The Accordion is one of the most unique yet underrated musical instruments today. While many people believe its basic form was invented in Vienna in 1829, other sources credit the Chinese Cheng for what the accordion is today and mostly because they share the same sound source that is, the free reed.
What is an Accordion?
An accordion is a box-shaped musical instrument that comes from a bellow-driven, reedless aerophone family. It has keys like a piano, but is held by the accordionist when playing. The instrument produces sound when you press the keys or buttons and at the same time, compress or expand the bellows. Buttons or keys are played on the right and left side. Today, the accordion is popular in various music styles worldwide.
How to Play an Accordion?
Playing an accordion requires nimble fingers yet a sharp and calm mind. The instrumental has quite a complicated structure with various important internal features and three main external parts which include:
- The treble keyboard which is located on the right hand side of the accordion when you are holding it. It is similar to that of a piano’s keyboard, and comes with black and white keys which vary depending on the size of the instrument. The bigger it is, the more keys it will have, thus allowing you to play more tunes.
- The bass keyboard is on the left side of the accordion when you hold it in the proper position. It comprises of a variety of buttons arranged in accordance with the families of notes. Each button plays a specific bass chord or note when pressed.
- The bellows are situated in the middle or “heart” of the instrument. The bellows are particularly important as they help in air circulation through the reeds inside the instrument. It is imperative to ensure that bellows stay airtight and not get weakened or over-stressed. Your accordion will usually have one or two straps for holding the bellows close. Even when the instrument is not in use, make sure the straps are fastened
Additional important parts include:
- The air button is typically found near the bass buttons. When you push it, a valve opens which facilities the operation of the bellows without allowing air to flow through the reeds. This is important, especially if you don’t want to produce any sound when opening or closing the bellows.
- Couplers are additional large buttons or keys found on most accordions just above the bass board and keyboard. They change the selection of reeds being played and thus produce different modes of sound.
- Reeds are an internal part of the accordion and are fixed at one end and free at the other to allow vibration. The sounds produced by the accordion are a result of air being forced through the reeds when you push the bellows, causing them to vibrate. Different chords and notes are produced when air flows through various combinations of reeds when you press different buttons and keys.
- Every accordion comes with two protective shoulder straps that circle around the shoulders to help the player in holding the instrument as close to his body as possible. For added support and correct position, you can also get a third strap that links the two shoulder straps at the back. If you have a larger accordion, it is best if you use a middle strap to distribute the instrument’s weight evenly.
Interesting Facts about Accordions
- The accordion is widely used in folk music, pop music, jazz, zydeco, classical, and dance-pop.
- An accordion is a complex structure of different configurations
- The pitch of a unisonoric accordion remains the same, regardless of the direction in which you move the bellows.
- You can play the bisonoric accordion at different pitches. You have to manipulate the direction of the bellows to produce the desired sound.
- Manual accordions designed for right-handed players can feature a keyboard similar to a piano, or a diatonic or chromatic board.
- Accordion music can be found in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Canada, the United States, South America, Europe, and various other places.
- The bellows are a segment of cloth, leather, metal and cardboard positioned between the two manuals (buttons and keyboards). The bellows are contracted and expanded by the player, which then creates pressure and vacuum and pushes the air through the chambers of the reeds to produce sound.
- The accordion can withstand its harsh surroundings and has a longer lifespan that most instruments.
- The first men ever to play the accordion were Abe Goldman, Joe Biviano and Gene von Halberg at the famous Carnegie Hall in NYC way back in 1939.
- In 1990, more than 75,000 people were classified as accordionists in the United States.
- Pietro Deiro, an Italian accordionist, is known as the father of the accordion. Deiro made a name for himself during the vaudeville era in San Francisco. His rising popularity led to RCA Victor Records offering him a contract.
- Various cities in the US have declared the accordion as their official instrument! Examples include Detroit, St. Paul, and Skokie. San Francisco officially considers piano accordion as its instrument.
- Even at present day, a majority of accordions are hand-made as compared to being manufactured by machinery. Although some parts are machine-made, most of its construction is carried out by skilled craftsmen.
- Weird Al Yankovic, a Grammy-winning parodist, uses his accordion to incorporate polkas into his work.
- The accordion is affectionately known as a “squeezebox”
- The accordion goes by different names worldwide, including the “trepskill” in Norway, “Fisarmonica” in Italy, “bayan” in Russia and “Sun Fin Chin” in China.
