expanding it generates a space. This constant contraction and expansion allow the air to naturally pass along the free-reed, which causes it to vibrate and create a frequency.

2. Reeds

Free-reeds permit the accordion sound naturally. It sits inside the square metal covering. There is a maximum of six reed blocks inside any accordion.
Inside the reed block is a steel or brass-made set of reeds that are protected by valves. The tip of the reed block gradually thins out.

Both the treble casing and the bass casing contain reed blocks for sound creation. Reed blocks also link the treble side and the bass side. Playing both the treble side and bass side allows you to experience chords and melody all at once.

3. Keyboards and Buttons

Most accordions include both piano keys and buttons. But there are kinds of musical instruments that only come with bass buttons.

If you hold piano keys on the treble side, it will unlock the pallets that shield the reeds. Once the pallets open, they transmit the air from the bellows going to the reeds. This process makes the reed vibrate naturally.

However, if you hold the bass button, it unlatches a group of rods and levers linked to the button. It causes sounds.

Many accordions possess special keys known as the air button. If you press the air button, the bellows will move to bring no sound. It allows you to manage the sound that you want to generate.

4. Switches

Switches refer to the tabs for changing the tonality of your accordion’s voice. You can switch the frequency from high to low or from deep to shallow. They are positioned on both sides of the bellows.
The count of switches in your accordion is contingent on the count of reed blocks. More reed blocks equate to more switches and more options for sound quality.

Reed blocks come with multiple registers. If you press a particular switch, the reed block causes the specific register to operate.

It is helpful if you want to mix and match multiple sounds.

Playing different sounds at once, while applying switches, can give a distinctive sound effect on the timbre called the tremolo effect. They use this kind of effect in French, Mexican, Irish, Italian, and German folk music.

5. Air valves

Air valves are on the treble end, guarding the reeds. The function of air valves is to release the air and adjust the bellows while making no sound.

6. Bass button position

The standard bass system, also called the Stradella Bass System is the button arrangement that most accordions follow. In this system, buttons are set out like this: C – G – D – A – E – B – F.  This is the most common format for 120 buttons where they are naturally grouped into six.
Small musical devices have lesser columns. Let’s say, instead of six, it has four.

In the European zone, the circle of fifths is a popular free bass accordion that focuses on single notes buttons. They arranged the buttons ranging from four to five registers in chromatic order.

Types of Accordion

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Accordions vary in different aspects. Some have buttons, while others have piano keyboards only.

Read on the list of the most known accordion types.

1. Piano accordion

Piano accordions have piano keyboards on the right side. It is like the typical piano in style and form.

2. Button accordions

The button accordion has buttons on the right side that have different configurations. But every button accordion possesses a single note button and chord and brass buttons.

3. Bisonoric accordion

It generates two distinct tones when you hold the button. The bellows movement (whether pushed in or pulled out) dictates the sound effects.

4. Diatonic Accordion
Most diatonic accordions possess an individual or several lines of buttons that only play limited keys. For example, a model with three rows of buttons comes with keys, such as C, F, G keys or Eb, B, and F keys. Other keys are also available.

5. Chromatic accordion

In this type of accordion, both the treble and the bass side are pressable. The bass keyboard of chromatic type is of the same arrangement as the piano accordion. It is adjustable with any tone range.

6. Digital accordion

Digital, also called electronic accordion, or MIDI comprises onboard microchips.
Some versions still have free-reed while some do not.

Most digital accordions are MIDI controllers. It means that the keys are naturally soundless if there’s no sound module.

This type of accordion is close to traditional accordions on the exterior, but once you play it, you will observe the difference. It can generate multiple types of frequencies, incorporate effects such as reverb and chorus.

It is also compatible with MIDI. If you are an accordionist who wants electronic MIDI power in your system, you may need a hybrid acoustic-electronic converter.

7. Concertina

Concertina is a portable, dense-sized instrument for travelers.
It comes with different systems such as Anglo, German, English, and Duet concertinas. This kind of accordion can be unisonoric or bisonoric.

Aside from the most sought-after types, there are also peculiar types of accordions. Let us get to know them.

Types of Hybrid Accordions

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1. Pedal harmony

It is often used in Poland for their traditional music. It consists of bellows that resemble a pump organ.

2. Bandoneon

It is a bigger variant of the concertina that requires support on the knees during musical concerts.

3. Bayan

Bayan is a Russin chromatic button accordion that comprises broader and more rectangular reeds compared to western button accordions.

4. MIDI accordion

MIDI accordion is a multifaceted musical device that has channels for both the treble and the chords. Sometimes the treble channel for MIDI is double.
If you own a MIDI, you can choose various sounds.

MIDI comprises conventional acoustic elements with sensors and circuits that transform button presses and bellows, pushing and pulling into MIDI messages.

