If you’ve ever wondered ‘what family of instruments is the accordion in’, the answer is not as clear as you’d expect. Let me explain.
The Accordion, or a squeezebox, as the instrument is today called originates from “akkordeon”, a German word that means musical chords.
The air driven free reed aerophone instrument has its origin dating back to the 2nd Millenium BC in Ancient China. The popular opinion is that the modern accordion may have been inspired by the Chinese “Sheng”.
Its form as we know it today originated in the early 19th century, and is credited to Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann, who was also the inventor of the harmonica.
While the detail of the accordion family class is further down this piece, it would be helpful to state that the accordion is a box-type musical instrument that is driven with bellows and uses free-reed aerophones.
A Brief History of the Accordion in Europe and Eurasia
The documentation of the earliest known simple accordions in Europe and Eurasia dates back to the work of two inventors, Ivan Sizov and Timofey Vorontsov, in Tula, a city in Russia.
The making of the simple instrument goes as far back as the 1830s. Unfortunately, there is little documentation for their work. Around the same time in Austria, an Armenian inventor, Cyril Demian made a patent for an instrument called the accordion.
Although he had a bisonoric accordions design, it is not quite like the accordion known today. The accordion reached Germany in the earliest times and reached Britain and America not long after.
A Brief History of the Accordion in America
Germans returned to America from their trips to Germany with accordions. Soon it became popular in the local Germans communities of the Texas-Mexico border and French Louisiana.
The accordion is still a crucial part of music today for the locals in those areas. In 1990, San Francisco made the accordion its official city instrument, following the earthquake of October 1989.
Accordions are part of the Bellows-Driven Instruments Family
Bellows come in forms of varying complexity. The most basic type is a flexible bag made of rigid boards pairs with handles connected by flexible leather sides. The bag has a valve fitted and a tube for air to go in and then out.
The leather side encloses air of about the same amount tightly. The enclosed air then expands or contracts as a player squeezes or releases the bellow.
The two most popular bellow-driven musical instruments are the accordion and the concertina. The concertina is less known than an accordion and is mistaken for the accordion. often
The difference is that the concertina is smaller and hexagonal .
Accordions can also be classfied as free reed instruments
A typical woodwind instrument is composed of different reeds types. Free reed instrument type used commonly in modern instruments like the accordion, concertina, and harmonica has a separate reed plate for reeds.
The attachment to the reed-plate can either be per note or to multiple slots. This reed attachment type is called hetero-glottal.
The sound from a woodwind instrument is then not from the reed itself, but from the air column that the reed sets in motion.
Types of Accordions
Accordions come in different types. Achieving proficiency in one type does not mean an accordionist will be able to do well in others.
There are about 17 different types of accordions, but three main types form the bases for these classifications. The three accordion types are diatonic, chromatic, and keyboard.
The keyboard type, as the name suggests, has piano keys. The diatonic and chromatic accordion, on the other hand, have button boards, so can be collectively called button accordions.
Another crucial thing to note is that most accordion designs have the right-hand side as the treble side (for keys) while the bass side is for the rhythm, hence bass and chord notes.
Accordions design today are not very different from the earliest known basic accordion form.
While the major components remain the same, several innovations have occurred on the systems of voicing, keyboard, and button boards.
Some changes may include replacing functional systems with more electronic ones, as in the case of metallic reeds, while other changes are only to improve performance.
For example, an accordion may include electronic components to make connections to an amplifier possible. An even more important modernization of accordion is the creation of digital accordions.
Digital accordions are electronically modified types of the instrument family. For this accordion, digital features of accordions substitute the typical ones on the left-hand side, and the right remains a button or keyboard.
On operating these sides of the instrument, digital sound modules sampled from original sound are produced. These digitally sampled sounds can cover enough synthetic sound to perform an orchestra.
Piano Accordion Types
Piano accordions are the easiest to discern of all accordion types. The accordion type is recognizable because of the characteristic piano keyboard on the treble side, although the keys release air as part of a woodwind instrument.