- The Soviet Union once aired a TV show called ‘Play Your Accordion’
- The Accordion’s golden years were the 1900s to 1960s.
- Wax plays a key role in a full hand-made accordion. Various areas that comprise of wax include the bass sides, mount keypads, and treble.
The accordion has a fascinating history.
Man has always sought to imitate the human voice with musical instruments. One of the most likely ways to get there was to go with the free or swing reed.
The free reed as a sound source was already used in antiquity.
The Chinese used it for the Cheng more than 2,000 years ago.
Shortly before the invention of the accordion there were many experiments conducted with the free reed. These bizarre instruments all had names derived from the Aeolian, such as the MundEolian, which means a mouth Aeolian.
Seen above, the plate with its reeds which was housed inside the hunting aeolian (top left)
Following these experiments with the free reed, Friedrich Buschmann invented the harmonica in 1821. He then called it Aura.
In addition to wanting to imitate the human voice, man also sought to develop musical instruments capable of accompanying the human voice.
The musician playing the Buschmann harmonica, could not sing at the same time and we will see later how Cyril Demian, the inventor of the accordion, found the solution to this problem by adding bellows.
Above, we can see that the reedblock inside our accordions are real harmonicas.
Here is the Englishman Charles Wheatstone’s SYMPHONIUM in 1825.
We can see here that the musician had to blow into the instrument just like the harmonica, to produce the wind necessary to activate the reeds which were inside the instrument. But Wheatstone had the ingenuity to add buttons on either side of the instrument. We will see later how he created the concertina by adapting a bellows to his symphonium.
Cyril Demian’s akkordion
But it was the Austrian Cyril Demian who was the first to adapt a bellows to the harmonica.
In order to compete with Buschmann’s harmonica which could not be used as an accompaniment instrument, he made it so that each of the 5 keys gave two chords. A different chord depending on whether you push or pull the bellows.
This is what we call the DIATONIC system. From there on, all accordions will be diatonic until the adoption of the chromatic system around 1900. Although more developed than Demian’s accordion, diatonic accordions are still widely used today. They are found especially in traditional or folk music.
And now, guess where the accordion got its name from?
Because Cyril Demian’s first instrument produced only chords, he therefore quite simply named it Akkordion (with two “k” instead of two “c” as in French or English.)
It immediately had a big success since it could be used to accompany the singers, something the harmonica was unable to achieve.
Established in New York in 1924, the Excelsior Company has long been serving the market with great accordions. The company considered expansion of their production and sales in 1948 and since then, excellent sound, quality and fine look of the Excelsior accordions have been appreciated all over the world. It was in fact noted in one of the resources that the greatest popularity of Excelsior accordions was reached after the Second World War as they became a “must” for any big orchestra with Charles Magnante and Art Van Damme as a few among the many popular accordionists who prefer Excelsior.
As commonly claimed, all of the professional models of Excelsior accordions are very prestigious instruments. The selection ranges from the top-quality 960 (922 in button), highlighting tone chamber or cassoto and five sets of reeds that appear both in treble and bass, to the lighter 911 with 610 in button that is recommended to folk and modern music players. Aside from that, there was the glorious AC, popularly known as “Continental”, which has long been deemed as the one of the best accordions ever made in all times. Specifically, this model boasts its hand made sets of reeds in treble and six in bass, tone chamber, and lightest keyboard. It is these features which sets the Excelsior Continental the most appreciated by jazz and classic music lovers.
On the semi-professional side of Excelsior accordions, it is worth noting that all of the Excelsior accordions under this category are deigned and crafted according to the same quality standards applied to professional accordion manufacturing. It also covers a wide range of models which generally offered matches to any requirement that the forthgoing students or experienced amateur may have.
Just recently, Excelsior proudly introduced their new Conservatory series that is composed of six new mid priced convertor accordions. This particular series of Excelsior accordion was actually produced after many years of cooperation with teachers and professionals as well as by using only the quality materials and skilled craftsmen. This series is now well-known for its superb tonal quality and elegance that are coupled with its reasonable price.
The Excelsior accordion company today goes ahead in its tradition of quality and prestige, but all of their products are still crafted with selected materials and in accordance to the best traditional craftsmanship approaches as well. As you may know, to own an Excelsior accordion these days is like owning a prestigious instrument and following the path of the best accordion players of the past and present.
We often hear about accordionists accustomed to playing on chromatic accordions who have a chromatic accordion made from a piano accordion body. What are the reasons that lead them to make this choice and what is the difference between the two options? This article tries to make the point. (more…)