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Title: Global Accodion--Viva la giga; Caesare Pezzolo, accordion. Label: Wergo. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SM 1623 2. Track: 10.

Title: Sheshwe: The Sound of the Mines--Ngoanaka; Manonyane A Moama. Label: Rounder. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD 5031. Track: 8.

Title: Sofia Gubaldulina--Con Moto, from Et exspecto, by Sofia Gubaldulina; Geir Draugsvoll, accordion. Label: BIS. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD-710. Track: 11.

Contextual Associations

The accordion is a free-reed aerophone of Europe, invented in the 19th century but today found integrated into musical practices around the world. The instrument pictured here, sometimes referred to as a ‘piano accordion’ because of its keyboard, was made in Italy by the Castelli company in the mid-20th century. While various types of accordions have been incorporated into a wide range of European and American folk and popular music forms (first audio clip), they have also come to be important instruments in the music cultures of distant places such as China, South America, Oceania, and Africa (second sound clip, from the Southern African Sotho people). Occasionally, western academic composers will write works for this instrument (third sound clip), but the instrument has for the most part operated outside of the Western academic world; there has never been the need to hold a university degree in accordion performance to become a successful professional accordionist. The far-reaching distribution of the accordion throughout the world today is the product of 19th and 20th century migrations of European peasants, of sailors working in an ever-expanding network of international sea trade, and of entrepreneurs seeking new markets for a mass-produced commodity. A versatile and relatively inexpensive instrument used in many 19th-century European folk music and dance traditions, the accordion helped migrants hold on to their homeland social traditions wherever they relocated. At the same time, these very same transplanted practices, along with the accordion, were appropriated by new communities around the world, leading to the creation of numerous new genres of hybridized music.


The common form of the accordion pictured on this page consists of a bellows and two reed cases (a treble and a bass case) with keyboards (see first detail image in which these three sections have been separated, the treble casing, with a piano-like keyboard to the right, the bass casing with buttons to the left, and the bellows in the center). Within the two reed cases are housed several hundred steel reeds organized along the sides of reed blocks, of which there are three inside the treble/keyboard casing (see second detail image) and two inside the bass/button casing (see third detail image). Each wall of a reed block consists of a series of metal reed plates, each plate with two reeds one of which is mounted on the outside of the plate, the other on the inside (see the fourth detail image). One of the reeds on each reed plate is designed to sound when the bellows-driven airflow is going in one direction, the other reed when the airstream is going in the opposite direction. Strips of flexible leather function as valves, silencing reeds they cover when the airflow presses against them, and opening and allowing the reed to vibrate when the airflow is in the other direction (for each reed plate there is a leather valve inside the reed block for the reed that is exposed on the plate’s outer side). The airstream necessary to sound a given reed is directed to it by manipulating a palette that is opened and closed by manually depressing and releasing keys. For instance, on the treble casing the depressing of a particular key lifts its palette (see fifth detail image in which the palette board is exposed and the linkages between the ends of keys and their palettes are revealed), which in turn channels the airstream over the three particular plates on the reed blocks with reeds tuned to that key’s pitch (in the sixth detail image the three air channels that are opened by lifting a palette are visible). This arrangement is replicated 41 times on the treble casing side of the instrument, once for each of the 41 keys on the keyboard. A more complicated mechanism is in place in the bass casing of this instrument that allows for various combinations of palettes to be opened by depressing a single button (no detail images available). The bellows are made from folded and pleated cardboard with metal reinforced corners. By pulling open the bellows outside air is sucked into the reed casings and through any opened palettes and the reed plates they control; by pushing or squeezing the already stretched bellows the enclosed air is forced out of the instrument, passing over any reeds the palettes of which are open. This is a double-action accordion, meaning that for any depressed keys or buttons the same pitches are produced whether the bellows are being pulled or pushed (this is because the two reeds on each reed plate are tuned to unison and, due to their leather valves, only one of the reeds sounds when the airstream is moving in one direction and only the other reed sounds when the airstream is moving in the opposite direction). This is not the case with several other related types of free-reed accordions such as the button accordion and some types of concertinas.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The accordion is held horizontally across the player’s chest with aid of a shoulder strap. A strap for the player’s left hand is located on the side of the bass reed case to make possible the operation of the bellows, which must be stretched and squeezed alternately to provide the airstream necessary to activate the reeds. The player's right hand works a piano-like (chromatic) keyboard mostly for melodic play, while the left hand works a button keyboard (with six rows of twenty buttons each) some of which produce bass-register notes and others chords. The treble keyboard, with 41 keys, covers chromatically a range of two octaves and a major third (F2 - A5). However, by pressing a register bar, different sets of reeds can be brought into play. On this particular accordion, two further sets of reeds tuned an octave higher (F3 - A6) can be made to sound simultaneously with the lower set of reeds. On the bass side of the instrument, which has 120 buttons organized into six rows of 20 buttons each, two of the rows each produce series of notes organized in the cycle of fifths (the first row starts on C-sharp3, the second on A2); each of the other four rows of buttons produces chords of a particular color--major, minor, dominant 7th and diminished chords, all these rows are also sequenced in the cycle of fifths.


The free-reed concept was introduced to Europe in the late 18th century from China, where it had been in use for millennia (see sheng). All accordion family instruments in Europe can be traced back to an 1829 patent by the Austrian maker Cyrillus Demian, but it wasn’t until 1859 that a French maker added a piano-like keyboard to the treble side of the instrument to replace the button keyboard. Steel reeds came to replace brass reeds in the course of the second half of the 19th century, and the form of the instrument with which we are familiar today (and pictured here) did not develop until the early twentieth century, by which time the bass side keyboard with 120 buttons in six rows had evolved.

Bibliographic Citations

Romani, G., and Ivor Beynon. 1984. “Accordion,” NGDMI v.1: 6-8.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

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: bellows outflow and inflow creates airstream through instrument; bidirectional

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


18 in. length of reed casings and bellows 8.5 in. width of reed casings and bellows 19.6 in. length of keyboard

Primary Materials

reed - metal



Entry Author

Roger Vetter