If you think that the accordion is a ‘fringe’ instrument, you will be surprised at just how popular it is. It was first created in Germany in the 1820s and within twenty years had spread throughout Europe.
By the 1870s, it was estimated that there were over 700,000 manufactured annually. They seem quite complex, and we are going to look at them to find out exactly ‘how do accordions work?’
Bellows and Reeds
The accordion is one of many 19th-century musical inventions in Europe using bellows and reeds. It was first patented in Vienna, but the instrument then bore little resemblance to what we have now.
The construction allowed for just a button board played with the left hand. The right hand wasn’t involved in the music; it just worked the bellows. All very basic, but it was a start.
Moving Across Countries Brought Changes
From Germany, it was introduced into Britain in the late 1820s. A man by the name of Charles Wheatstone was the man who finally put the two essentials together. He made adjustments that gave the instrument chords as well as the ability to play a melody.
Wheatstone called his instrument the ‘Concertina’ so it would not be confused with the already available ‘accordion.’ Later, he took the instrument a stage further by making it easy to tune the reeds externally using a special tool.
Expansion Through Emigration
With the 1840s came a more diverse and expanded level of emigration. And where the people went, they took their instruments with them. The accordion and the concertinas were two that traveled well.
And as they traveled, they were modified and, in most cases, improved until we have the two instruments today that both may be called accordions.
In ‘Popular’ Music
‘Pop’ music being an abbreviation for ‘popular’ and not invented by those obsessed with the Beatles, had its share of accordion players. The 1900s to the early 1960s were known as the “Golden Age” of the accordion.
The Great Depression of the 30s saw many theaters close, but the accordionists, such a big part of that, survived. It suffered as most of the world went ‘rock n roll’ crazy in the late 50s, but it came back again. That isn’t strictly accurate; it never really went away.
Interestingly, now it is quite prominent in just about every genre imaginable, from Jazz to just about everything. There are even ‘folk-metal’ bands where it plays a prominent part.
How Many Variations?
There are seventeen different kinds of accordion, all of which are developments from previous incarnations. However, the two most common types of accordion are the Piano Accordion and the Button accordion. That is what we will be concentrating on here.
How are Accordions Made?
To fully appreciate how an accordion works, it is useful to have an understanding of what goes into the manufacture. It is usually a combination of wood, metal, cloth, leather, and plastics. Knowing how they’re made goes a long way to answering, “How do accordions work?”
This is usually the material that is used for the outer parts. Not only does it look good, but it is also durable and adds some strength to the instrument. But, it is used not only for the outer frame but also the pallets and the reed blocks.
The keys and the buttons are made from plastic. Internally a harder, more rugged plastic is used for some of the inner parts.
Metals are also used for some of the inner parts. Especially those that have to take wear and tear.
The bellows are made from a tough and durable cloth material. This is reinforced with some metal and leather fittings. You will also find some cardboard used.
Used for the valve coverings.
What Is The Manufacturing Process?
The initial steps for making an accordion involve making all the individual parts. The parts made of wood are cut into precise shapes and sizes. This includes not only any wooden casings and reed boxes but also the frame and any other outer pieces.
The plastics use injection molding techniques. The liquid plastic is injected into molds created in the exact shape and dimension of the part required. Once they have cooled and solidified, they are removed from the molds and inspected.
The metals are also liquified and put into their molds. After they cool, they are tempered, which makes them tough and very durable.
Assembling The Instrument
After all the parts have been manufactured and inspected, they are ready for assembly. As you may well imagine, this is a time-consuming process. Certain parts can be assembled using machines, but most of the accordion is put together by hand.
The assembly process includes:
- Attaching the metal reeds to a plate.
- Placing and arranging the reed plates in a wooden reed block.
- Fitting from two to four reed blocks for the bass and treble sides.
- Keyboard, buttons, and piano keys are attached to the reed blocks.
- Attach the bellows once the bass and treble side assembly are complete.
