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The accordion is a portable box-shaped musical instrument of the hand-held bellows-driven free-reed aerophone family, sometimes referred to as a squeezebox. A person who plays the accordion is called an accordionist.

It is played by compressing or expanding a bellows whilst pressing buttons or keys, causing valves, called pallets, to open, which allow air to flow across strips of brass or steel, called reeds, that vibrate to produce sound inside the body.

The instrument is sometimes considered a one-man-band as it needs no accompanying instrument. The performer normally plays the melody on buttons or keys on the right-hand manual, and the accompaniment — consisting of bass and pre-set chord buttons — on the left-hand manual.

The accordion is often used in folk music in Europe, North America and South America. It is commonly associated with busking. Some popular music acts also make use of the instrument. Additionally, the accordion is sometimes used in both solo and orchestra performances of classical music.

The oldest name for this group of instruments is actually harmonika, from the Greek harmonikos, meaning harmonic, musical. Today, native versions of the name accordion are more common. These names are a reference to the type of accordion patented by Cyrill Demian, which concerned “automatically coupled chords on the bass side”.


Accordions are made in a large number of different configurations and types. What may be technically possible to do with one accordion could be impossible with another:

  • Some accordions are bisonoric, meaning they produce different pitch depending on the direction of bellows movement.
  • Others are unisonoric and produce the same pitch regardless of the direction of bellows movement.
  • Some accordions use a chromatic buttonboard for the right-hand manual.
  • Others use a diatonic buttonboard for the right-hand manual.
  • Yet others use a piano-style musical keyboard for the right-hand manual.
  • Some accordions are capable of playing in different register than others.
  • Additionally, different accordion craftsmen and technicians may tune the same registers in a slightly different manner, essentially “personalizing” the end result, such as an organ technician might voice a particular instrument.

Universal components


The bellows is the most recognizable part of the instrument, and the primary means of articulation. Similar to a violin's bow, the production of sound in an accordion is in direct proportion to the motion of the player. It is located between the right- and left-hand manuals, and is made from pleated layers of cloth and cardboard, with added leather and metal. It is used to create pressure and vacuum, driving air across the internal reed and producing sound by their vibration, applied pressure increasing the volume.

The keyboard touch is not expressive and does not affect dynamics: all expression is effected through the bellows: some bellows effects as illustrated in the side box:
  1. Bellows used for volume control/fade.
  2. Repeated change of direction (“bellows shake”).
  3. Constant bellows motion while applying pressure at intervals.
  4. Constant bellows motion to produce clear tones with no resonance.
  5. Using the bellows with the silent air button gives the sound of air moving, which is sometimes used in contemporary compositions particularly for this instrument.


The accordion's body consists of two wood boxes joined together by a bellows. These boxes house reed chambers for the right- and left-hand manual, respectively. Each side has grilles in order to facilitate the transmission of air in and out of the instrument, and to allow the sound to better project. The grille for the right-hand manual is usually larger and is often shaped for decorative purposes. The right-hand manual is normally used for playing the melody and the left-hand manual for playing the accompaniment, however skilled players can reverse these roles.

The size and weight of an accordion varies depending on its type, layout and playing range, which can be as small as to have only one or two rows of basses and a single octave on the right-hand manual, to the standard 120-bass accordion and through to large and heavy 160-bass free-bass converter models.

Pallet mechanism

The accordion is an aerophone. The manual mechanism of the instrument either enables the air flow, or disables it:

An illustration of the pallet mechanism in Piano Accordions.
As the key is pressed down the pallet is lifted, allowing for air to enter the tone chamber in either direction and excite the reeds; air flow direction depends on the direction of bellows movement.
Note that this is a side view of a piano accordion keyboard, so a similar effective mechanical pallet movement is used for buttons, both on button accordions and bass mechanisms, including the Stradella machine.

Variable components

There is a wide range of instruments that are called accordion. The different types have varying components. All instruments have reed ranks of some format. Not all have switches.

