button accordion

Also:       melodeon      

Title: Traditional Songs of Scotland--Twa Recruiting Sergeants; Martin Carthy, guitar, John Kirkpatrick, button accordion. Label: Musical Heritage Society. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 513121Y. Track: 7.

Title: Ultramerengue!--Si Tu Padre Te Abochorna (If Your Father Humiliates You); Francisco Ulloa, button accordion, with Conjunto Tipico Dominicano. Label: Xenophile. Format: CD. Catalogue#: GLCD 4004. Track: 8.

Contextual Associations

The button accordion is a bellows-driven, free-reed aerophone originating in Germany in the 19th century. This particular accordion was made by the Koch company in Trossingen, Germany, and bears the model name Harmonica. In addition to being incorporated into European folk music traditions (listen to the first audio clip), the button accordion and its relatives (the keyboard accordion and the concertina), due to their portability, became widely distributed throughout the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where they have been integrated into non-European traditions such as merengue music of the Dominican Republic (listen to the second audio clip).


The button accordion pictured on this page consists of a bellows and two reed cases (a treble and a bass case) with button boards. Within the two reed cases are housed several dozen steel reeds organized along the sides of reed blocks, of which there are two inside the treble casing and one inside the bass casing. Each wall of a reed block consists of a series of metal reed plates, each plate with two metal reeds one of which is mounted on the outside of the plate, the other on the inside. 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. Twenty-one buttons arranged in two parallel rows of eleven and ten are located on the treble reed box of the instrument (see first detail photo for a view of the button-to-pallet cover linkage; pressing down a button lifts its pallet cover which then allows air to pass over two free reeds mounted on the reed block); on the bass reed case eight buttons (two rows of four each, see second details photo) provide links to sets of reeds to produce chords. Connecting the two reed boxes is an airtight bellows made of cardboard that when stretched sucks air into both reed boxes and over the reed plates inside them. Squeezing the bellows forces air in the bellows to escape through the reed plates and out the sides of the reed boxes. For more illustrations of accordion free reeds and how they are mounted on reed blocks, see separate entry for ‘accordion’.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The button accordion is held horizontally across the player’s lap. A strap for the player’s left hand is located on the side of the bass reed case (see second detail image) to make possible the operation of the bellows, which must be pulled and squeezed alternately to provide the airstream necessary to activate the reeds. All buttons are single action, meaning that they produce different pitches or groups of pitches when the bellows is drawn and when it is pressed/squeezed (similar to inhaling and exhaling on most harmonicas). The player's right hand works the button board mostly for melodic play, while the left hand works a smaller button keyboard to produce bass-register notes and chords. The treble keyboard, with 21 buttons, covers a range of just over three octaves (D3 - E6). The layout of the button board in two parallel rows is important because the notes produced in one of the rows is basically a transposition of the notes produced in the other row (the 11-button row is tuned a P4 below the 10-button row). And here is where the model name of this instrument--Harmonica--is significant. Buttons 2-9 on the 10-button row produce the same sequence of pitches as holes 3-10 on a vamper-type harmonica in C Major (see entry for harmonica, third paragraph); buttons 3-10 on the 11-button row produce the same pitches as holes 3-10 on a vamper-type harmonica tuned to G Major.


The free-reed concept was introduced to Europe in the late 18th century from China, where it had been in use for millennia (see entry for sheng). All accordion family instruments in Europe can be traced back to an 1829 patent by the Austrian maker Cyrillus Demian. Button accordions of many designs have been around since that date; the more familiar form of accodion, with a piano-like keyboard on the treble side of the instrument, was introduced in 1859. Steel reeds came to replace brass reeds in the course of the second half of the 19th century.

Bibliographic Citations

Quinn, Sean. 1999. “accordion,” in The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Fintan Vallely, ed. New York: New York University Press, pp. 1-6.

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Nation: Germany

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


11 in. height

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
reed - metal





Entry Author

Roger Vetter