About the Accordion
The accordion is the most fascinating of all instruments. It is a living, breathing acoustic instrument (close to the woodwind family) and its vibrations can be felt when you are playing it.
It is also a stereo instrument (one sound source is stationery, the other moves), thus producing polyphonic sounds. While complex, it is capable of producing the most beautiful, even soulful sounds and variations in timbre, dynamics and sustain that other instruments can only dream of. Indeed, the accordion is capable of not only being able to sustain notes and chords almost indefinitely, it remains one of the minority of instruments that is capable of playing melody, harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm at the same time. It is totally self-contained, and played as a solo instrument; it can also be played in combination with any other instrument, and it can play in any kind of music genre.
The accordion is also a highly portable instrument (it is even possible to play it while walking), and does not need tuning as often as a piano, with which it is often compared. The accordion takes up far less space than any piano and, like the piano, it can accompany itself.
The basic structure is common to most accordions, which are constructed mainly of wood and metal, with over 3,500 parts in a full-size accordion. The best instruments are largely crafted by hand, using the best available materials to achieve uncompromising tonal beauty and superb workmanship.
The accordion is a broad term for a whole family of instruments, however, with different types for different types of music. There are accordions for classical music (some with a range the same as that of a grand piano); in some coutries, these may also be called Bayan, while others have a piano keyboard for the right hand, and basses witha tonal range of four-and-a-half octaves for the left hand. Other types of accordions are used (and tuned) for jazz, or for general accompamiment, or for Scottish music, or for folk music (these are of a simplerr type)..
An accordion consists of two keyboards, but three principal sections.. There are two main systems of right-hand keyboards; the piano keyboard and the button (or chromatic) keyboard. In the middle is a set of bellows (the air flow is the same for both keyboard), controlled by the left hand. The instrument is ‘worn’ on the body with the use of comfortable shoulder straps, and can be played seated or standing.
The accordion is an acoustic instrument. It is a wind instrument, because it breathes. Air is passed through steel reeds by use of the bellows – the lungs of the instrument. The accordionist shapes the sounds that bring musical compositions to life by making its reeds vibrate.
The bellows (the lungs) are controlled by the left hand. By using them, the instrumentalist controls the flow of air to the reeds – located on wooden reed blocks within the treble section – and can produce sounds from quiet to loud. The accordionist can also sustain notes for a long time, something that a piano (a percussion instrument), for example, cannot do. Indeed, notes can even be œbent by using the bellows to push more air through certain reeds.
A full-size piano accordion has 41 treble keys for the right hand (24 white keys and 17 black keys) and 120 basses, in the form of buttons, for the left hand. These are arranged in six rows, each having 20 buttons; the first two rows of 20 are ‘single’ bass notes, while the other four rows are major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords
A full-size accordion with chromatic (button) keyboard for both hands has 64 treble buttons (some notes and rows are repeated, so chromatic chords and cerain note clusters can be played faster than with a piano keyboard, although many chords are more difficult, whcih makes the instrument less desirable for jazz improvisation), and 120 bass buttons.
Although some very intelligent alternative treble keyboard layouts have been designed and proven (such as John Reuther’s “Uniform” keyboard and the “Kravtsov System” keyboard of Nikolai Kravtsov), their commercial application and manufacture has not been a success. Thus far, the principal accordion manufacturers have stayed with the piano keyboard and reed block layout – just as the piano manufacturers have stayed with the standard keyboard layout.
There are two principal bass systems for the instrument, with a third that is a combination of both:
1. The “Stradella” or standard bass system has 120 bass buttons arranged in six vertical rows of 20 (some are duplicated because there are only 12 different notes in a chromatic scale). There are two rows of single button bass notes with almost a one octave range, and four rows of pre-fixed chords (major, minor, dominant 7th, and diminished 7th chords). This configuration is used by the majority of accordionists today, because the chords are arranged in the “cycle of fifths” used in many types of music, with the exception of pure “classical” and “contemporary” classic music.