Right-hand manual systems

Different systems exist for the right-hand manual of an accordion, which is normally used for playing the melody. Some use a button layout arranged in one way or another, while others use a piano-style keyboard. Each system has different claimed benefits by those who prefer it. They are also used to define one accordion or another as a different “type”:

Left-hand manual systems

Different systems are also in use for the left-hand manual, which is normally used for playing the accompaniment. These almost always use distinct bass buttons and often have buttons with concavities or studs to help the player navigate the layout despite not being able to see the buttons while playing. There are three general categories:

  • The Stradella bass system — also called standard bass — which is arranged in a circle of fifths and uses single buttons for chords.
  • The Belgian bass system in use in Belgiummarker, also arranged in circle of fifths but in reverse order.This system has 3 rows of basses, 3 rows of chord buttons allowing easier fingering for playing melodies, combined chords, better use of fingers 1 and 5, and more space between the buttons. This system was poorly traded outside of native Belgium.
  • Various free-bass systems for greater access to playing melodies on the left-hand manual and to forming one's own chords. These are often chosen for playing classical music.

Reed ranks & switches

Accordion reed ranks with closeup of reeds.

Inside the accordion are the reed that generate the instrument tones. These are organized in different sounding ranks, which can be further combined into producing differing timbres. All but the smaller accordions are equipped with switches that control which combination of reed ranks can be brought into operation, organized from high to low register. Each register stop enables different sound timbres. See the accordion reed ranks & switches article for further explanation and audio samples.

All but the very small accordions usually have treble switches. The larger and more expensive accordions often also have bass switches.


The larger piano and chromatic button accordions are usually heavier than other smaller squeezeboxes, and are equipped with two shoulder straps to make it easier to balance the weight and increase bellows control while sitting, and avoid dropping the instrument while standing.

Other accordions, such as the diatonic button accordion, have only a single shoulder strap and a right hand thumb strap. All accordions have a (mostly adjustable) leather strap on the left-hand manual to keep the player's hand in position while drawing the bellows. There are also straps above and below the bellows to keep it securely closed when the instrument is not playing.

Unusual accordions

Garmon player.
Various hybrid accordions have been created between instruments of different buttonboards and actions. Many remain curiosities — only a few have remained in use. For example:
  • The Schrammel accordion, used in Viennesemarker chamber music and Klezmer, which has the treble buttonboard of a chromatic button accordion and a bisonoric bass buttonboard, similar to an expanded diatonic button accordion.
  • The schwyzerörgeli or Swissmarker organ, which usually has a 3-row diatonic treble and 18 unisonoric bass buttons in a bass/chord arrangement — actually a subset of the Stradella system — that travel parallel to the bellows motion.
  • The Trikitixa of the Basque people has a 2-row diatonic, bisonoric treble and a 12-button diatonic unisonoric bass.
  • In Scotlandmarker, the favoured diatonic accordion is the instrument known as the British Chromatic Accordion. While the right hand is bisonoric, the left hand follows the Stradella system. The elite form of this instrument is generally considered to be the German manufactured Shand Morino, produced by Hohner with the input of Sir Jimmy Shand.


8-key bisonoric diatonic accordion (c.
The accordion's basic form is believed to have been invented in Berlinmarker in 1822 by Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann, although one instrument has been recently discovered that appears to have been built in 1816 or earlier by Friedrich Lohner of Nürnbergmarker in the Germanmarker State of Bavariamarker.

The accordion is one of several European inventions of the early 19th century that used free reeds driven by a bellows. An instrument called accordion was first patented in 1829 by Cyrill Damian, of Armenian descent, in Viennamarker .

Demian's instrument bore little resemblance to modern instruments. It only had a left hand buttonboard, with the right hand simply operating the bellows. One key feature for which Demian sought the patent was the sounding of an entire chord by depressing one key. His instrument also could sound two different chords with the same key; one for each bellows direction (a bisonoric action).

At that time in Vienna, mouth harmonicas with Kanzellen (chambers) had already been available for many years, along with bigger instruments driven by hand bellows. The diatonic key arrangement was also already in use on mouth-blown instruments. Demian's patent thus covered an accompanying instrument: an accordion played with the left hand, opposite to the way that contemporary chromatic hand harmonicas were played, small and light enough for travelers to take with them and used to accompany singing. The patent also described instruments with both bass and treble sections, although Demian preferred the bass-only instrument owing to its cost and weight advantages .

