Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for August 2013

Composer Biography: John Taverner (c1490-1545)

leave a comment »

John Taverner was the leading English composer of sacred music in the early 16th century. His Masses and motets exemplify the English preference for long melismas, full textures, and cantus-firmus structures (where the chant is sung or played slowly in a single voice while the other voices swirl around it in polyphony), which, after the Reformation, would be completely out of vogue.

But he was pre-eminent among English musicians of his day, enriching and transforming the English florid style by drawing on its best qualities, as well as employing some Continental techniques, despite England’s tendency toward musical isolationism. He produced simple works of great poise and refinement.

Near the end of his life, Taverner wrote a piece for viol consort, called In Nomine and based on a chant of the same name. Over the next century, over 200 pieces would be written in imitation of his piece—he created a new genre of music! Taverner’s original was from his Sanctus movement in the Mass he wrote called Gloria tibi trininitas. With Catholic Masses no longer being held, he recycled his own work by transcribing it for instruments to get rid of the egregious—and illegal–Latin. The In Nomine became one of the most popular genres of English music for viol consort, and stayed popular until Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) setting of it at the end of the 17th century. By then, no one remembered that it was John Taverner who started it all.

Little is known about the man himself. He was probably born in Tattershall, Lincolnshire, England. According to one of his own letters, he was related to the Yerboughs, a well-to-do Lincolnshire family. There are no records of him until 1524, when he was a clerk at the collegiate church of Tattershall. That same year, he traveled from Tattershall Lincolnshire to the Church of St. Botolph in nearby Boston as a guest singer.

In 1526, Taverner was appointed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (c1473-1530) to be instructor of the choristers of Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, and around 1530, he became a lay clerk and probably an instructor of the choristers at the parish church of St. Botolph, also by invitation of Cardinal Wolsey.

In 1528, he was embroiled in an uprising of Lutheran heresy at Cardinal College, although there is no evidence that his views were seriously in conflict with Catholicism (which was still the national religion). He was reprimanded but escaped punishment because he was “but a musician” and couldn’t know better. His big supporter Wolsey fell from favor in 1529, and Taverner left Oxford in 1530. He probably returned to Boston, Lincolnshire, where he owned a small amount of land.

Taverner had no further musical appointments, nor can any of his known works be dated to after that time, so he might have stopped composing altogether. In the early 1530s, he was a lay clerk at the Guild of St. Mary at a Boston parish church, which was disbanded by the late 1530s. By 1537, he was a member of the Guild of Corpus Christi in Boston, and he’d retired from full-time employment as a church musician. He was treasurer of the organization from 1541-1543.

Some say that he worked as an agent of Thomas Cromwell (c1485-1540), assisting in the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541, although there are questions about whether this can be true.

He was appointed alderman of Boston in 1545, shortly before his death.

His works were mostly vocal, and included eight Masses, some Mass fragments, three Magnificats, 22 motets, and four votive antiphons (songs to Mary or other saints), three Office pieces, three secular pieces, and a few consort pieces and fragmentary secular part songs, all of which date from the 1520s.

One of his best-known works is the motet Dum Transisset Sabbatum. His best known Mass is based on a popular song called The Western Wynde. Always worthy of imitation, John Sheppard (c1515-1558) and Christopher Tye (c1505-c1502) would later wrote Masses based on the same song. Taverner’s Mass is unusual for the period because the theme tune appears in each of the six parts (except the alto) at various times.

Each movement (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus, and Agnus Dei) in his Masses have about the same length, often achieved by putting the same number of repetitions of thematic material in each. (In The Western Wynde, for example, the theme is repeated nine times in each section.) For those movements with less text, Taverner uses long melismas (winding melodies on single syllables) to make up the duration difference.

Three of his Masses use the cantus firmus technique, which puts a slow version of a chant into the tenor line. The other voice parts wiggle polyphonically all around the steady, regular chant melody. (For more about polyphony, check out my blog post called Chords versus Polyphony.) Another technique is used in his Mass Mater Christi, which, because it’s based on his own motet of the same name, is called a “parody” Mass. The Western Wynde is based on a secular tune and is in a less expansive, more Lutheran style of music than the others.

His Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas started a certain style of instrumental music called the In Nomine. Although the Mass itself is in six parts, some virtuosic sections reduce the number of parts, presumably so that it could be done by soloists. It was something that he did in several of his Masses. But then he went one step further: he took the In Nomine chunk out of the Benedictus movement and made a viol consort piece out of it. Other composers came to write works modeled on this pattern, until, a hundred years later, there were more than 200 of them..

Taverner’s Magnificats are the pinnacle of the development of the early Tudor Mass. They’re written for six voices, use cantus firmus, and show a resourceful use of contrasted voice-groupings and full-choir passages to duck and weave in a magical way.

The Magnificats are large-scale, florid works in the English tradition, also using a cantus firmus. Two of his antiphons (Mater Christi sanctissima and Christe Jesu, pastor bone) show Josquin des Prez’s influence. Taverner, along with Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), resisted the Continental fashion of imitation and ostinato—repeating a rhythmic or melodic gesture—so this clear influence is unusual.

His motets include a number of votive antiphons, which also divide into festal and simpler categories, and alternative pieces including responds. The responds have the appropriate plainsong running through the polyphonic sections in equal note values—cantus firmus again. A particularly fine example is the five-part Dum transisset I, with its points of imitation and smoothly curving vocal lines. (That piece was my first introduction to Taverner’s music. Yum!)

