Also:       harmoniam      

Title: Shahen-Shah--Allah, Mohammed, Char, Yaar; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party. Label: Realworld. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 91300-2. Track: 2.

Contextual Associations

The harmonium is a free-reed aerophone with a piano-like keyboard introduced to the Indian subcontinent by missionaries around the mid-19th century. It met with immediate success, was subsequently adapted by South Asians to their own musical traditions (numerous instruction books appeared around the end of the 19th century), and was eventually manufactured, in modified designs, on the subcontinent itself. The instrument pictured here is an example of an Indian made harmonium intended for a South Asian clientele. Used primarily as a vocal accompaniment instrument in a diverse assortment of genres from devotional music (Hindu, Islamic, Sikh, and Christian), to light classical music, to classical concert performance. In some vocal genres it came to replace indigenous accompanying instruments such as the sarangi (a bowed lute). Not everyone accepted this immigrant instrument: its use on All India Radio was banned from 1940 to 1980 because it was considered unfit for Hindustani classical music, its set pitches incapable of capturing the subtle melodic inflections of Indian melody. Nonetheless, it continued to be used throughout the period of its ban on the radio and is still popular today. The instrument is also found in the music making of Indian communities around the world, largely the consequence of late-19th and early-20th century migrations of northern Indian contract laborers to plantations in the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago) and South America (Guyana), South Africa, and the Pacific (Fiji). Later waves of migrations, either directly from India or indirectly from former British colonies, brought many South Asians, and genres of folk, religious, and popular music using the harmonium, to Great Britain and the United States.


This harmonium has a three-fold bellows attached to the backside of its wooden case, a piano-like keyboard, two drone stops (the smaller knobs in the top row on the front side of the case), and four reed stops (the four larger knobs in the bottom row) that appear to be decorative rather than functional on this instrument. Access to the interior of this instrument was not possible so it is unclear whether this instrument has a single reed bank with 39 brass reeds (one for each key on the keyboard) or a pair of basically identical banks that always sound together (the latter arrangement would increase the loudness of the instrument and effect the tone quality of the notes). The two drone reeds are separate from the reeds operated by the keyboard. Depressing a keyboard key or pulling out a drone stop opens a valve that allows pressurized air (from the bellows) into a channel that passes over a tuned free reed. Such reeds are made from a thin plate of brass with a long and narrow aperture through which a thin tongue attached at one end can freely vibrate. The length of a tongue determines its pitch, its width contributes to its tone quality.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The harmonium is played while sitting on the floor. Air is provided by means of a bellows affixed to the back of the instrument and operated by one of the performer’s hands, the thumb and fingers of the other hand depress the keys on the keyboard to produce melodies or, occasionally, simultaneous sounding pitches. A fully chromatic scale over a range of three octaves plus a major second--C3 - D6--is available. Two additional drone notes are available and can be sounded individually or together: E-flat3 and A-flat3. The selected drone note/s sound continuously while the reeds attached to the keyboard sound only as long as their respective keys are depressed. The harmonium is typically used to shadow and support vocalists, and in some genres to provide a melodic introduction before the singers enter and interludes between verses of a song. It is not uncommon for a vocal soloist him or her self to play the harmonium while singing.


The harmonium, patented in 1842, was introduced to India as early as the middle of the 19th century by missionaries. At some time in the late-19th or early-20th century, the instrument began to be mass produced on the Indian subcontinent. From that point on, makers modified and elaborated upon the instrument’s basic mechanics to produce models with features meant to work within Indian musical sensibilities and needs. Today, manufacturers of harmoniums are found in many Indian and Pakistani cities.

Bibliographic Citations

Beck, Guy. 2000. "Religious and Devotional Music: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 246-258.

Jackson, William. 2000. " Religious and Devotional Music: Southern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 259-271.

Miner, Allyn. 2000. "Musical Instruments: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 331-347.

Owen, Barbara. 1984. “Reed organ.” NGDMI v.3: 219-226.

________, and Alastair  Dick. 1984. “Harmonium.” NGDMI v.2: 131.

Viswanathan, T., and Matthew Harp Allen. 2004. Music in South India: The Karnatak Concert Tradition and Beyond: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wade, Bonnie. 1979. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: South Asia

Nation: India

Formation: Indo-Aryan

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

412.132-8 aerophone--set of idiophonic interruptive free reeds: each reed/lamella itself vibrates through a closely-fitting slot when activated by an airstream; with keyboard

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: no standing wave cavity

Source and direction of airstream: mechanically-selected outflow from bellows-supplied reservoir of pressurized air channeled into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: encased free reed mounted on block

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - multiple single-pitch free reeds activated indirectly with pitch selection facilitated by a keyboard


20.9 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - metal

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin