The accordion is a free reed aerophone, a classification that also includes concertinas, bandoneons, harmoniums, harmonicas, and melodicas. All free reed instruments are descendants of a several-thousand-year old Chinese instrument called a sheng. The accordion appears to have been invented in Berlin in 1822, though the first instrument by that name was patented in Vienna in 1829. The first accordions were quite simple, and the instrument has since evolved into a highly intricate machine consisting of over 4,000 individual components, more than that of a grand piano.
Common Types of Accordions
An accordion with a “piano”-style keyboard. This became the dominant type in North America in the twentieth century because of its accessibility to pianists.
Chromatic Button Accordion
A chromatic (twelve notes per octave) accordion with a right-hand keyboard of three to five rows of round buttons. There are two systems, which are mirror images of each other. The “C” system is popular in Western Europe, particularly Scandinavia and France, whereas the “B” system, also known as bayan, is preferred in Russia.
Diatonic Button Accordion
A smaller accordion with a button keyboard that is limited to playing in a certain key or keys. Most DBAs are bisonoric, meaning each button plays a different note depending on the direction of the bellows. DBAs come in a wide range of types and are used in folk music all over the world.
The Bass Buttons
Many people are frightened and/or awestruck when confronted by the seemingly endless landscape of identical little buttons on the left side of the accordion, yet they needn’t be so. It’s all quite manageable if one is familiar with one of the fundamental principles of Western music, the circle of fifths. 120 bass buttons is considered standard full size, though some accordions have more. 96, 80, 72, 60, 48, 32, 24, 12, and 8 bass accordions are also common. Anything with less than 48 bass buttons is essentially a toy and should be avoided, and 72+ bass buttons are recommended. The following applies only to piano and chromatic button accordions, as diatonic accordions have far fewer buttons, and use a different system.
By far the most common bass system, with buttons arranged vertically in fifths. The two rows of buttons closest to the bellows are bass notes. The second row is known as the primary bass row. The first row is the counter bass row, and is a major third above the primary bass row. The next four rows, moving outward, are preset major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords, respectively. All are three-note chords as the seventh and diminished, ordinarily four-note chords, lack a fifth in all but very old accordions. Many chord combinations are possible, such as minor seventh, major seventh, minor ninth, major ninth, eleventh, minor sixth and more, if one knows a little music theory. Since the bass buttons cannot easily be seen by the player, accordionists orient themselves by touch using the C bass button, which will have either an indentation or a rhinestone in the center, as a reference point. Many accordions also have markers on the E and A flat buttons.
A left hand system in which all buttons play individual notes, rather than chords. This allows for a great range of chord voicing, as well as complex left hand melodic playing. Virtually anything that can be played on a piano can be played on a free-bass accordion. These are generally high-end instruments played by professional classical accordionists. A converter bass mechanism is one that has both Stradella and free-bass capabilities.
Different Reed Configurations and Tunings
The vast majority of accordions have two to four sets of reeds in the treble, and four to five sets in the bass. The more sets of reeds an accordion has, the more tonal possibilities and, generally, the more weight and cost. A bank of register switches mounted above the keyboard allows the player to choose different combinations of reeds, like the stops on an organ. The treble (keyboard) side of a full size, professional accordion will have a low set of reeds – called bassoon, a middle set of reeds an octave above – usually called clarinet, and a high set of reeds, tuned yet another octave above – called piccolo. In addition, there will be a second middle set of reeds, sometimes tuned in unison with the first set, but often tuned a little bit sharp, giving the tone a shimmering, tremolo effect. This is called “wet” or musette tuning. An accordion with only one middle set of reeds, or with the middle reeds tuned in unison is called “dry”. The amount of desired wetness can vary greatly for different styles of music and for different people’s ears. Some accordions have three middle sets of reeds, all tuned a bit apart from each other for a very wet sound. This is called “true musette” or “French musette”, and is mainly used for French cafe music.