The first pages in Adolph Müller's accordion book.
The musician Adolph Müller described a great variety of instruments in his 1833 book, Schule für Accordion. At the time, Viennamarker and Londonmarker had a close musical relationship, with musicians often performing in both cities in the same year, so it is possible that Wheatstone was aware of this type of instrument and may have used them to put his key-arrangement ideas into practice.

Jeune's flutina resembles Wheatstone's concertina in internal construction and tone color, but it appears to complement Demian's accordion functionally. The flutina is a one-sided bisonoric melody-only instrument whose keys are operated with the right hand while the bellows is operated with the left. When the two instruments are combined, the result is quite similar to diatonic button accordions still manufactured today.

Further innovations followed and continue to the present. Various buttonboard and keyboard systems have been developed, as well as voicings (the combination of multiple tones at different octaves), with mechanisms to switch between different voices during performance, and different methods of internal construction to improve tone, stability and durability.

Use in various music genres

The accordion has traditionally been used to perform folk or ethnic music, popular music, and transcriptions from the operatic and light-classical music repertoire. Today the instrument is sometimes heard in contemporary pop styles, such as rock, pop-rock, etc., and occasionally even in serious classical music concerts, as well as advertisements.

Use in traditional music

Invented in 1829, its popularity spread rapidly: it has mostly been associated with the common people, and was spread by Europeans who emigrated around the world. The accordion in both button and piano forms became a favorite of folk musicians and has been integrated into traditional music styles all over the world: see the list of traditional music styles that incorporate the accordion.

Use in popular music

The accordion appeared in popular music from the 1900s-1960s. This half century is often called the "Golden Age of the Accordion." Three players: Pietro Frosini, and the two brothers Count Guido Deiro and Pietro Deiro were major influences at this time.

Most Vaudeville theaters closed during the Great Depression, but accordionists during 1930s-1950s taught and performed for radio. During the 1950s through the 1980s the accordion received great exposure on television with performances by Myron Floren on the Lawrence Welk Show. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the accordion declined in popularity.

In popular music, it is now generally considered exotic and old-fashioned to include the accordion, especially in music for advertisements. Some popular acts do use the instrument in their distinctive sounds. See the list of popular music acts that incorporate the accordion.In 1993, during their MTV Unplugged performance performance, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic used accordion while covering The Vaselines song Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.

The New York band They Might Be Giants extensively use the accordion in many of their recordings, especially on earlier albums such as Apollo 18 .

Perhaps the most famous accordionist in popular music is "Weird Al" Yankovic, who has used the accordion in every album he has recorded, most extensively on his debut album.

Another great example would be the Irish-American band Flogging Molly. The group consists of 7 members, one of which being an accordionist (Matt Hensley).

Additionally, the Canadian indie-rock group Arcade Fire uses accordion in much of their music. It can distinctly be heard in the tracks "Neighborhood #2 Laika", "Wake up", and "No Cars Go" among many others. The former two can be found on the album entitled "Funeral" and the Latter on "Neon Bible".

Dr. Steel uses accordion in many of his songs, such as "Lullabye Bye" and "Bogeyman Boogie." Tom Waits used an accordion in his video for the song cover of "Downtown Train" in 1985. On a Raffi concert video called "Raffi on Broadway", Connie Lebeau played this accordion in "De Colores" and a Raffi song called "Will I Ever Grow Up". Polka Floyd injects accordion into Pink Floyd music.

Use in classical music

Although best known as a folk instrument, it has grown in popularity among classical composers. The earliest surviving concert piece is , written in 1836 by Miss Louise Reisner of Parismarker. Other composers, including the Russian Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Italian Umberto Giordano, and the American Charles Ives (1915), wrote works for the diatonic button accordion.

The first composer to write specifically for the chromatic accordion was Paul Hindemith. In 1922, the Austrian Alban Berg included an accordion in Wozzeck, Op. 7. Other notable composers have written for the accordion during the first half of the 20th century American composer William P. Perry featured the accordion in his orchestral suite "Six Title Themes in Search of a Movie" (2008).