- Make sure the bellows are secure with no air leaks.
- Finish with any colors, etc., to be applied.
That is just a brief synopsis of what is involved in terms of manufacturing skills. But you must also consider the time and the process of assembling the constituent parts.
Two Main Types of Accordion – Which Is Better?
Piano Accordion or Button Accordion
The piano accordion has piano keys situated on the treble side. On the button accordion, there are buttons on both treble and bass sides. There will always be adherents to both choices and claims that one is better than the other.
The piano accordion can be easier and, in some ways, quicker to learn, mainly because people recognize a piano-like keyboard. However, the button accordion can be easier to play because of the proximity of the buttons.
A Matter of Preference
At the end of the day, it depends on your preferences and, to a certain extent, your playing style. Let’s consider the positives of a piano accordion vs. a button accordion.
- There is a more logical layout to the keyboard, and it is easier to use.
- Piano accordions are similar to the basic common keyboard.
- All the keys are in use on a piano accordion, unlike on a button accordion where there are ‘dummy’ keys built-in for aesthetic reasons.
- It is probably more common than a button accordion and will be easier to find yourself a teacher.
- Also, because it is more common, it will be easier to find parts if it needs repair.
And the positives of a button accordion over a piano accordion.
- They are quite often more compact and easier to carry around.
- If you need to transpose music, it is easier on a button accordion.
- It is easy for first-time players as the fingering patterns are very simplified.
- Button accordions have up to 64 notes on the right hand; the piano accordion is only up to 45.
So having considered just about everything there is to look at, let’s look at how they work.
How Do Accordions Work?
The accordion is an instrument driven by air that is provided by bellows. Notes, or tones, are created by pressing the keys or buttons. When you compress the bellows, and you press a key or button, the metal plates that are blocking the reeds will open.
This allows air to pass through. That causes the reeds to vibrate to give you the sound. It sounds like a simple process, but they are quite a bit more complex than most musical instruments.
To understand fully how and just why they work, let’s consider the parts that create the sound for you. That way, you will have an understanding of what happens inside an accordion while you play.
The accordion makes its sound through the reeds that are freed up and not blocked by the ‘reed plates.’ The reeds are contained in reed blocks that are placed inside the main box of the accordion. You can have up to six blocks.
The reeds are made of brass and steel, and the valves that cover them are made from leather. They are split into two operational areas, the treble casing, and the bass casing, with different job functions.
Treble And Bass Casings
The side where the keys are, on piano accordions, is known as the treble casing. The reed blocks look a little like a harmonica with reed blocks that are tapered.
The other side has the bass casing. This casing also uses reed blocks to create the sound. Using treble and bass casings together allows you to play chords and melody at the same time.
The bellows connect the treble casing with the bass casing and are effectively the ‘engine room’ of the accordion. Perhaps a better description might be the ‘lungs’ of the instrument.
They create the air that creates the sound and are made of a mixture of cloth and cardboard. To ensure the bellows are durable and long-lasting, they are reinforced with metal and leather.
Compressing and Expanding
When you compress or move the end casings towards each other, it creates air pressure. When you expand them or move the end casings away from each other, it creates a vacuum inside.
In both situations, the air will travel through the ‘free-reeds.’ They will then vibrate, which creates sound.
The Bellows As An Aid to Playing
While the bellows are vital for the creation of air to pass through the reeds, they have other important functions. By the way, how you use the bellows will determine the sounds of the notes.
This can include the length of the note you are playing. It can also extend to any fades and the length of the fade that you want to play.
By using the bellows in a certain way, you can also affect the volume. An aggressive and quick bellowing action will produce louder sounds. A smooth, gentle action will give you softer sounds.
Changing The Voice Of The Accordion
You can change the timbre of the instrument by using switches that are located on either side of the accordion. Each reed block is allocated a switch. So the more reed blocks you have, the more switches are available.
They give you the option of mixing and matching varying reed blocks to give different octaves to create a unique sound.
