Where does the accordion come from?

From the book: The History of the Accordion in New Zealand

The Chinese Cheng, which was introduced to Europe in 1777, is widely regarded as the instrument that sparked the idea of ​​developing an accordion.
Early reed instrumentsIn 1821 Häckel in Vienna and shortly after him Buschmann in Germany invented hand-blown instruments from the family of free-voice bellows instruments. Buschmann added bellows and a button keyboard a year later to create his "Handaeoline" which is probably the first clearly identifiable ancestor of the modern accordion. In 1829 Demian added additional chords to the bass and patented it as an "accordion". From 1830 onwards, Charles Buffet in Belgium and Fourneax and Busson in France made an accordion that had 10 to 12 upper voices and two bass buttons. Demian also made a type of accordion he called "hand harmonica". An instruction booklet, printed in 1835 by Adolph Müller, listed six types of accordion, all diatonic and in the keys C, D or G.

It seems that the accordion did not have a full (chromatic) note range containing every note until around the 1850s. Wheatstone in England had invented his concertina in 1829 and developed it over the next few decades, but he did not add a piano keyboard to it. This was done by Busson, and he called the result: "Organ accordion". In 1859 this had a three-octave keyboard with upper voices. Both the Wheatstone Concertina of 1844 and the accordion had a unified tone, meaning they were not diatonic or only in It appears that the development and popularity of the Wheatstone Concertina slowed the acceptance of other types of piano accordions in England, at least until the 20th century.


Accordion manufacturerAccordion manufacturing began in the 1860s. Many of the major brand names are still well known today. Steel basses were introduced by Hohner in the Trossingen factory in 1857. Soprani followed in Castelfidardo in 1872 and Dallape in Stradella in 1876. By the early 20th century, a bass system had been developed that used notes and chords in a manner similar to that used by the modern Stradella bass.

The development of the modern accordion continued, refinements were constantly being added, and a number of variants were patented at the end of the 19th century. The Chromatina, developed in Bavaria by G. Mirwald, had four octaves and sound registers. The autophone, patented in New York in 1880, worked automatically with cardboard strips, more or less like a pianola. The bandoneon, a large square type of concertina, was developed by Heinrich Band in the 1840s. It is still very popular in Argentina and is currently becoming more and more popular in Europe.

The Flutina Polka, patented by Busson in 1851, had two registers of reeds. In 1854, Leterne von Paris patented a similar instrument with only a second set of reeds, tuned slightly differently than the first, which became the first musette-tuned accordion.


developmentsAccordionists will certainly find it interesting that the term "musette" is defined in the dictionary of musical instruments as a generic term for small bagpipes. Several variants and modifications beyond those mentioned were registered for patents in the 19th century, including a pedal accordion! The Merkale that have endured over the years and retained in modern accordions make it a very versatile instrument. These features allow the playing of works written for the accordion and transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments. In recent years the The use of MIDI and electronics has become an important part of accordion development.

As mentioned earlier, today's piano accordion has its roots in what we would now call a type of concertina, with buttons and a piano keyboard. The Stradella Bass System was invented and had two vertical rows of single notes and four vertical rows. Each button activates a fixed chord. This became the most widely used bass system, commonly known as the "Stradella Bass" or "Standard Bass". It is almost universally regarded as one of the best learning systems of all instruments. The Stradella Bass, when combined with a piano keyboard, requires the player to acquire knowledge of the chromatic sequence of the pitch as on the piano keyboard as well as of the relationship between the chords and types of chords, as arranged in fifths on the Stradella Bass. Having single notes and fixed chords available at the same time makes it unique among all musical instruments.


Expansion of the bass range Despite all these improvements, the accordion still had certain limitations, especially for those who wanted to play transcriptions of music written for piano or organ, or music written for accordion that took up more than an octave range in bass. Various changes have been made, some well into the 20th century, extending the bass range from a single octave to several octaves. One way of doing this is by adding some couplers to a Stradella bass that increase each octave by one octave (or 12 semitones). With three or four such couplers, three or four octaves could be achieved, but only one octave at a time .

