Frequently Asked Questions about the Accordion
Frequently Asked Questions

What makes the accordion unique?

Many things, but the two of the most important are the bellows and the reeds. The bellows allow virtually a total range of expression and notes can also be sustained longer than most other instruments. Bellows shakes may be compared to a violin when the player moves the bow rapidly up and down. See REEDS in Terminology for detailed information on them.

How does the bass work on an accordion?

In a Stradella bass system, the pattern of buttons consist of single notes and fixed chords (usually three notes to a chord). In a Free Bass system, the buttons are all single notes, like on a piano. This system is mainly used for classical music. On Concertina's and Bandoneon's the bass only plays single notes. See Types of Accordions and How they Work for more detailed information.

How do you find the bass buttons?

This is done by touch. Most bass buttons on accordions have an oval shaped top to them, except for certain buttons which have either indented or pointed tops. The player can find the other buttons in relation to these indented or pointed buttons.

What is the outside of the accordion made of?

Generally it is cellulose over a wood or metal frame, but can sometimes be made of other material.

Do accordions come in different colours?

Yes, accordions can be made in any colour.

Why do accordions vary in weight and size?

Weights and sizes differ due to the many different preferences, needs and sizes of the player and the type of music they wish to play. Generally speaking, the lighter the overall weight, the better quality of accordion and the internal parts that have been used.

What do the switches on an accordion do?

Switches can be on both the bass and treble side of the accordion in varying numbers. They shut off or open different banks of reeds to change the octaves and sounds of the accordion. See SWITCHES in Terminology for more detailed information.

What are reeds in an accordion?

The free reed is a band of metal attached at one end to a metal plate and free to vibrate at the other. Air from the bellows is necessary to activate the free-reed in an accordion. See REEDS in Terminology for more detailed information.

What's the difference in reed quality?

Reeds can be machine made, hand-type or hand-made. Different quality raw materials determine reed quality. See REEDS in Terminology for more detailed information.

Why do some accordions have buttons and some have piano keys?

There are many different shapes and systems of keyboards in accordions. This needs to be looked at from a historic perspective. The first accordions used buttons on both right and left hand and were mainly diatonic. As the accordion developed, accordionists' wanted more notes so chromatic systems developed both button and keyboard. They all achieve the same result; when pushed down they open a valve to allow air to the reeds. All systems have their good and bad points. See Types of Accordions and How they Work for more detailed information.

How is an accordion tuned?

This is achieved by removing weight from either the tip or the base of the reed.

Is there only one way of tuning the musette on an accordion?

Musette is the word used for the vibrato (tremelo) sound of some accordions. This is achieved by tuning one clarinet (8 foot) reed higher than 'concert pitch' and possibly a clarinet (8 foot) reed tuned lower than 'concert pitch'. There is no 'fixed' amount of higher or lower tuning to achieve musette. This is sometimes referred to as wet (more of a musette sound) and dry (no musette type sound at all).

Where are accordions manufactured?

Accordions are manufactured in many countries. Most production takes place in Italy, Austria, Germany, France, Russia, Czechoslovakia and China. Some small production is from the USA and other countries, primarily using Italian or German components and assembling them.

How many manufacturers of the accordion are there?

The number of manufacturers fluctuates all the time. They range from one person hand-building an instrument at a time, to cottage industries assembling components, to worker groups (co-operatives), to fullscale factories. At one stage, manufacturers in Germany and Italy were making approximately 750,000 instruments per year.

Who are famous composers for the accordion?

There have been countless composers for the accordion. Some of the most famous are Piazzolla, Diero, Frosini, Chaikon, Molinari, Zolatariew.

Are there International Competitions for the accordion?

Yes. There are many international competitions for solo, ensemble and orchestra's all around the world. See the website, Future Events for more detailed information about the many annual events..

In which country did the accordion originate?

The idea came from an instrument in China, called the 'Cheng' (a free reed instrument), thousands of years ago. While the accordion was patented in Austria, Italy was the first large scale production centre. Refer to History for more detailed information.

How old do you have to be to start learning the accordion?

The smallest accordions available can be used by three and four year olds. You can start learning at any age.

How do you play both hands together and use the bellows?

It is a matter of co-ordination between different parts of the body, similar to learning other instruments. Anyone can learn to play the accordion with the correct tuition.

What sort of music styles can you play on the accordion?

You can play ANY style of music on the accordion, if you are proficient enough.

Can I fix my own accordion?

This is not advisable, unless you are experienced. It is easy to create further problems, costing more to get properly repaired when knowledge is lacking.

Why do some accordions sound different to others?

There are many reed sizes (octaves) and tunings available and many different qualities of materials used in construction. All these factors affect the sound.

What are the different tuning options available for an accordion?

Only the treble (right hand side) of an accordion can be tuned to various options. There are no tuning options for the bass (left hand side). There are no set amount of tuning options and each brand of accordion can be tuned differently. Each tuning gives a different overall sound depending on the reed arrangement in the accordion.

What is a tone chamber?

A tone chamber (cassotto) is an internal cavity in some piano and chromatic accordions, designed for selected reed sounds to pass through before being heard by the listener. This gives the selected reeds a more mellow sound.

How can an accordion be microphone amplified?

There are several ways to mic an accordion. Choosing which way will depend on whether it is for amplification or recording.

Do accordions need to be serviced regularly?