The name of the instrument is helpful to recognize it, but it can be misleading as the mechanism it produces sound with is closer to an organ than a piano. The left-hand side can have from eight up to 120 chord buttons.
Piano accordions are the most common of the two types and the most learned by beginners. Resources for self-learning with a piano accordion or under a tutor are also available online, which means the second-hand value is much higher.
In other classifications, accordions are two: the Piano accordion and button accordion types. While a piano accordion is quite distinct with its piano style keyboard, a diatonic accordion might get confused with a chromatic button accordion.
The button key accordion is usually more portable than a piano accordion, so it is preferred to a piano accordion when size matters.
The button accordion is less popular than a piano accordion, so selling a used one can be a hassle. It is easier to learn the button accordion because of its uniform patterns for fingers. But there are more resources for piano accordion learners online and offline.
A diatonic button accordion is closest to the first instrument of Cyril Demian. It is bisonoric and can have up to three rows of buttons, with each tuned to a certain key. This key will have notes referencing the scale.
The notes produce from diatonic button accordions differ with each button, depending on whether the accordionist compresses or expands the bellow.
On the left-hand with bass buttons, bass notes or chords, sometimes both, are produced for the same key of buttons.
These are button accordion types having three to five rows of buttons on the right-hand side. The left-hand side has various musical chords.
This means that unlike a diatonic scale with seven notes to the octave, the chromatic accordion has six notes.
Chromatic accordions have at least one button for a standard note and play in any key, regardless of whether it is sharp, flat, or natural.
Hybrid Accordions and Variants
These are the accordion types with mixed components. Some models are much more standard while others are DIY accordion component mixing, which means changing an accordion’s basic form.
While model mixing can allow for more creativity when you have mastered the accordion types already, it can be a nightmare for a musical chord learner. Having one accordion component out of place is clearly not the right way to start learning.
Hybrid accordions like the British chromatic accordion have a bi sonoric melodious side and a stradella system on the left-hand side. Unlike a free bass system that allows additional bass note, a stradella system only allows bass melodies.
Other accordion variants are the Swiss organ and Trikitixa, which have unisonoric bass buttons.
Accordion Music Genres
The accordion is most commonly associated with folk music, but its use in other genres extends across continents.
From Norteno in Mexico to the ethnic Kikuyu music of Kenya and others.
Like the accordion, numerous wind instruments have also found a way into the pop music of the western world.
Accordions in Folk Music
Traditional folk music was the earliest use of the accordion and still the most common accordion genre. The general impression was that it has a folk instrument, a perception that almost affected its acceptance when first introduced to Americans.
Accordion is one instrument that feels like it suits traditional music best, even though its use extends across genres. It is the most popular melodic instrument in Europe, South America, and North America.
American folk music took a massive early leap with jazz accordionists like Buster Moten of Bennie Moten Orchestra and Jack Cornell. In later years, folk accordionist Orlando DiGirolamo, an American, and others from Europe like Frode Hatli, Bernard Lubat, and Stian Carstensen ran the jazz music shows.
Accordions in Pop Culture
The accordion entered into pop music at the period regarded as the golden era of accordion, a time between the beginning and middle of the 20th century.
The rise of the accordion was at its summit during the Great Depression when major theatres closed, and people depended on radio for entertainment.
Although the use of the woodwind instrument for producing sound continues to this day, the fall of the golden era resulted from shifting interest towards Rock and Roll music.
Popular pacesetter accordion experts in popular music include Yankovic, John Linnen, and Richard Galliano. Together they influence pop-rock and other genres of music today.
Accordions in Classical Music
Classical music was pivotal in popularizing many known free reed instruments. The first accordion classical work was Louise Reisner’s Thême varié très brilliant, written in 1836.
Other famous compositions are the free bass Concerto by John Serry Senior and Howard Skempton’s Drang of 1999.