Despite his productivity, he had only one piece in the Mulliner (compiled 1545-1570) book, which was a collection of all the greats from that era, including Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) and Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572).

An opera was written about Taverner in the 1960s and 1970s, called Taverner, by Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-   ). The 20th-century composer with the same name (born 1944) has claimed to be his direct descendant.

He probably died in Boston, Lincolnshire. He’s buried under the bell tower at the Boston Parish church.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1982.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1973.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Instrument Biography: The Accordion

with 6 comments

In the interest of space, the reed organs known as the accordion and the harmonica have been broken out of the Free-Reed Organ (Pump Organ) biography. For more on organs in general, check out my blog post on Pipe Organs.

This article focuses mostly on the accordion, but its younger siblings, the concertina, and the melodeon won’t be left out. Accordions, concertinas, and melodeons are free-reed instruments invented in the early 19th century. All have keyboards attached to headboards that are joined by expandable bellows. The bellows drives air across the reeds. Simple models have only a few buttons or piano keys, but all—especially accordions—can be quite complex.

All three instruments are free reed instruments that are played by squeezing the bellows. The bellows are squeezed when the player presses the headboards toward one another. Unlike other instruments where the bellows are separated mechanically from the keyboard, the keyboards and chord buttons are attached to the bellows itself and the movement of the arms pumping the bellows is coordinated with the hands as they dance across the keys.

In this article, the term accordion is used to mean a rectangular headboard-shape with a piano keyboard on the treble (right-hand) side. Concertina is used to mean a smaller non-square or rectangular headboard with pushbuttons rather than a keyboard. Melodeon is used for the instrument that is rectangular like the accordion, but only has pushbuttons on the treble headboard.


Although it’s suffered a lot of disrespect—American writer Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) said that “the accordion is an instrument with the sentiments of an assassin”—the accordion is really an interesting and amazing instrument. It cleverly uses physics and science to make music, and has captured the attention of many famous folks from many walks of life.

An accordion is a small portable organ of the free-reed type. (An “organ” is an instrument that sounds when air is expelled from a bellows. Yup, just like your lungs.) The accordion’s reeds are arranged so that one note sounds as the bellows are expanded (a “draw”—like an inhalation) and another when they are compressed (a “blow”—like an exhalation). Pressing a single key can sound two different notes because there are two reeds in each chamber.

The accordion has two rectangular headboards connected by a folding bellows. Inside the headboards, metal tongues act as free reeds. The draw reeds sound when the headboards are moved apart from one another (the player opens his arms and expands the bellows), and the blow reeds sound when the headboards are pushed together.

The left hand works the bellows and a large number of “touches,” buttons, or studs, which are used mainly for bass lines and accompaniment. The melody is usually played with the right hand, for which the larger instruments provide a keyboard of four or more octaves. Concertinas and melodeons use buttons on both sides but maintain the separation between treble and bass.

The earliest instruments of this type were made by Buschmann (1822), Buffet (1827), and Damian (1829). You’ll read more about these fellows in the history section. As an instrument of the non-elite, the accordion spread across the globe with immigrants. Both button and piano forms were popular, and the accordion has been used for folk or ethnic music, popular music, and light classical music.

Between 1900 and the 1960s, the accordion enjoyed a “golden age.” It sat center stage during the vaudeville years, and accordions were often heard on the radio between the 30s and the 50s. In the 50s and 60s, Myron Floren was the biggest name on the Lawrence Welk show because of his musical stylings (not to mention the popularity of the polka).

The accordion is considered the national instrument in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and you’ll hear it featured in their folk music, which is called sevdalinka. The accordion is widely used in Brazil in both traditional and pop music, including forró music, particularly the sub-genres of xote and baião. It’s also important in sertanejo music and Brazilian gaucho music.


The concertina is an instrument similar to the accordion, and preferred in England. It’s smaller and has hexagonal headboards with buttons on each. Each end has a handle or grip of some sort and buttons that are pressed to change the notes. In addition to changing which button is pressed, the player must also change the direction of the bellows to articulate the beginning of a new note.

The bandoneon is a related square instrument invented by a fellow called Heinrich Band (1821-1860) in the 1840s and still popular in Argentina, Uruguay, and Lithuania.


The melodeon was originally called a lap organ to distinguish it from its pump organ relative. It is like a cross between a concertina (with buttons for note selection) and an accordion (with keys for note selection) in that it change notes depending on the direction of the airflow (like a harmonica). The left hand plays the bass notes and the right hand plays the treble.

Accordion History

The accordion, like the free-reed organ, is in the same family as the sheng (see the free-reed organ post for more about the sheng). The sheng is much older, and made its way to Europe, probably through Russia, in the late 18th or early 19th century.

The basic form of the accordion is credited to Christian Friedrich Buschmann (1805-1864) in 1822, although there are similar instruments from earlier. Buschmann’s lever-like keys were improved in 1829 by Cyrillus Demian (1772-1847) of Vienna, who called it an “Akkordion” (German for “harmony”) for the first time. Demian’s instrument was similar to Buschmann’s but he included buttons for accompanying chords in the left hand.

Demain’s instrument had only a left-hand button board with the right hand reserved for operating the bellows (the reverse of today’s instrument). His primary concern in applying for a patent was the ability to sound a whole chord by pressing a single key, something that’s still used on the left-hand headboard. His instrument could sound two different chords with the same key, because it was a bisonoric instrument, which means that it made one note or chord during the draw and another during the blow of the bellows. (Unisonoric means that blow and draw get the same note from a single key or button.)