Some other solutions to these limitations were offered in accordion design, also known as free bass or converter bass. These bass systems convert the preformed chords of the Stradella system into individual notes on specific couplers or switches. This allows a number of octaves of individual notes to be played at the same time. The Stradella system can be switched on again by operating a switch.

The best solution to circumvent the one-octave limitation was to use a converter accordion, which the Stradella system maintains in some of its couplers and converts to single notes in others. This enables the musician to use the Stradella system when it is beneficial, and at the same time allows the use of an expanded range of individual notes when necessary. There were several converter systems that were widely used. One of them is also known as the "Stradella Free Bass" and has the advantage that the player does not have to learn new fingering in order to play the instrument. This system copies the note arrangement from the Stradella system in two consecutive vertical rows, replacing the four chord rows with individual notes. Each of these rows is an octave higher than the two rows before it.

An alternative free bass system to the one just described has an arrangement of individual notes when converted, also described as chromatic. This system often has a few more notes in the bass. The chromatic system requires learning a new fingering in addition to that used for the Stradella bass. A number of other arrangements for chromatic free bass systems are currently in production. There are very few accordions that have enough bass buttons (180) to use both systems at the same time without switching. And the ones that were produced weren't very popular either, because they were too big, too heavy and too expensive.

In addition to several bass alternatives, two upper part keyboards are available; the piano and button keyboard. A number of different button layouts and music are available to suit all types of accordions, whether bass or upper part construction. Some music may suit a particular type of accordion better, and so do the vocal and fingering variants.


voicesThere are two main ways to tune a chord: tuning "straight" and tuning "musette". Most modern accordions have three or four sets of upper reeds and four or five sets of bass reeds; this allows three or four voices for each note on the upper part keyboard. The usual arrangement for a four-reed instrument is two reeds on the prescribed pitch, one reed one octave higher and one reed one octave lower. In a "straight" tuned instrument, these octave reeds are almost exactly one octave apart. An accordion tuned to a musette has one reed tuned to a fixed pitch, one reed one octave lower and the other two reeds tuned a little higher and the other a little lower tuned to the reeds in a fixed pitch. This produces the characteristic French musette sound that is associated with many European traditional and folk music.

Some other accordion developments of the 20th century were the addition of a fifth set of reeds to the upper voice keyboard with one set of a major fifth tuned differently from the other reeds (similar to a five and a quarter footstop on an organ). Aside from the common manual switches, some have been added that can be operated with the player's chin, and switches have been developed that can hold a bass note until they are turned off.


Electronics and MIDI Electronics were first added to accordions before World War II, when a few accordions were wired up so that they could play through an electronic organ. Shortly after the war, electronic accordions had their own box of electronic sound generation, and amplifiers and speakers were developed. Some were electronic only and their reed sound was absent. Others kept conventional reeds and added electronically wired keyboards, an amplifier, and speakers. Some owners added very sophisticated sound equipment such as Lesley speakers and electronic rhythm machines.

The very latest development has been the addition of MIDI to conventional accordions. With a minimum of modification and weight gain, accordions can be equipped with MIDI contacts that attach to the treble and bass keys, which then allow them to be played through MIDI compatible sound equipment. This includes synthesizers, organs, electronic sound modules and electronic pianos. Equipped in this way, an accordion can be just as versatile as a synthesizer. Pressure valves have been developed that allow electronic sounds to be altered and controlled by the bellows pressure, similar to the control of the reeds where the volume is determined by the pressure of the bellows. The MIDI accordion retains its punched reeds and so the accordion sound is preserved as it can be reproduced either with or without accompanying electronic tones.


The future The sound and acoustics of conventional accordions continue to be refined, and even lighter material is used for them. There is no telling where this will lead, but one thing is certain, the accordion of today and tomorrow will be able to do a lot more than the 19th century models from which it evolved.