Not always. It depends on how the accordion is played, and how much. Some reeds will go out of tune through over playing and incorrect use. Generally, an accordion should be cleaned and serviced approximately every two to three years.

How far can bellows be stretched?

It depends on the size and type of accordion. Generally, larger accordions have more folds, which means the bellows will stretch out more. The bellows will only stretch as far as the player's left arm!

Can accordion bellows be repaired or replaced?

Yes, they can be overhauled and replaced. However,when they are replaced the original wood frame from the bellows needs to be used to align the new bellows properly. It is nearly impossible to fit new bellows without the original wood frame.

Do they make left-handed accordions?

Yes, some have been specially constructed with the keyboard on the left-hand side. Most of these have been made for players that have lost fingers in their right hand. It is sometimes thought that left-handers have an advantage playing "right-handed" accordions, because they have more touch in the bass (left hand).

Who is the most famous accordion player?

There have been many famous accordion players, playing various music styles. To isolate one accordionist would be impossible.

How many people play the accordion?

This fluctuates, so it is impossible to say at any one time. The country that by far has the most accordionists is China.

What is MIDI, and how does it work in relation to an accordion?

MIDI stands for Music Instrument Digital Interface. This is a music industry standard language, used in most modern electronic instruments. Accordionists have used this technology since the mid 1980's.

Whenever a note is played on one MIDI instrument (the controller) a message is sent to another instrument or sound generator (the slave) to play the same note at the same time.To update a MIDI system you only need to change the sound generator.

As the technology of synthesised sound is changing so quickly, electronic instruments rapidly become obsolete. However, a MIDI accordion can always upgrade to the latest in sound technology without having to change the accordion itself. This is because you only need to update the MIDI sound generator (the 'slave'), not the MIDI accordion (the 'controller'). This is a huge advantage over the older electronic (cordovox style) accordions, where the whole instrument needed upgrading and the old accordion devalued.

Another advantage of the MIDI accordion is that you can have a MIDI "kit" fitted to an existing accordion. MIDI fits onto any accordion, new or old. You do not have to purchase a new accordion.

The sound generators most commonly used within MIDI Accordions are 'multi-timbral sound modules' (or expanders). These are the 'brains' of a synthesiser. 'Multi-timbral' means that the expander can generate more than one sound at the same time, through the use of separate MIDI channels. They work in a similar way to television channels. Information sent on one channel can only be received by a unit set to the same channel.

On the MIDI accordion, different channels can usually be set for each of the accordion's three keyboards; right hand, bass fundamentals and pre-set chords. In this way, an expander can play back different instruments for each of these parts. For example, the melody can have the sound of a wind instrument, accompanied by a string bass sound and rhythm guitar sound for the chords. Some MIDI accordions may have a second channel allocated to the right hand, enabling two different right hand sounds (or the top note or solo line in a right hand chord) to be generated from the same expander. As MIDI is an industry standard system, it is possible to use several different synthesisers and expanders at the same time, so the choice of different sounds and sound combinations is virtually unlimited.

MIDI note information can be transmitted from the accordion in a number of different ways. The two most common methods of turning an accordion into a MIDI instrument are to have either a physical contact attached to each of the keys and bass mechanism, or a magnetic sensor on each key which sends a signal of the note being pressed. Other methods of installing MIDI exist, although they are not as common (for example, optical sensors).

As MIDI requires only minimal wiring and a very small printed circuit board, these modifications add virtually no weight to the instrument. In order to make a MIDI transmit, it only requires a small amount of voltage in the accordion. People use a separate power pack, a battery housed on board the instrument, or (most commonly) the same cable as the note information carrier, either through a special power pack or a separate programmer.

With any system, the MIDI usually requires a standard 5 pin DIN cable, although some wireless MIDI systems are now becoming available.

The MIDI language can transmit more than just note information. For the MIDI accordionist, the next most common message used is 'programme change'. This allows the accordionist to change the sounds generated by the expander at the touch of a button on either the accordion itself, or through an external programmer. It is unnecessary to reset the expander, which can often be a little more complicated.

Many MIDI accordions also use a small pressure transducer inside the bellows of the instrument to sense volume and bellow direction. This means that a volume signal transmits via MIDI to the sound generator at the same time, whether the accordion is being played loudly or softly. However, many MIDI accordionists prefer to use a separate volume pedal for the expander sound, so that the bellows control the acoustic accordion independently. This is personal preference.

MIDI can also transmit many other performance features (i.e. pitch bending, touch sensitivity - making a note louder by how hard you hit the key, and after-touch, changing the volume of a note after it has been played by pushing the key harder, etc.) However many of these features are not 'normal' playing techniques for most accordionists.

As technology improves, and the weight of electronics decreases, it is now possible to have multi-timbral modules (that weigh eight ounces) fitted directly onto the accordion. This means that you can have a self contained acoustic and MIDI instrument ready to plug into an amplifier without any extra wiring or units. At the same time, the accordion still has the ability to be able to plug directly into any other expander, and use those sounds as well.

One of the latest features of technology is the addition of dedicated accordion sound sampler. These units have the real acoustic sound of an accordion recorded and stored (or sampled) into their memory, so that the sounds can be replayed from the accordion. With a pressure transducer to replicate authentic bellows expression, it is possible to electronically generate the sound of 128 different accordions all in one expander, played from one accordion.

With the use of MIDI, the accordion should always be able to remain on the leading edge of the musical world.
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