Using The Keys And The Buttons
Some accordions only have buttons, left and right, but most have both piano keys and buttons. When pressing down a piano key, the covering over the reeds is opened. The reeds react to the airflow, causing them to vibrate, and that vibration gives you the sound.
On the bass side, it is a similar process. Pressing the buttons gives you sound. On the bass side, however, the accordion uses rods and levers instead of valves to make the reeds operate.
The ‘Air’ Button
On the majority of accordions, there is a control called the ‘Air’ button. As I have already mentioned, compressing or expanding the bellows will create sound.
The ‘Air’ button will allow you to move the bellows without generating any sound at all. A useful feature, it allows you to control the sound of the accordion.
The Placement Of The Bass Buttons
It isn’t difficult to see the piano key side of an accordion when you play. However, the buttons on the bass side aren’t visible from the view of the musician. To play the accordion, you have to memorize them, and that is one of the biggest challenges for new players.
The majority of accordions use what is known as the Stradella, or standard bass system. The buttons are laid out using the circle of fifths. If you are unfamiliar with that aspect of musical theory, then Circle of Fifths Explained: Understanding the Basics of Harmonic Organization will be invaluable.
The buttons are arranged C, G, D, A, E, B, and F. The buttons cover both Root Notes, and the major third above the root, plus major and minor chords, Sevenths and Diminished Sevenths.
Usually, the columns are arranged for both the notes and chords. You do get a little bit of tactile help to assist you. This is especially helpful for newer players.
The rote note of C as an example usually comes with something inserted to make it feel different to the touch. That helps to assist you, so you know where you are.
Free Bass Accordions
More popular in Europe than anywhere else is the free bass system. In that arrangement, the buttons are all single notes rather than chords.
There are some advantages with that style allowing you to create easy ‘walking’ bass lines. And it is still possible to play chords if you have the hand span to reach.
How They Work
They are more than an interesting instrument and, in many ways, unique. The process by which accordions produce their sounds is quite simple.
Not dissimilar in many ways to Scottish bagpipes. They both rely on a flow of air, and both have an air transfer system built in to create the sound. You use a combination of keys, buttons, reeds, switches, and the all-important bellows to give you the sound.
It all sounds very complex when you write it down. But once you have begun to play, it is all quite straightforward. If you are thinking of taking up the accordion, then here are a couple of options.
- Hohner Bravo II 48 Chromatic Piano Key Accordion
- Roland FR-1X Premium V-Accordion Lite
- Hohner Panther G/C/F 3-Row Diatonic Accordion
And for a young beginner, there is this Eastar Kids Accordion Toy Accordion.
Just One More Thing
There is one thing you may notice that I haven’t mentioned. Some people get put off the price point. On the face of it, to get a good accordion is quite an investment. But that’s one reason I included the information about the manufacturing process.
The majority of this instrument is put together by hand. It is not some machine cutting out the body of a Fender Telecaster guitar. This is machine-tooled and includes a range of good quality materials, which are then hand assembled.
Time and materials all play their part in the cost. And on that basis, in my opinion, a decent instrument is actually not that expensive.
Interested in the Accordion and Other Instruments?
We can help with that. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Bagpipes, the Best Melodica, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Blues Harmonicas, the Best Cheap Keyboard Piano, and the Best Keyboard Synthesizer you can buy in 2023.
And don’t miss our handy articles on What Are Double Reed Instruments, Easiest Musical Instruments for Adults, The Difference Between Brass and Woodwind Instruments, The Romantic Period of Music, and The Baroque Music Period for more useful musical information.
How Do Accordions Work – Conclusion
Don’t be intimidated. Now you know how accordions work and a little about what makes them work. It can seem intimidating. But don’t let it bother you.
Once you get into it, it becomes much easier. In many ways, it turns you into a one-man band, and overnight you can become very popular indeed. Enjoy.
Until next time, let your music play.