Many accordionists prefer the MIDI accordions, because of their acoustic-electric element.

MIDI is purely digital. That is why it is ideal for the tech-savvy, young accordionist.

5. British Chromatic Accordion

This is the most-favored accordion-type in Scotland. The left part resembles the Stradella system, while the right side mimics the bisonoric.
This type has a premium variant which is the “Shand Morino”.

6. Trikitixa

Trikitixa, also called trikitiis the national musical instrument of the Basque country. It is one of the diatonic instruments that go in two rows.

7. Schwyzerorgeli

This hybrid type is exclusive in Switzerland. That is why it is termed a Swiss organ.

8. Steirische Harmonika

Steirische Harmonika is a bisonoric, diatonic button accordion that produces richer bass notes and an individual pitch.

9. Schrammel Accordion

This instrument merges the tonality of clarinet and violins.

10. Russian Garmon

This type is a button accordion that is widely used in Russia, Georgian people, and the Mari folk in the Ural and Volga region. It is also recognized in Slovenia, the United States, and Europe.

How to Play the Accordion

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It requires ample time for rehearsal to craft a lovely musical composition, but we are not here for mastery.

Let us first deal with the basics.

Step by step guide to playing the accordion

Step # 1: Hold your accordion properly

Hold your accordion in a manner that your chest is supporting it. Ensure that the keyboards or buttons are facing the other direction.

Step # 2: Try to move around while holding your accordion

Try moving while carrying the instrument to test which position allows you to move naturally.

Step # 3: Maintain a great body posture

Avoid slouching while holding the accordion. Sometimes, slouching causes people to perform less naturally.

Step # 4: Learn how to balance

The accordion is a little bulky. You must learn how to keep your balance while carrying it.

Proper balance helps you play the instrument naturally.

Step # 5: Anchor the instrument into your body

Using an accordion strap, you can secure the instrument into your body.

Ensure that the piano keyboard is on your right side, and your other hand is entangled on the strap.

Keep in mind that the strap is adjustable. You can adjust its length to match your body while still leaving enough room to move naturally.

Some straps are like those in a back bag. They keep your shoulder in balance while holding the accordion in a proper alignment.

Step # 6: Place your right wrist near the keyboard

Position your right wrist near the keyboard. Keep your elbow near your body and avoid flexing your wrist.

Step # 7: Slide your hand through the strap

Find the strap below the treble button board. Gently slide your left hand with it. Ensure your fingers are free to move naturally over the bass keyboard.

Your right wrist must naturally rest above the keyboard.

Step # 7: Hold down the air valve

Search for a single notes button and hold it down. Pull your accordion with your left hand while pushing it. It is normal to hear a buzzing sound as the bellows unclench, and the air flows naturally through the instrument.

Avoid pushing the keyboard while you open or close the bellows.

Step # 8: Play the bass button first

Experiment with your instrument. Monitor the bass side. You may notice that the bass buttons generate both bass chords and notes.

The buttons on the left play three-note chords, or vamps naturally.

Press the bass button shortly. Imagine a fire where you keep your finger off abruptly. It will produce sound that naturally captures attention.

This effect is known as staccato.

Step # 9: Learn how to navigate the instrument by hand

Refrain from looking at the bass button. You won’t see them because of the position of the instrument. Just practice navigating your accordion by hand.

Step # 10: Look for the note C

Note C button rests on the upper rows of buttons 8,12,16, 24, 36 of all bass accordions. It recedes and is almost invisible.

The location of the C note depends on the instrument type or model.

Step # 11: Get comfortable with your accordion’s bass buttons

Study the first columns of your bass buttons.

Your accordion might have several columns, but regardless, you will focus on the first two or three.

Step # 12: Position your index finger on the C note

Once your index finger is pointing at the C note, insert your thumb below it and press the button near the bass note C.

Ste # 13: Pull out the bellows

After pulling out the bellows, push the C bass note and the C chord buttons simultaneously to create a sound of omm-pah.

When pulling the bellows, do it gently to generate an effect that sounds naturally.

Step # 14: Try to produce a Waltz rhythm

The sound of Waltz is like 1,2,3 or oom – pah- pah. To simulate this beat, play the C note on the initial beat, then push the button close to the C major chord to let the sound flow naturally.

Play the succeeding two bass buttons above and below the previous ones that you’ve just studied.

After that, it is time to work with other buttons such as F and G. F button is below the C, and the G button is found above the C.

When playing the F bass button, play the bass note F and the F major chord button.

When playing the G bass button, play the G bass button and the G major chord.

Most of the time, repeat playing every chord many times before shifting. In this way, you can produce a simple accompaniment or vamp that flows naturally.

Step # 15: Incorporate the bellows

Gently pull the bellows while simultaneously pushing the buttons. You can repeat it many times to practice.