2. The “Free -Bass” system – known in some countries as the “Bayan” has a (bass) keyboard consisting of single notes, which makes it complicated to form many of the chords used in many types of music, therefore, the instrument of choice for classical instrumentalists – because the single notes provide true pitch. However, there are also two systems: the “B” system, and the “C” system. On some instruments this was accomplished by adding three extra rows of bass buttons, often termed the “bassetti” or “baritone”, although this makes the instrument heavier. It also requires the player to learn two fingering systems.
3. A third system, called the “Convertor” or “Transformer” Free Bass, allows the instrumentalist to select either the standard Stradella bass system or the Free Bass system simply by pressing a bar, or special register. The convertor free bass system disengages the pre-set bass chords, permitting the player to form chords or play single notes, as the music may require, without the free bass mechanism adding size, extra buttons, and extra weight.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both of these approaches. It is up to the player to choose which system is best suited to his or her tastes.
Accordions can vary enormously in the manufacturing details, particularly in the quality of the reeds. There are four sets of treble reeds, and five sets of bass reeds in a “standard” accordion. Pitch ranges are determined by the designation (L) for low pitch range, (M) for middle pitch range, and (H) for high pitch range. Low pitch range equals Bassoon reeds; Middle pitch range equals Clarinet reeds; High pitch range equals Piccolo reeds. Accordion reeds are generally tuned to between A440 and A442.
The most expensive ‘top of the line’ models include a tone chamber (cassotto) within the treble keyboard mechanism. This is constructed of alumunium or wood (the best being walnut), and acts as a resonator to enhance the sound produced by the reeds.
What separates an average accordion from a high quality instrument is the quality of the reeds. Handmade reeds (particularly those made by the Italian specialist craftsmen Binci or Pancotti) are far superior to machine made reeds, and much sought after by the knowledgeable professional accordionists.
If you are considering the purchase of an accordion, it is better to buy the best instrument (with handmade reeds and a cassotto chamber) that you can afford. Reedwax Music presents compositions across the entire musical spectrum of the instrument (for both standard bass and free-bass systems).
THE ACCORDION (a short poem by Douglas Ward)
There’s nothing that rhymes with Accordion
The beastie that comes in three parts
With one hand on right, and another on left
And a middle that makes it all start
Without huffing and puffing and pulling
Until air breathes some life in its heart
Just think – without bellows connected
Perhaps it would just fall apart
You can’t see the bass without mirror
The right hand goes downwards to up
The basses are buttons like Smarties
That sound comes at all is by luck
But, given the quirks and the follies
Of the strange looking box on my chest
There’s nothing quite like it for showing
That the accordion is simply the best!
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ACCORDION
Although the “true” accordion as we know it today was said to have been invented in the early part of the 19th century in European countries of Austria, France, and Germany, several accordion-like instruments were invented around the same time, or before. Other early instruments in the same genre include the orchestrion (1789), melodeon (1805), uranion (1810), orgue-espressif (1810), perpodeon (1817), physarmonia (1818), aura (1821).
In the early 1800s, it was really the Italians who made some of the first instruments available for purchase, both domestically and then internationally. It started in the towns of Stradella, Recanati, and Castelfidardo – not far from the port of Ancona on Italy’s east coast (useful for exporting the instruments to other countries). Accordion manufacturing also started to take off in various other European countries and Russia, and since its creation, the accordion has undergone continuous development and improvement.
CHRONOLOGY: principal dates, creators, and brands
1821: Haeckel, in Vienna, created a mouth-blown instrument using the free vibrating reed.
1822: A German instrument maker by the name of Christian Friedrich Buschmann (1`775-1822) put some expanding bellows onto a small keyboard, with free vibrating reeds inside the instrument itself. He named it the hand-aeoline, and helped spread its fame in 1828 by leaving Berlin and going on tour with it. However, see 1929 below.