Made in rosewood with inlays of ivory and mother-of-pearl, Demian’s accordion was copied by various other instrument makers, who, unable to use the copyrighted name, called their versions the Handharmonika. Around that time, harmonicas (for which Buschmann also gets credit) with chambers were already available, along with bigger instruments (pump organs) that worked by hand-driven bellows. The diatonic key arrangement was already in use on harmonicas, so it was a short leap to the accordion.

By 1831, the accordion had crossed the channel to England. Reviews were not favorable at first, but it became popular anyway. By the mid 1840s, the accordion had also made its way across the Atlantic, and it was quite popular in New York and around North America.

Charles Wheatstone (more on him in a bit) squished both chords and keyboard together into a single squeezebox. He got a patent in 1844 on what he called a concertina, which had reeds that could be tuned with a simple tool.

Adolph Müller (1801-1886) described a whole bunch of different accordions in his 1833 book “School for the Accordion.” At the time, Vienna and London were merrily exchanging musicians, and it’s possible that Wheatstone knew about Müller’s book.

The flutina, a precursor of the accordion that had a row of diatonic (do-re-mi) buttons in 1831, was created by Pichenot Jeune (which means “young Pichenot,” and his real name and dates are not known), and resembles the concertina in construction and sound. It’s a one-sided bisonoric melody-only instrument that has keys operated with the right hand and bellows by the left (the reverse of Demain’s and more like today’s accordion).

In 1852, Monsieur Busson of Paris introduced piano-type keys. I found no information on this fellow other than that his first name might have been Christian, that he had an accordion society, and that he manufactured accordions, possibly called Busson Brevet.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the bass keyboard had developed enough to produce accompaniment in all key signatures, but the instrument had been relegated to use in cafes, dance halls, and music halls. There was a brief resurgence of popularity when, in 1931, the accordion turned to serious music, and a music school was established for accordion players in the German town of Trossingen, chosen for its proximity to the Höhner accordion factory. The British College of Accordionists was founded in 1936.

As its popularity waned again, it found a home in American jazz, in the traditional Schrammel quartets of Austrian folk music, in Klezmer music, and in polka bands. The accordion is still used for folk music in Europe, North and South America, as well as in Mexico. In Europe and North America, it’s often associated with busking. Rarely, it’s used in both solo and orchestral classical performances. It’s also used in mainstream pop music. Surprised? See my list below…

Concertina History

Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) was a British physicist who is chiefly remembered for his work on the telegraph. But as the son of a Gloucester music seller, he had an interest in instruments. After an internship with his uncle, an instrument maker, he developed the symphonium in 1829 (another free-reed organ, like a harmonica, except buttons were depressed to change notes) and the concertina in 1844.

The concertina developed independently in both England and Germany. Carl Friedrich Uhlig (1798-1874) announced the German version in 1834. (Remember: Pre-Internet, it was perfectly possible for someone in England to develop something “new” that had already been developed 800 miles away in Germany ten years earlier.)

The concertina soon expanded to have a complete chromatic scale. This meant that chamber music and concert pieces with orchestral accompaniment could be written specifically for the concertina, and there were many virtuosi on the instrument.

By the 1850s, the Anglo-German concertina’s ability to play both melody and accompaniment led English manufacturers to develop the duet system. That’s when the various “flavors” became popular—the duet, the Chemnitzer, the Carlsfeld, and the bandoneon. It took until the end of the century for two styles to emerge as the most popular (the Chemnitzer and the bandoneon).

The Salvation Army used the concertina in its bands in English-speaking countries world-wide. German emigrants spread the Chemnitzer and bandoneon to the US and South America. But in the early 20th century, the concertina’s popularity began to wane. The accordion grew in popularity in its place, and the mass production of instruments like the accordion and the piano allowed a greater breadth of musical styles requiring more chromatic options (such as blues and jazz). Also, once the radio and the phonograph were invented, there were simply fewer amateur musicians who wanted to play concertinas.

By the mid-19th century, most concertinas used accordion reeds and cheap buttons. Although it had been on the rise in popularity, interest in the polka soon faded in response to Nazi control of the music clubs in Germany.

The folk revival movement in the 1960s led to a slight uptick in popularity for the concertina, especially in traditional Irish music. Renewed interest in the tango since the 1980s has also brought the bandoneon back into popularity. In a wild whirl of anachronism, 20th century innovation includes the concertina in Morris sides.

Melodeon History

The melodeon’s history was harder to trace. It was first patented in 1829. Melodeons are widely used in Asia and elsewhere. It is most likely the instrument that Buschmann invented in the 1840s, because the shape is the same for accordions and melodeons. It was Demain, after all, who attached levers that would evolve into the modern keyboard. It’s considered an American instrument (although I couldn’t find anything to explain why), and was popular before the 1850s.

The melodeon could be considered a small pump organ with one keyboard and one or two sets of reeds.

Accordion Structure

The accordion, concertina, and melodeon are members of the aerophone family. Changing directions (pushing or pulling) on the bellows causes a change to the pitch and is called being bisonoric. When the same pitch sounds, it’s called unisonoric.