Components Common to All Accordions
As mentioned previously, the accordion types are so numerous that if professionals at one type fail to practice properly before trying to play another, they would struggle.
Several accordion components remain unchanged across even the best accordion brands types, as other things may be completely different. The most noticeable differentiating factor is the board type on the right-hand manual.
The manufacturing process of these free reed instruments is largely by hand. Individual components are made, then assembled, and finished with decorative packaging.
The bellows movement is crucial to the functioning of all accordions. The level of compression or expansion the bellow gets from an accordionist directly determines how it will produce sound inside the instrument.
Bellows produce the vacuum and pressure that drives air through the reeds set, causing the reeds to vibrate. The vibrations produced from the reeds give the characteristic accordion sounds.
The bellow is made of pleated cloth and cardboard layers joined with leather and metals and positioned between each side of the hand manuals.
Other things that the bellow determines in the musical instrument include producing a clear, no resonance tone, and controlling the volume.
Generally, an accordion is made of two wooden boxes joined by a bellow. Each wooden box contains reed chambers for manuals on each side.
An accordion today has a wooden body and a wood or plastic core. The accordion will also have metal tuning pegs and standard brass string.
For more natural-sounding accordion, a material for acoustic dampening is usually filled into the sound chamber.
Accordions come in different sizes. The cause of this size difference is the number of bass rows and playing range the accordion has.
Diatonic accordions with one or two bass rows and a single right-hand manual octave would not normally be as large as a piano accordion of the standard 120-bass accordion model.
Aerophone Pallet System
An accordion is a woodwind instrument using the pallet system, meaning it works by manually allowing air to flow through the free reeds inside it, and also by making airflow stop.
Aerophones are instruments producing sound when the free reeds inside them vibrate. Other instruments of the free reed aerophone type include the mouth organ and the French horn.
When an accordion player presses a key or button, the pallet lifts, making air go into the tone chamber to cause reeds to vibrate. The direction of the airflow is then controlled by the bellows when squeezed.
Components That Differiate Accordions
Apart from similar components on all free reeds instruments, some accordions differ from others with a few changes that matter enough to make them get a unique classification.
For instance, Not all these acoustic instruments have switches. They all have reed ranks if we do not consider digital accordions, but the reed ranks are different. The detail of these differences is clarified below.
Right-Hand Manual System
For many accordion makers, the right-hand box is for the melodious bass. It may have buttons or a piano keyboard depending on what an accordionist prefers. But it can also play chords if an accordionist desires to have it.
Left-Hand Manual System
The left-hand manual system is associated with taking the supplementary chords role. But can be made to one of three category systems: the stradella, free bass, or the Belgian bass system.
Switches and Reed Ranks
The reeds are the internal component of the accordion that vibrates to give sounds. The makers arranged the reeds to form reed banks, which are then arranged as the timbres-producing registers.
The registers are set to go from high register to low register.
Switches are only usually present in large accordions. While most large accordions have treble switches, high-end accordions have bass switches as an additional option.
Accordions have switches to control the reed bank combination that works. Each register stop has its sound timbre, with many variations in octaves or how different octaves are mixed.
The Final word on Accordion musical instrument categorization
From a long history that may date back to the Chinese “Sheng” to the various Hi-tech forms in which the modern accordions come today, there is no denying how well the accordion has stayed relevant.
The seemingly unpresuming family of box shaped musical instruments has been a mainstay throughout the evolution of modern music. From the piano accordions, whose keys release air when hit to other forms and hybrids of this instrument, musicians continue to explore.
It is relevant across music genres in different world cultures and continues to grow in popularity both in solo and orchestral performances.
My introduction to accordion music was by way of Zydeco and Tex-Mex music. Once I got my hands on my very own squeezebox, I was hooked. Let me tell you, playing the accordion is every bit as fun as listening to it. Thanks for joining me in my exploration of the awesome world of accordions and all its amazing versions!