1829: Cyrillus Damian, a Viennese instrument maker, received royal patronage for his invention (called the “Akkordeon”) and was the first to patent an instrument of that name. He is credited with the creation of the first “true” accordion. Damian’s design featured two to four bass keys that produced chords within a range of an octave. Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) was awarded British Patent No: 5803 for his concertina, on 19 June 1929.
1832: The first accordion learning textbook was written by A. Reisner and published in Paris. Later that same year, another tutorial volume, Pichenot’s Methode pour l’accordeon, was also published in Paris.
1835: An accordion tutorial, written by Adolph Muller, listed six varieties of accordions. All were of the diatonic variety, in the keys of C, D, or G.
1840: Heinrich Band (1821-1860), of Krefeld, Germany, invented the bandoneon when he was 29 years of age. He made many prototypes, which were sold in his shop in Krefeld. In the same year Alexandrre Debain finished his harmonium in Paris.
1850: The first chromatic accordion came into being, ordered by a musician named Walter. The instrument featured 12 bass buttons, arranged in such a manner that all 12 key signatures could be used.
1851: Busson, of Paris, patented the flutina polka, which had two rows of reeds.
1852: Busson, of Paris created the first accordion to have a piano keyboard.
Accordion manufacturing was established in Klingenthal, Germany.
1854: Leterne, of Paris, patented an instrument similar to that of Busson, but with the second set of reeds tuned slightly away from the first set. Thus was created what would appear to be the first musette tuned instrument.
1857: Originally a clockmaker in Trossingen, Germany, Matthias Hohner (1833-1902) begins building accordions in his workshop. About 20 years after his death the business he founded (building accordions by hand) had turned into a mass production facility. Matthias Hohner was to the accordion what Henry Ford was to the motor car.
1862: By 1862 Klingenthal, Germany, had established more than 20 accordion factories.
The first accordion factory in San Francisco was established.
1863: The first accordion to have a piano-style keyboard was produced in Vienna. The keys were much smaller than those of the piano, so performers felt they were liberated from the pipe organ, which the accordion was popularly considered to emulate.
1864: Paolo Soprani opened an accordion workshop in Castelfidardo, Italy. By the end of the century, the workshop had grown into a factory, with 400 employees.
1865: Mariano Dallape established an accordion factory in Stradella, Italy.
1870: A factory was established in Tula, Russia to manufacture Bayan accordions and harmonicas.
1872: Settimio Soprani opened an accordion factory in Castelfidardo, Italy (imitating Pancotti).
1876: Dallape opened its accordion factory in the town of Stradella, Italy.
1877: The Schrammel accordion was created with 52 treble buttons arranged in three rows that produced the same notes, together with 12 basses that produced different notes on the press and draw of the bellows (diatonic). It was widely used at Viennese musical gatherings. Although its popularity declined because of its small range of notes and the difficulty with which it is mastered, it is still heard today.
1885: Settimio Soprani established a factory in Castelfidardo, Italy.
1887; The Japanese imported German diatonic accordions for the women of high society to play.
1890: Rosario Spadana, from Catania in Sicily registered a copyright for a free-bass instrument.
1905: The Paolo Soprani factory produced a staggering 1,200 accordions each month (all made by hand).
Germany had 35 accordion factories, and exported 35,200 accordions to France.
1907: Colombo Piatanesi arrived in America and established himself in San Francisco. He became one of the foremost accordion builders in the world. The company, which took over the Guerrini factory (together with Pasquale Petromilli, became the Colombo Accordion Company.
August and Amedeo Iorio (originally pipe organ builders) established an accordion factory in New York City.
Export figures showed that just 690 accordions were exported from manufacturers in Italy (according to official documents).
1913: Export figures showed that 14,365 accordions were exported from manufacturers in Italy (according to official documents).
1914; The Italo-American Accordion manufacturing Company was founded in Chicago, and jointly owned by Luigi Giulietti, Bramante Piatanesi, Oristo (Demo) Piatanesi, Finau Piatnesi and Roberto Rocianni.