Orchestral instruments are usually tuned to A= 440 Hz (you know, that note that the instruments all play before the conductor comes out? That’s it. A=440.) Harmoniums are frequently tuned to 438 Hz, accordions to 442 Hz, and Baroque groups tune to 415 Hz. This disparity of tuning might explain why accordion has such a low reputation. If other instruments can’t tune to it, it’s out of luck (and will always be a little bit sharp–higher in pitch).

Bellows are the most recognizable part of the accordion and provide the primary means of note production and articulation. Like a violin’s bow, the instrument responds to the motion of the player as he manipulates the bellows. Bellows are used for volume control, vibrato, pulsed sounds, clear and crisp notes, and, in some instruments, by pushing the “silent air” button, making a whooshing noise.

The bellows is squeezed between the left- and right-hand keyboards, and is made of pleated layers of cloth and cardboard with added bits of leather and metal. Moving the bellows creates pressure (when it blows) and a vacuum (when it draws) alternately, that drives air across the internal reeds.

The body consists of two wooden boxes joined by the bellows. The rectangular boxes house the reed chambers. Each side has grills that allow air in and out of the bellows and allow the sound to project. The grill for the right-hand manual is usually larger, and often decoratively carved.

The size and weight of the headboard varies, depending on the accordion’s type, layout, and playing range, which can be very small (with only one or two rows of bass notes and a single octave of treble), to 120-bass standard accordion, and all the way up to a 160-bass converter model.

The reeds inside the instrument generate the tones. These are arranged in ranks, which can be further categorized into registers, like those on a pipe organ, and produce different timbres. All but the smallest accordions come with switches that control which combination of reed ranks operate, organized from high to low. Each register stop produces a separate sound timber and most accordions have treble switches. Larger (and more expensive) accordions also have bass switches.

Höhner, a German company, invented a high-tempered steel reed in 1857, which made the sound more stable and predictable (and less affected by weather conditions), and increased the accordion’s popularity.

When a key is pressed down on the headboard’s keyboard, a pallet, which is a little cup-like cover that sits on the reed chamber, is lifted, allowing air to flow into the chamber in either direction. The reeds vibrate as a result. Air flow direction is determined by the bellows.

Early accordions had lever-like keys rather than the piano-like keys we’re used to seeing today.

Modern accordions have treble notes played through the keyboard in the right hand and bass played through push buttons in the left. Beginners’ models might have 25 treble keys and 12 bass buttons. A professional model might have 41 piano keys, 11 treble registers, and a master coupler for changing registers, plus 120 bass buttons, and seven bass registers. (Registers change the quality of the notes played, like a pipe organ—flute sounds and viols, and so forth.) Bass options on a professional model might include single notes or chords structured around a particular note.

The 120-button Stradella fixed-bass keyboard was developed by Mariano Dallape in 1876. It has two rows of bass notes and four rows of chord button and some models have a converter switch that enables chords to be played in any inversion (a fancy way of saying that the note you think of as the bottom of the chord might be located in a different octave).

Some accordions use a chromatic button board for the right-hand manual. Others use a diatonic (do-re-me) button board, and yet others use a piano style (chromatic) keyboard. The keyboard or buttons don’t respond to how firm the touch is, and so pressure doesn’t affect dynamics (loudness and softness). All expression of this nature comes through how the bellows are manipulated.

Chromatic button accordions, and the bayan, a Russian variant, use a button board (like a melodeon) and the notes are arranged chromatically. There are two systems of tuning, referred to as the B-system and the C-system.

Diatonic button accordions use a button board limited to prescribed diatonic scales (key signatures) with a smaller number of keys, often arranged in a single row.

Piano accordions use a keyboard similar to that of a piano, at right angles to the headboard, with the tops of the keys inward, toward the bellows. The number of keys varies.

The reeds and registers are described by number systems. A piano type accordion identified as 37/96 has 37 keys (three octaves plus one note) on the treble and 96 bass keys. Reeds 5+3 means that there are five reeds on the treble side and three on the bass. Registers 13 + 7 means that there are 13 register buttons on the treble side plus a special master switch that activates all ranks, like “tutti” on a pipe organ, and there are seven switches on the bass side.

The Schrammel accordion, used in Viennese chamber music and klezmer, has the treble button board of a chromatic button accordion, and a bisonoric bass button board. The Schwyzerörgell or Swiss organ has a three-row diatonic treble and 18 unisonoric bass buttons. The trikitxa of the Basque people has a two-row diatonic, bisonoric treble and a 12-button diatonic unisonoric bass.

In Scotland, there’s a British chromatic accordion, with a right-hand that’s bisonoric and a left hand following the Stradella system.

The left hand is often used for playing accompaniment, and the buttons often have concavities or studs to help the player navigate without being able to see the keyboard. The Stradella bass system (also called standard bass) is arranged in the circle of fifths and uses single buttons for chords.

The usual 120-button fixed bass keyboard consists of two rows of bass notes arranged in fifths, and four rows of chord buttons (major, minor, dominant 7th, and diminished triads). With full coupling, the bass notes contain five octaves, with chord notes in the upper three.

The Belgian bass system is a variation used in Belgian chromatic accordions and is also a circle of fifths, but in reverse order (more on the circle of fifths another time). This Belgian system has three rows of bass buttons and three rows of chord buttons, which makes it easier to play melodies, and combine chords. There is more space between the buttons in the Belgian System than in the Stradella. The Belgian system didn’t take off much outside of Belgium, though.

