What is the accordion?

The accordion is known by many names across Europe: accordéon (in French), Handharmonika or Akkordeon (in German) and armonica a manticino (in Italian), but they all basically point back to a hand-held musical instrument that consists of a treble and bass casing and has an external keyboard (or buttons), with hand-operated bellows.

The accordion was thought to be invented in Berlin in 1822 by C. Friedrich L. Buschmann, yet some believe that Cyril Demian was the first to patent the accordion in 1829 in Vienna. Demian's invention was, in fact, a modification of Buschmann's Handäoline, so take from that what you will!

Demian's modernised version included manual bellows and five keys, with the possibility of incorporating more keys in other designs. The keys are what make an accordion part of the keyboard family.

Why is it so popular?

The accordion is relatively small which means that it is a portable instrument, much like a guitar or trumpet but unlike a piano.

As you'll see from the image below, accordions are a favourite among street artists, who can play the versatile instrument from any square, any step or any doorway. They can even play it whilst walking around!

Have you ever been on holiday and been greeted by an accordion player walking by your restaurant table? If so, you'll know that it's a magical, fun and even romantic piece of kit for all occasions!

Accordions are popular among street performers as they tuneful and easily held.
The accordion is quite a compact instrument, meaning it can be carried and played almost anywhere. Photo credit: hms831 on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

How does it work?

As we've discovered, there have been various versions of accordion over the years.

The modern instrument, however, has three main sections: the bellows which expand, and two wooden units at each end called the treble and bass casings. It is on the treble end that the keyboard can be found, and on the bass end where you will find bass finger buttons. All of the other components that you might have heard about, such as the reeds, are located inside the bellows.

Why do some call it a free reed instrument?

Well, this is because the instrument uses free-standing reeds or metal tongues to make sounds, much like the harmonica does (hence why in Germany it is known as a 'hand harmonica'). The reeds are composed of metal strips on either side of a rectangular metal plate, below which there is a slot that allows air into the bellows.

When air flows in past a reed then through the slot, it vibrates yet it doesn't act in the same way when air flows from the other direction. It is this vibration above the frame that allows the accordion to work in the way it does.

To keep some air back, a leather or sometimes plastic flap is put on the opposite side of the slot away from the accordion's reed, which prevents airflow in this direction.

The length and width of each reed is what decides the pitch of the note it makes. For example, a long reed will create a lower note than a short reed.

The keyboard on the treble end unit can look different across the different models but the most popular style is the keyboard that resembles a piano.

When being played, the instrument is usually held on the body using shoulder straps, allowing the player to either sit or stand as they wish. The bellows are then manually pulled apart or pressed to make air flow through the reeds. The keys on the keyboard are pressed by the right fingers, meanwhile, the left hand operates the bass notes whilst also moving the bellows.

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Where have I heard the accordion before?

Frank Marrocco

If you ever wondered if you'd even heard an accordion being played before, then the answer is 99% yes.

This is thanks to one special man and talented accordion player who created music for a wide range of films and tv shows spanning various genres and decades. His accordion is the soundtrack to many movies, theatre shows, televised series, commercials and video game tunes, with Marocco having worked with stars like Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini and John Williams, to name but a few.

Frank Marocco was one of the most famous accordion players.
Frank Marocco produced music for any shows and films, including The Pink Panther. Photo credit: justinsomnia on VisualHunt / CC BY

Some of the tracks that he can be heard on are; "Adams Family, Back to the Future, Batman, Cabin Boy, Iron Horse, James and the Giant Peach, Ice Age, Holes, Jungle Book, National Treasure, Never Love a Thief, Pink Panther, Polar Express, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ratatouille, Sea biscuit, Sleepless in Seattle, The Wedding Planner, Woman in Red, and many, many others." - Accordion Life

In fact, Marocco played for more than 350 different movies and almost 120 television shows during his lifetime!

But while he played an unusual instrument, as some saw it, it was Jazz that was his passion. The gifted artist was often described as playing harmonic music that surprised the entire Jazz movement as it wasn't a common Jazz instrument. But, he spent much of his life disputing this and played authentic Jazz sounds throughout his music career.

Marocco was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Accordionists’ Association in the year of 2006 and was entered into the Accordion Hall of Fame in Vicenza, Italy, during the year 2000, before his death in 2012.

How to play the accordion?

We've covered some of the basics of holding and playing an accordion, but what about if you want to pick one up and start playing today? Here are few extra tips!

Right hand positioning

As we've mentioned in the above, the right hand is the one that plays the piano-style keyboard, i.e. the treble notes. Furthermore, it is this hand which will be used to change switches on the grill during playing.

A teacher can explain this in more detail and show you how it is done correctly without impacting on the melody you are playing.

Left hand positioning

Your left hand will play bass notes and chords, while also operating switches. What's more, this hand will operate the air button.

It may sound like there's a lot to do with only two hands and ten fingers and thumbs, but it does get easier, we promise! See the image below for reference om hand placement and to see the dexterity required to press all of the required keys and buttons.

Left arm positioning

Your left wrist will be placed inside the bass strap, as shown below, to enable your left arm to push the bellows with ease and control.

The accordion isn't as difficult as you might think to learn to play.
The accordion is a unique keyboard instrument in its appearance. Photo on Visual hunt

Wearing straps

Now for straps, which help you to hold the instrument securely and use it as the portable instrument that it is.

For larger instruments, shoulder straps are connected to the top and bottom of the accordion, and are fully adjustable. Smaller devices, however, will see you wearing one single shoulder strap or, in some cases, none (if the accordion is very small and light).

The straps are usually made out of leather for comfort and longevity.

Find a tutor with Superprof!

Always available for your learning needs, Superprof features a range of music tutors with varying levels of experience and offering different rates. You can search the website for all types of keyboard tutors now.

With this platform, you can either choose a tutor based in your area, one who either has a studio or will come to your home. Another option would be online classes via video link, which could save you money in the long run - no travelling time to and from lessons, and your tutor might give you a discounted rate because s/he won't have to travel, either!

You might also be interested in knowing that most Superprof tutors give their first hour of lessons at no charge, just to see if you two would learn well together. With such an offer, how could anyone not choose that option?

Learning the accordion or any other instrument over Internet connection is also great for those who have busy lives and need to schedule in lessons with minimal disruption to their routine like having to travel to a studio or tidy up in preparation for a visit from a tutor.

Discover more about other keyboard instruments, such as:

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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.