1916: Biaggio Quattrociocche established the world’s first accordion music publishing business (Quatrociocche Edition,) in Steubenville, Ohio.
1919: The Pagani brothers, together with Pietro Deiro (brother of Guido Deiro) established an accordion music publishing business. They approached Biaggio Quattrociocche and incorporated his music publications into their own.
1920: A factory was established in Horovice (in the former Czechoslovakia) to manufacture accordions and harmonicas. After socialisation in 1948 the factory name changed to Delicia.
1922: The Excelsior Accordion Company established a factory in New York City. Elio Borsini founded an accordion factory in Castelfidardo. His son, Vincenzo Borsini, was born in a flat above the factory. Vincenzo finished school in 1944 and studied the accordion with Giovanni Marcosignori, father of famed accordionist Gervasio Marcosignori.
Nazzareno Piermaria opened a workshop in Paris.
1923: The Giulietti Accordion Company was founded by Luigi Giulietti, who had emigrated from Italy to the USA in 1914. He learned about making and tuning accordions when he worked in Italy for Soprani.
1924: The Excelsior Accordion Company was established in New York. The company further established a factory in Castelfidardo, Italy, in 1948, to cater to the growing demand for the instrument.
1927: What is considered the be the first original “contemporary” classical music of importance for the accordion was composed by Hugo Hermann under a commissioned from Ernst Hohner, of Germany. It was titled “Sieben neue Spielmusiken” op. 57/1 (Seven New Pieces).
1929: Wall Street crashed, and so did the importation of accordions into the United States..
1931: The Hohner Music School was established in Trossingen, Germany.
The French film ‘Sous le foits de Paris’ was a huge success in Japan – so much so that it caused a demand for musette0tuned accordions. Tambo created an accordion with the name ‘Paris’, and other models with names such as ‘Bolero’ and ‘Scala’. These were replaced with Japanese names such as ‘Chyasahima’ (“divine island”) and ‘Daitoa’ (“great Asia”). Many instrument workshops were converted into propeller factories during the Second World War, and many of the pre-war instruments were destroyed by bombs.
1932: Tambo began manufacturing diatonic instruments, followed three years later by Yamaha.
In 1926, Italy exported 26,000 accordions. In 1932 that number dropped to 17,000.
1934: The Titano Accordion Company was founded in Minneapolis by Ed and Dorothy Traficante.
1935: Sonola was founded in 1935 in Castelfidardo (the brand was acquired by Guerrini in 1973).
1936: The British College of Accordionists was founded by Dr. Otto H. Meyer (managing director of Hohner Concessionaires Ltd., of London), and Albert Davison, MA, MusBac (Cantab), FRCO as a cultural and academic opportunity for accordionists to improve their abilities and musicianship through structured examinations.
1937: Angelo Manaresi, a member of parliament (a junior minister) and president of The Alpine Club, was elected president of a consortium of accordion and accessory manufacturers (set up under the instructions of the fascist regime of the time).
1938: Italy manufactured 51,000 accordions. But the effects of the Second World War were to have devastating effects on the accordion factories, their manufacturing capabilities, sales and exports.
The American Accordionists Association (AAA) was founded. The AAA decreed that single bass notation (a single note indicating a specific chord) should be used in future sheet music for the accordion to circumvent the different inversions created by the various instrument manufacturers.
1939: Giacomo Antonio Busilacchio established a factory in Castelfidardo, Italy.
1941: Italy manufactured 10,077 accordions.
Benito Mussolini ordered 1,000 accordions to be distributed to the various troops fighting in the Second World War.
1944: Italy manufactured only 500 accordions.
VEB Klingenthaler Harmoniker Werke was established in Klingenthal, Germany, to manufacture accordions and harmonicas.
1945: Emil Baldoni, Aldo Mencaccini and Joseph Nalbone established the Ace Accordion Company in New York City.
Pio Luchetti changes the name of his Art Novelty Company to the Pancordion Accordion Company.