There are other free-bass systems that allow greater access to melodies in the left hand, and to choosing the notes that make up the chords rather than using the ones that come with the instrument. These are often used for jazz and classical music. Some models can convert between free-bass and Stradella bass and are called converter bass.

The larger piano and chromatic button accordions are heavy and have two shoulder straps that make it easier to balance the weight and increase bellows control while sitting or standing. The player puts the instrument on, like a reversed backpack, with shoulder straps.

Diatonic button accordions have only a single shoulder strap and a right-hand thumb strap. All accordions have a leather strap on the left-hand manual to keep the player’s hand in position while pulling the bellows apart. There are straps above and below the bellows to keep it closed when not being played.

Accordions come in many sizes. In 1902, the Empress accordion was only 8 inches by 6.5 inches.

There are accordions with their own amplification, as in the echophone accordion, which had an ear-trumpet-looking thing poking out of one side of the bellows.

Concertina Structure

A concertina is an accordion-type free-reed instrument with two hexagonal headboards that are connected by bellows. Each headboard contains a small button keyboard. The player plays the melody on buttons or keys with the right hand, and the accompaniment, consisting of bass notes or pre-existing chords, on the left. Concertina buttons travel in the same direction as the bellows, unlike accordion buttons, which are perpendicular.

Concertinas are six-sided, aeolas are eight-sided, and edeophones are 12-sided. Available notes and ranges differ, button locations differ, some are bisonoric and others are unisonoric.

Concertina reeds can be steel, brass, or nickel-silver, and are brass or aluminum-framed.

Some concertinas offer chromatic scales with more than 12 steps per octave that allow the player to adjust the pitch of individual notes. Treble and tenor-treble concertinas usually have three and a half or four octaves. Baritones have similar ranges pitched down an octave from the treble. Bass concertinas transpose two octaves down and piccolo concertinas are an octave up. All instruments play in the treble clef.

Concertinas can be categorized as English, German, or Anglo-German. The English concertina has a full chromatic scale of about four octaves, and has a uniform tone, with the same note sounding on both inward and outward movement from the bellows (it’s unisonoric). The German type sounds different notes with inward and outward movement (it’s bisonoric).

English concertinas are fully chromatic, with buttons in a rectangular arrangement of four staggered rows with the short side closest to the wrist. The two innermost rows play a diatonic C-major scale (the white notes on the piano), and the out rows complete the chromatic scale (the black notes on the piano). Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” was transcribed for the English concertina. It would be fun to hear it on the concertina, wouldn’t it?

English concertina is played by placing thumbs in the thumb straps and little fingers on metal finger rests, leaving only three fingers for playing. Some players rest both the ring and little fingers on the metal rest and leave only two fingers free for playing. In the classical style of Guilin Regondi (1822-1872), all four fingers are used.

Invented in the 1960s, duet concertinas are most like accordions in that they’re meant to play a melody in one hand with accompaniment in the other. They have single note button layouts with bass in the left and treble in the right hands, like other concertinas, but with some overlap. They’re held by placing the whole hand through a leather strap with thumbs outside and palms resting on wooden bars.

The German concertina is bisonoric, can be diatonic (do-re-mi) or semi-chromatic, and has buttons in each row that pivot on a shared pivot arm, and the headboards are square. German concertinas use more than one reed per note—some use as many as five reeds–to produce a fuller sound for its three octaves. Sometimes these multiple reeds are deliberately out of tune with each other to produce a vibrato effect.

The Anglo-German concertina is a hybrid between the English and German concertinas. It uses concertina reeds instead of long-plate reeds, has 20 buttons with independent pivots for each button, and has hexagonal headboards. It’s been called the “anglo” concertina in England since World War I. The buttons are arranged in two 10-button rows, each of which produces a diatonic major scale (do-re-mi) in a pattern devised originally for the harmonica, where pressing three adjacent notes in one row produces a major triad (similar to a chord). Most of these concertinas have 30 buttons, but there are variations with 36, 38, and 40 buttons, and rarely, as many as 55.

The Anglo concertina is held by putting the hands through a leather strap with the thumbs outside the strap and the palms on wooden bars, just like the duet concertina. This leaves four fingers free and the thumb is available for operating an air valve that expands the bellows without sounding a note, or produces a drone. Often associated with the music of Ireland, Anglo concertinas are also found playing English Morris and Boeremusiek.

Chemnitzer concertinas are bisonoric and are closely related to the bandoneon, but with a different keyboard layout and decorative style. Otto Schlicht (1891-1988) made the most changes to this style, and it’s the most common style in the American mid-west.

The bandoneon is bisonoric concertina, and is most often used in tango music. When the tango spread to Paris in the early 20th century, the bandoneon was adapted with a new unisonoric fingering (called the French or Piguri system). The bisonoric layout is considered more traditional.

South American tango bands often feature a special double-action square-shaped concertina. It was invented by Heinrich Band (1821-1860) of Germany, and the early models had more than 88 notes—the same as a piano—or more! Today’s instruments are usually restricted to 71.

Melodeon Structure

The melodeon is a button accordion—there’s no keyboard on the right-hand’s side. It’s a rectangular, bellows operated, free-reed instrument with buttons on both headboards. Different notes are produced by inward and outward pressure from the bellows (it’s bisonoric). It’s possible to get a unisonoric melodeon, but it makes it rather heavy and less limber, so ill-suited to dance music.