The accordion is a traditional instrument in Brazilmarker. Used in the style known as baião in the northeast. Luiz Gonzaga is known as the king of baião.

Use in heavy metal music

Accordionists in heavy metal make their most extensive appearances in the folk metal sub-genre, and are otherwise generally rare. Full-time accordionists in folk metal seem even rarer, but they are still utilized for studio work, as flexible keyboardists are usually more accessible for live performances.

Notably, the Finnish symphonic folk-metal band Turisas has always had a full-time accordionist, employing classical and polka-style sensibilities alongside a violinist. Another Finnish metal band, Korpiklaani, invokes a type of Finnish polka called humppa, and also has a full-time accordionist. Sarah Kiener, the former hurdy-gurdy player for the Swiss melodic-death/folk metal band Eluveitie, played a Helvetic accordion known as a zugerörgeli, which could be a distant relative (in one way or another) to the Swiss schwyzerörgeli, as both are indigenous to and very rare outside of Switzerland.

The lead vocalist for the pirate metal band Alestorm plays a keytar and often uses it to make accordion sounds.

Manufacturing process

The best accordions are always fully hand-made, especially in the aspect of reeds; completely hand-made reeds have a far better tonal quality than even the best automatically-manufactured reeds. Some accordions have been modified by individuals striving to bring a more pure sound out of low-end instruments, such as the ones improved by Yutaka Usui, a Japanese-born craftsman.

The manufacture of an accordion is only a partly automated process. In a sense, all accordions are handmade, since there is always some hand assembly of the small parts required. The general process involves making the individual parts, assembling the subsections, assembling the entire instrument, and final decorating and packaging.

Other audio samples

Accordion organizations



  1. To see the accordion’s place among the families of musical instruments, see Henry Doktorski’s Taxonomy of Musical Instruments (The Classical Free-Reed, Inc.). Also on this page is Diarmuid Pigott’s The Free-Reed Family of Aerophones.
  2. Dyremose, Jeanette & Lars, Det levende bælgspil (2003), p.133
  3. How To Repair Bellows
  4. Guido Deiro claimed to be the first accordionist to play a solo with the left hand: Sharpshooter's March (1908). See Guido Deiro, Guido Deiro's Own Story of Sharpshooters March, The Pietro Musicordion, Volume 6, Number 2 (May-June 1948).
  5. Illustration made with reference from a similar illustration that can be found in both Det levende bælgspil (p. 9) by Jeanette & Lars Dyremose (2003), and Harmonikaens historie (p. 35a) by Bjarne Glenstrup (1972, The University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Music).
  6. Dan Lindgren, Piano Accordion vs. Chromatic Button Accordion Online PDF
  7. p.98, Howard, Rob (2003) An A to Z of the Accordion and related instruments Stockport: Robaccord Publications ISBN 0-9546711-0-4
  8. This is the accordion owned by Fredrik Dillner of Sweden which was built by F. Lohner of Nürnberg, in the German State of Bavaria in 1816 or earlier. See Interview With Fredrik Dillner - The Owner Of What May Be The World's Oldest Accordion (Probably Built In 1816 Or Earlier)
  9. A summary and pictures of this patent can be found at Demian's accordion patent (The Classical Free-Reed, Inc.)
  10. Henry Doktorski, CD booklet notes for "Guido Deiro: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1," Archeophone Records (2007).
  11. Sometimes in modern pop music the accordion is not actually played, but its sound is heard by use of a MIDI instrument and sampled sound module.
  12. Christoph Wagner, "A Brief History of How the Accordion Changed the World," CD booklet notes for Planet Squeezebox, performed by various artists, (Roslyn, New York: Ellipsis Arts, 1995), 6.
  13. Myron Floren and Randee Floren, Accordion Man, with a forward by Lawrence Welk (The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont: 1981)
  14. See Accordion Composers in German
  15. Henry Doktorski, "The Classical Squeezebox: A Short History of the Accordion and Other Free-Reed Instruments in Classical Music," The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. (1997).
  16. Yutaka Usuai, Japanese-born accordion craftsman.
  17. How Accordions Are Made see this site

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