1946: After the end of the Second World War, the accordion quickly regained its popularity. Between 1946 and 1948, 19 new accordion factories were opened in Italy.
Guido Guidobaldi, Mario Scattolini, Luigi Scattolini, Giuseppe Salvatori, Pacioni Dante, Delfo Spadari and Guiliano Bontempi were seven partners who together former Zero-Sette (meaning seven who started from nothing). Julio Giulietti had his accordions made by Zero-Sette (Guiseppe Salvatori made the tone chambers). Elio Guidobaldi made the reeds, and later, so did Binci.
Pigini established a factory in Castelfidardo, Italy (the company was registered in Ancona by Filippo Pigini on June 6th).
1947: Italy exported 57,523 accordions.
Frank Gaviani became a partner of Theresa Costello in O. Pagani Music (publisher of accordion sheet music), based in New York City.
1948: The Hohner Music School in Trossingen, Germany, gained recognition, becoming an Official State Academy under the direction of Hugo Hermann (1896-1967).
1950: Pancordion (the company’s original name was the Art Novelty Company) was established in New York City by Ernest Deffner and Roberto Pancotti (ex-Excelsior Accordions). Together they purchased the former Selmer musical instrument factory in Long Island City. The firm later moved to the former Wurlitzer showroom near Washington Square, in New York’s downtown Manhattan.
Julio Giulietti took over the company his father established in 1923.
The Italo-American Accordion Company, Chicago, was sold to Joe Romagnoli.
1953: Italy exported 192,058 accordions.
1954: The last Colombo accordion was manufactured in America (San Francisco). Afterwards, all Colombo accordions were made in Castelfidardo, Italy.
1956: A consignment of 100s of accordions (ordered by the Ernest Deffner organisation in New York) sank when the ill-fated Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria (its maiden voyage was in 1953) was rammed by the Swedish America’ Line’s ocean liner Stockholm and sank on 25 July 1956, with the loss of 52 lives (51, on impact). The Stockholm survived, was repaired, and, after a number of different owners and name changes, still exists today as a cruise ship. Its present name is Athena.
1957: The Borsini accordion factory exported 6,000 accordions.
Between 1957 and 1965 the AAA commissioned 50 new works for the accordion.
1960: Giulio Giulietti introduced the Giulietti Free-Bassetti System in the USA, with the Giulietti Accordion Company based New York City.
Ikutaro Kakehashi founded Ace Electronic Industries in Japan. He left in 1973 to found the Roland Corporation.
1961: Gianfranco “John” Gababanelli opened a branch of the family company to make instruments for Cajun musicians.
1963: Douglas Ward introduced the Convertor Free-Bass system to the NAO (National Accordion Organisation) in the UK.
1965: Ernest Deffner (manufacturer of Pancordion accordions) purchased the Titano Accordion Company from Ed Traficante.
1966: Ubaldo Gabbanelli established an accordion manufacturing facility in Castelfidardo, Italy.
1973: Ikutaro Kakehashi founded the Roland Corporation in Japan. He used the name Roland (he found it in a telephone directory) because he wanted to establish a name that was easy to market world-wide. The following year Roland introduced the world’s first touch-sensitive electric piano.
The Sonola brand was acquired by Guerrini & Sons.
1985: A fire destroyed the Bell Accordion Company factory in Northvale, New Jersey.
1986: The Ace Accordion Company closed.
1988: Seventeen accordion factories (in Italy) closed – the result of a change in musical tastes, away from the accordion, and on to the guitar.
1990: There were an estimated 75,000 accordionists in the USA.
1996: The instruments (the better ones) were made by the Zero-Sette factory in Italy (the early models were made by Serenelli).
Settimio Soprani and Scandalli merged to become one company, marketed as Farfisa.
2004: Roland introduced the first V-Accordion (virtual electronic accordion).
- NOTE: Some of the material in this chronology was originally written by Douglas Ward in the article “The Accordion: Its History from Ancient China to Carnegie Hall” published in 1980 in the American publication Contemporary Keyboard.