The melody-side keyboard (for the right hand) contains one or more rows of buttons, with each row producing the notes of a single diatonic scale (do-re-mi). The buttons on the bass side (for the left hand) are most commonly arranged in pairs, with one button of the pair sounding the root of the chord (the lowest note) and the other button producing a major triad (notes that are two full steps apart), or occasionally, a minor triad.

Because each button produces two notes, the diatonic scale (do-re-mi) can be covered by only four buttons on the right headboard. With seven notes in the scale, to make the second octave, notes are paired differently—the row is skewed by one. The range is usually only two octaves—more, and this system might become too complicated.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t more complicated instruments. Multi-rowed melodeons have been common almost since the beginning. There are two systems; one where the notes from row to row are four notes apart on the same scale (other instruments use this tuning, such as the hammered dulcimer. You just get used to it), and the other where they’re a half-step, like on a piano.

Two-row systems are common in British traditional music, especially for Morris dancing. Three-row systems are popular in Mexico, Colombia, and the US for conjunto, tejano, zydeco, and cajon music. Multi-row systems allow for bisonority, and there’s much more flexibility for hand positions and phrasing. Occasionally, sharps and flats are placed on an additional row, in two extra buttons, or on a shorter row of four or more buttons, close to the bellows. With these amendments, a chromatic scale can be played.

One-row instruments have two or four buttons on the bass side. Two-row instruments have eight, and three row instruments have twelve, arranged in the bass/chord pairs described earlier. There are new instruments with more buttons that are popular in France, with 16 or 18 buttons.

Rhythmic effects from the push/pull of the melodeon’s bellows are particularly well suited to dance music.

Accordion Names

The name for this family of instruments is harmonika from the Greek harmonikos, meaning harmonic or musical. Nowadays, languages adapt a form of the word accordion instead. There is a LOT of swobbling back and forth about the difference between a concertina, a melodeon, and an accordion, and between countries and languages, it’s impossible to keep straight.

Buschmann called his original instrument a Handäoline. Later Germans call it a Handharmonika or Knopfakkordeon. American slang calls the accordion a squeezebox and African Zulus call the concertina a “squashbox.” The Dutch term is trekharmonika for an accordion and trekzak for a melodeon. In Portugal, the melodeon is a concertina.

In Estonia, the melodeon is a löötspill. Russions call it a garmon, and Slovenians call it a diatonicna harmonica and frajtonarca. In Italy, the melodeon is a fisarmonica diatonica or an organetto. France uses accordeon diatonique or diato, although melodeon is sometimes used for one-row melodeons. In Italy, the organetto, a smaller version of the accordion, has almost completely replaced the zampogna, a type of bagpipe whose repertoire it shares.

The accordion is called a melodeon in Britain and Australia. In Ireland it’s also a melodeon, but only if it has only one row of melody buttons; instruments with more rows are called button accordions. In the US and Canada, most melodeons are called accordions, because the name melodeon has already been given to the free-reed organ.


Solo works for the accordion have been composed by Alan Hovhannes (1911-2000), Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), Alban Berg (1885-1935), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), and Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970). Louise Reisner wrote Theme varie tres brilliant pour accordion method Resiner in 1836 (sorry, I didn’t find her dates).

Other accordion composers include Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Umberto Giordano (1867-1948), and Charles Ives (1874-1954).

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), noted musicologist, wrote specifically for the chromatic accordion in 1922, as does experimental composer Howard Skempton (1947-   )

Alban Berg (1885-1935) wrote Wozzeck, Op. 7 for the accordion as did William P. Perry (1930-2010) in Six Title Themes in Search of a Movie.

Concertina composers include Charles Ives (1874-1954), Percy Grainger (1882-1961), and Giulio Regondi, who was a virtuoso concertina performer and composer and helped popularize it during the 19th century.

Bernhard Molique (1802-1869) wrote Concerto No. 1 in G for concertina and orchestra. Percy Grainger (1882-1961) wrote Shepherd’s Hey (a “hey” is a kind of dance) for concertina.

William Bergsma. wrote Dances from a New England Album, 1856 with three movements that include melodeon parts and a fourth with a harmonium part.

Players and Performers

Accordion players are quite varied. Giulio Regondi (1822-1872), a guitarist and melophone player, played the accordion as well as the concertina. Sir Jimmy Shand plays the British chromatic accordion. So do Count Guido Deiro and Pietro Deiro of Italy, and Pietro Frosini. Myron Floren was the biggest name on the Lawrence Welk show, famous for his accordion stylings.

Weird Al Yankovic plays the accordion on many of his songs, most notably his polkas.

Concertina players include: Giulio Regondi, who was a virtuoso concertina performer and composer and helped popularize the instrument during the 19th century. In Latin music, the concertino is even more popular, with such performers as Luiz Gonzag (King of the Baião), Trio Dona Zefa, Trio Virgulino, and Trio Alvorada, Mario Zan, Dominguinhos, Renatto Borghetti, Carlos Vives, Andres Cabas, Fonseca, and Bacilos, Juanes, and Shakira.

Richard Blagrave (1826-1895) once had his concertina playing described as that of “a first-rate workman on a miserable tool.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Heavy metal has Turisas and Korpiklaani (Sarah Kiener, who also played the hurdy-gurdy for Eluveitie); both are Scandanavian bands. And there are plenty of Anglo concertina players, including Scan Tester, John Spiers, William Kimber, and John Kirkpatrick.