Step # 16: Rehearse the right-hand keyboard using some exercises

Try a keyboard exercise that will help you generate your initial sound sequence naturally.

Inflate your accordion’s bellows

Slowly place it back and press the first C key

Keep your finger on the note key while navigating directions by pulling the accordion on the other side.

Proceed to the next key. Keep pushing in and pulling out.

Work in the next white keys separately. Play Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Si, Do. These are the C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C notes.

Step # 17: Perform a right-hand chord exercise

Place and leave your fingers on the keys. Put your thumb on the C and your little finger on the G. Start with E using your third finger.

Step # 18: Keep on rehearsing on a steady note

Record the time duration of your rhythm to determine the right move for a steady tempo. One way to do this is to rehearse using a metronome.

Step # 19: Play bass buttons and the right-hand chords at once

After practicing on both the bass button and the right-hand chords, play them simultaneously.

Play the C major bass button chord and the C bass note. Keep doing this until you get to the beat that flows naturally.

Gradually incorporate the right side C major chords. This right-side chord can go along with the bass button chords.

At first, you may experience challenges in the coordination of both hands. Just keep on practicing until it flows naturally.

Playing accordion is like playing other musical instruments. It takes a lot of practice, but once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature.

Accordions Are Used All Over The World

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The accordion is a very sophisticated instrument. Some accordionists from distinct cultures use this instrument.

In Latin America, specifically Brazil, Panama, Columbia, and Mexico, they use it for popular music.

In North America and European regions where most accordion users live, they synchronize it with jazz, folk, and cajun music.

San Francisco, California, recognizes the accordion as the official musical city instrument.

Accordion FAQ

Does this instrument come with different color choices?

Yes, accordions come in different colors. You can choose which instrument color you like. You also have the flexibility for design, form, and texture.

Why do accordions differ in size and weight?

Size and weight vary because of different needs, body types of users, unique preferences, and the music people want to play.

Most of the time, better quality accordion instruments possess a lighter overall mass.

What is the exterior of accordions made of?

Usually, it is made of cellulose. But they make some of them from other materials.

What is the purpose of the switches?

Switches turn off or open different blocks of reeds to modify the sounds of the instrument. So basically, it is a switch to change the sound.

What is the difference in reed quality?

There are different reeds. Some are handmade, while others are machine-generated.

The raw materials and the quality of manufacture define the overall quality of the reed.

Why do some accordions have piano style keys while others have buttons?

There are many types and shapes of keyboards in accordions.

Diatonic button accordions have buttons on both left and right parts. But as the instruments improved, the users wanted more options and notes. That is why chromatic systems developed both keyboards and buttons.

How accordions are tuned?

It is done by eliminating the mass from both the edge of the base of the reed.

Where are these instruments manufactured?

They manufacture accordions in different counties. Most of them are from Austria, France, Paris, Russia, Italy, China, and Czechoslovakia. The USA also contributes to its global supply.

Are there any famous accordion users?

Countless users, artists, composers, and singers are using accordion. Some of the most popular are Diero, Piazzolla, Frosini, Chaikon, Molinari, and Zolatariew.

Hugo Hermann, the author of Sieben Neue Spielmusiken, is one popular accordionist in 1927.

What country do accordions originate from?

Thousands of years ago, it was originated in China. It was called the Cheng, a free-reed instrument.

It was later patented in Austria. The first big volume production took place in Italy.

Why do accordions sound differently?

There are different types of accordions and these types come with different reed sizes (octaves) and tuning.

The quality of materials used in the building also affects the tonality of the accordion.

Do accordions need regular maintenance?

Not really. It depends on how the user takes care of the instrument. How he or she plays it and how often it is used.

If your accordion is used improperly, then occasional maintenance can increase its lifespan.

But it should be serviced and cleaned roughly every two to three years.

Can I replace or repair my accordion bellows?

Yes, they can be repaired and replaced. But if you are going to replace your accordion bellows, it must fit the original wood frame of the instrument.

Is there an accordion for the left-handed?

Yes. Some accordions are specially designed for the lefties. The keyboards are on the left side.

What makes the accordion different?

What sets the accordion apart from other instruments are the reeds and bellows. The bellows make it possible to have a total range of expressions and notes.

The Future of Accordion Music

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The future is bright for the accordion industry. This versatile instrument improves every day. Therefore, it becomes more and more popular across different countries.

Accordion manufacturers are working closely with the music industry leaders, composers, and performers to make the most of this instrument.

Several top conservatories like the Royal Academy of Music offer classical music lessons on their curriculum. The list of similar conservatories and schools are still growing.

Nowadays, most of the new repertoire uses accordion. These include Franck Angelis’ beautiful Fantasia on Astor Piazzolla’s theme ‘Chiquilin de Bachin’.

The accordion is here to stay, and it will continue to influence and grow the music industry in the world.

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