Accordion History


From: The History of the Accordion In New Zealand book

The Chinese Cheng, which was introduced to Europe in 1777, is generally credited with being the musical instrument that initiated the ideas that were used to develop the accordion.


Early Reed Instruments

In 1821, Haeckel in Vienna and then Buschmann in Germany, invented mouth blown instruments of the free reed family. Buschmann added bellows and a button keyboard in the following year to make his "Handaeoline," possibly the first clearly recognisable forebearer of the modern accordion. In 1829, Demian added chords in the bass and patented this as an "Accordion". From 1830, Charles Buffet in Belgium and Fourneax and Busson in France, manufactured an accordion that had 10 to 12 treble and two bass buttons. Demian also manufactured a type of accordion he called the "Hand harmonica". A tutor printed in 1835 (by Adolph Muller) listed six varieties of accordions, all diatonic in the keys of C, D or G.

It seems that the accordion did not become chromatic in note range until about the 1850's. Wheatstone in England had invented his concertina in 1829 and he continued to develop it over the next several decades, but he did not attach a piano keyboard to it. Busson did, and called it the "Organ accordion". By 1859 this had a three octave treble keyboard. Both the Wheatstone Concertina from 1844 and then accordion had uniform tone (ie were not diatonic or in one key only). It would appear that the development and popularity of the Wheatstone Concertinas actually slowed the acceptance of the piano type accordions in England, at least until the twentieth century.


Accordion Manufacturers

Accordion manufacturing began in the 1860's. Many of those brand names are still familiar today. Steel reeds were introduced by Hohner at their Trossingen factory in 1857. Soprani followed at Castelfidardo in 1872, and Dallape at Stradella in 1876. By the beginning of the 20th century, a bass system had been developed that used notes and chords similar to the modern stradella bass.

Although development of the modern accordion continued and refinements were steadily added, a number of variants were patented in the late 1800's. The Chomatina, developed in Bavaria by G. Mirwald, had four octaves and tone registers. The autophone, patented in New York in 1880, ran automatically from cardboard strips, somewhat like a player piano. The Bandoneon, a large square type of concertina was developed by Heinrich Band in the 1840's. It is still popular in Argentina and finding increasing popularity in Europe today.

The Flutina Polka, patented in 1851 by Busson had two ranks of reeds. In 1854, Leterne of Paris patented a similar instrument but with the second set of reeds tuned slightly away from the first, which would appear to be the first musette tuned accordion.



Accordionists may be interested to know, that the term "musette" is defined in one comprehensive dictionary of musical instruments, as "a generic term for small bagpipes." Several variants and modifications other than those mentioned above were patented in the late 19th century, even including a pedal accordion! However the features that have lasted and been included in modern accordions seem to be those associated with making it a more versatile instrument. These features enable the performance of more formal works written for the accordion and transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments. Of recent years the application of MIDI and electronics has also been a significant feature of accordion development.

As previously noted, the present piano accordion has its roots in what we would now call a type of concertina, with first button, then piano keyboards, applied to it. The stradella bass system was invented with two vertical rows of single notes and four vertical rows. Each button activates a preformed chord. In due course this became the most widely accepted bass system, being commonly known as "stradella bass" or "standard bass". It is almost universally acknowledged to be one of the best education systems on any instrument. The stradella bass, when combined with the piano keyboard, requires players to develop a knowledge of both the chromatic sequence of pitch as on the piano keyboard and also the chord relationships and chord types as arranged in fifths on the stradella bass. This makes it unique among all musical instruments, having both single notes and preformed chords available at one time.


Extension of bass range

Despite all this, the accordion was found to have some limitations, particularly for those wishing to play transcriptions of music written for piano or organ, or music written for accordion that requires more than one octave range in the bass. Various developments have been introduced, some even well into the twentieth century, that augment the single octave bass range extending it to many octaves. One such development is the addition of several couplers on a stradella bass, each lifting the one available octave (or twelve semitones) an octave higher. With three or four such couplers, three or four octaves could be realised, but only one octave at a time.

Several further solutions to this limitation have been offered in accordion designs, referred to variously as free bass or convertor bass. These bass systems convert the preformed chords of the stradella system into single notes on certain couplers or switches, giving a number of octaves of single notes available at one time, and requires only the operation of a switch to re-engage the stradella system.

The most common solution to the one octave single note limitation, has been to use a convertor accordion that retains the stradella system in some of its couplers and converts to single notes on others. This enables the musician to use the stradella system where it has advantages, and also allows the use of an extended range of single notes when required. At least two systems of convertor bass accordions have been promoted, one that replicates the stradella note arrangement in two successive vertical rows that replace the four chord rows with single notes. Each successive two rows are an octave higher than the previous two rows. This system, often known as the "stradella free bass" has the advantage of the player no needing to learn a new system of fingering.

An alternative free bass system to the one just described has an arrangement of single notes when converted, described as chromatic. This system often has a few more notes available in the bass. The chromatic system requires learning a different fingering to that used for the stradella bass, and there are a number of different arrangements of chromatic free bass in production. Very few accordions are manufactured that have sufficient bass buttons (180) for both systems to be used simultaneously without a switch change. These have not been popular, because they are large, heavy and expensive.

As well as several bass alternatives, there are two treble keyboards available; the piano and the button. A number of different button arrangements and music is available to suit all types of accordions, regardless of bass or treble construction. Some music may be more suited to a particular type of accordion, and this can apply to tuning as well as fingering variants.



Some further accordion developments of the 20th century have been the addition of a fifth set of reeds to the treble keyboard with one set tuned a major fifth away from the other reeds (similar to a five and a third foot stop on an organ). Besides the usual hand switches, some have been added that are operated by the players chin, and switches have been developed that sustain a bass note until they are switched off.


Electronics and Midi

Electronics were first applied to accordions before World War II, when a few accordions were wired so they could be played through an electronic organ. Soon after the war, electronic accordions that had their own box of electronic sound generation, amplifier and speaker were developed. Some were only electronic, with no reed sounds available, but others retained conventional reeds with the addition of electronically wired keyboards plus an amplifier and speaker set up. Some owners added quite sophisticated sound equipment such as Leslie speakers and electronic rhythm machines.

The most recent development has been in the application of MIDI to conventional accordions. With a minimum of modification and weight increase, accordions can be fitted with MIDI contacts to the treble and bass keys that enable them to be played through any MIDI compatible sound equipment. This includes synthesisers, organs, electronic sound modules or electronic pianos. Thus equipped, an accordion may, become almost as versatile as any synthesiser. Pressure valves have been developed that enable the electronic sounds to be dynamically altered and controlled by bellows pressure similar to the reed control, where volume of sound is controlled by bellows pressure. The MIDI accordion retains its reeds, so accordion sounds may be reproduced either with or without accompanying electronic sounds.


The Future

Conventional reed accordions are still being refined in the areas of action, tone and acoustic projection of sound, with ever lighter materials being used for them. We are not sure where all this will lead, but one thing is sure; the present and future accordion will do a great deal more than the 19th century models from which it has been developed.


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