There are big-time melodeon players in such great numbers that I’m only going to list their nationalities: Basque, Belgian, Brazilian, Columbian, English, Finish, French, Irish, Italian, Mexican, Newfoundlandian, Norwegian, Panamanian, Portuguese, Quebecoise, Russian, Scottish, Ukrainian, and American.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanly Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Leicestershire, 2012.

Instrument Biography: The Free-Reed Organ (Harmonium)

with 4 comments

In the interest of space, the reed organs known as the harmonica and the accordion have been broken out of this biography. For more on organs in general, check out my blog post on Pipe Organs.

Reed organs were the main type of organ in households and smaller churches before there were electronic organs. Their volume and tonal range was quite limited and had only one or two manual keyboards and, rarely, a pedal keyboard. The bellows were operated by the feet, which would make a pedal keyboard quite a feat (har har) of coordination.

There are three types of reed organs covered in this article: pump organs (like a small pipe organ with sewing-machine-style foot pedals), melodeons (like a virginal or a table-top keyboard with the bellows hidden in a small chest-like box on the table), and harmoniums (a portable box containing a bellows with the keyboard attached to the front that the player sits on the floor to play).

Several million pump organs were made between the 1850s and the 1920s. Often ornately carved, they were a sign of affluence in private homes. The melodeon predates the pump organ, and the harmonium, like the accordion, is limited to folk or ethnic music.

Squeezeboxes, such as the accordion, concertina, bandoneon, are also free reed instruments, but they that are played by squeezing the bellows as part of the gesture of making notes sound. Unlike other instruments where the bellows are separated mechanically from the keyboard, the keyboards and chord buttons are attached to the bellows itself and the movement of the arms to pump the bellows must be coordinated with the playing of the hands across the keys. You’ll find out more about them in my Instrument Biography: The Accordion.

The harmonica is also a reed organ, and in this instrument, human lungs are used as the bellows, and the reeds work in two directions (sucking and blowing). You can read all about them in Instrument Biography: The Harmonica.

Reed Organ History

It’s thought that the Chinese free-reed instruments traveled through Russia, and then came to the rest of Europe in the late 18th century. Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang. All of these are probably the ancestors of the western reed organ. The panpipes and the bagpipes are other ancestors. It’s a big family.

In the early 19th century, European instrument makers played with the idea of freeing the reeds from the pipes, and created a mouth organ (a flat box with grooves for the reeds—now a harmonica), an accordion (using the whole instrument as a bellows with reeds in the two headboards). These styles played both by blowing and sucking.

Pump Organ

Styled after the regal organ (biography to come) with free reeds, the pump organ was created to be more expressive during the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Romantic, when dynamics (loudness) became essential to the success of musical instruments. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), a professor of physiology at Copenhagen, is thought to have invented the first such instrument in Europe. It was further perfected by Parisian G.J. Grenie (sorry, I couldn’t find dates for him) in 1810, and both called It an orgue expressif.

Despite impressive dimensions, early pump organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were out of tune and too loud, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player had to pull and push sliders one at a time in order to make a sound. A melody could be played only very slowly, and more than two parts was impossibly complex. So instrument makers kept working on their design.

Alexandre Debain (1809-1877) improved on the instrument and called it a harmonium when he patented it in 1840. (Resources waffle between calling a piano-like pump organ a harmonium and calling a simple accordion-like box with a keyboard a harmonium. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I will call only the accordion-like instrument a harmonium.) Debain’s model was good enough to be considered a suitable substitute for an orchestra in domestic music and light music arrangements until the first half of the 20th century. It was also popular for church music and silent movies.

After emigrating to the US, a mechanic who’d worked in Debain’s factory created a suction bellows to replace one that forced air outward through the reeds. By 1860, suction bellows organs had become the main mode of construction in the US. This instrument is quieter and has a more pipe organ-like tone than the other kinds of reed organs.

Theodore-Achille Muller made a model that could be folded up into a box. The original instrument was patented in 1842 and had a three-octave keyboard, one set of reeds (later versions have four sets) of varying thicknesses and lengths, and a single blowing pedal-driven bellows. More advanced models had five-octave keyboards, stops and couplers for fancy things like octaves and vibrato. Each key on the keyboard controlled a valve that regulated the amount of wind produced by the compression bellows. Another advance was a shifting keyboard, which permitted transposition at any interval, while playing the music as notated. I’d like one of those!

In 1854, Victor Mustel (1850-1890) added a divided expression stop that was worked by knee levers. As you’ll learn in the Structure section, this stop allows louder and softer sounds to come from the instrument when the stop is pulled.

In the late 19th century, the reed organ was popular in Europe and the US for classical music, regarded as a serious instrument for serious composers (see below for a list). It was often used to accompany voices. In the US, the repertoire tended to target amateur musicians, often used in folk music of the Appalachians, for instance.

By their heyday, pump organs came in many different styles, from compact single-keyboard instruments with a single set of reeds and one or two foot treadles to pump the bellows, to two-keyboard instruments with several sets of reeds of differing colors and pitches, powered by a separate blowing lever or electric motor, like those on a pipe organ. The most common type of pump organ has two-to-five sets of reeds, one keyboard, and accessories (couplers) to achieve octaves and tremulant (vibrato). These instruments competed with the piano for parlor space in the 19th century, and were common in small churches.

Pump organs were at their most popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ was inappropriate due to size or expense. Pump organs weigh less than pianos of a similar size and are physically hardier. This made them popular in oversees outposts because they shipped and transported easily across unpredictable terrain. Reeds hold their pitch even in humid or hot weather, unlike stringed instruments, such as pianos. They became so popular as colonial instruments, in fact, that manufacturers began to impregnate the wood casings with a chemicals that helped prevent woodworm damage.

At its peak of popularity, variety in structure and ornamentation was extensive. There were plain cases with only four stops (or none) and ornate cases with a dozen stops and other mechanisms, such as couplers. The expensive ones were built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top. A few were built with two manual keyboards, and some were built with pedal keyboards, which meant that an assistant had to pump the bellows until later versions ran on electricity.

Large versions were meant for home use, which allowed pipe organists to practice on an instrument roughly the same size as the organ they performed on. Missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, and evangelists found the smaller ones more convenient because they folded to the size of a large suitcase. Some of these had a short keyboard and only a few stops, by they were sufficient for accompanying small congregations.

Pump organs became quite complex and it was common for manufacturers to develop their own versions and patent them, especially the bellows mechanisms. As the number of manufacturers grew, so did the complexity of the instrument, with levers, cranks, rods, and shafts. This made them more vulnerable to failure and also contributed to the popularity of the electric organ.

The invention of the electric organ in the 1930s provided the funeral dirge for the pump organ. The Hammond organ could imitate the tonal quality and range of a pipe organ with the same small dimensions. Maintenance was less and there were more stops and other features possible.

The last mass-producer of pump organs was Estey, in the US (Vermont), who stopped manufacturing pump organs in the 1950s. Instruments and replacement parts became increasingly hard to come by, and many were updated with electric blowers. Electronic instruments completely took over the domestic market and modern instruments have an electric wind supply, leaving the feet free to play pedal keyboards.

Despite such general ignominy in the west, pump organs have remained popular in South Asia.


The melodeon is a reed instrument with an air reservoir and a foot-operated bellows, popular in the US in the mid-19th century. It looks like a very skinny upright piano or an impractical writing desk. Its whistle-like reeds are often hidden behind an attractively carved cover, and it comes with a keyboard and one or two sets of interchangeable reeds. Like the pump organ, wind is moved past the reeds by way of treadles through a bellows and several coupling contraptions.

The reeds are tuned as they are in the pump organ, with a flap of metal or wood, shaved to produce a specific note, and vibrated by means of the air passing by. The difference between a pump organ and a melodeon is one of portability and ornamentation.

There’s another instrument called the melodeon that’s like an accordion, but without a keyboard. It’s played with push buttons determining the notes. The right hand plays the high notes and the left hand plays the low notes, and both operate the bellows by pushing and pulling, just like an accordion. This instrument is also occasionally called the lap organ.

Writing this piece, where harmoniums are pump organs and melodeons are pump organs and both are accordions, I am reminded of royalty in England, where everyone seems to be a Henry or an Edward, or maybe, for a little variety, an Alfred, Mary, or Jane. If you invent something or found a dynasty, please do your biographers a favor and give your progeny a unique name, okay?


The harmonium came to India in the mid-19th century via missionaries from Europe and England and it quickly became popular. (India is the one place where it has stayed popular, too.) It became a staple of North Indian classical music concerts and is commonly found in Indian homes. Although originally derived from a French version, Indian musicians developed it further, including drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism, to better serve the Indian sensibilities.

In Calcutta (also called Kolkata, the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal) the harmony flute was developed into a hand-held harmonium, which has become an integral part of Indian music to this day. Internationally renowned India poet Dwijendranath Tagore (1840-1926) is said to have used one in 1860 in his private theater, but it’s possible that this was a pedal-pumped version, or some form of reed organ. Regardless, the harmonium’s popularity rose as a result, and the hand-held version evolved.

The American harmonium was invented in Paris (how ironic) in 1835 and was further developed by Estey of Vermont (in the US) and by Mason and Hamlin of Massachusetts (US again) in 1861.

The harmonium was widely used in Parsi and Marathi stage music in India in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, nationalist movements pushed the harmonium out. It couldn’t produce slides between notes (called meend) and it couldn’t be tuned during performance, both of which made it seem less useful than indigenous instruments. It was banned from All India Radio between 1940 and 1971 and the ban still stands for harmonium solos.

Despite these limitations, the harmonium is used in Indian classical music of the early 20th century—it is easy to learn, it supports group singing and large voice classes, ragas (chants) can be learned on it, and it’s loud enough to provide a drone in a concert hall. Nowadays, it’s the instrument of choice for accompanying North Indian classical vocalists.

Since the 1920s, small harmoniums have been made in India and Pakistan. They’re widely used to accompany devotional music in India and wherever else Indians have settled, and sadly, have contributed to the diminishing popularity of indigenous Indian instruments.

All Indian instruments are played while sitting on the floor or stage, so the harmonium was placed on the floor or held on the lap. It was usual for Indian homes not to have tables or chairs, so the switch to a home version was quite natural. The player could use his feet to pump the bellows, leaving both hands free to play the keyboard for chordal music (from the West). But Indian music isn’t chordal, so only one hand was necessary to play the keyboard and the other could be used to pump the bellows most of the time.

Hindus and Sikhs often use a harmonium to accompany devotional songs (bhajan or kirtan), and most Hindu or Sikh temples have at least one harmonium, world-wide. The harmonium is often accompanied by the tabla (two small hand drums, side-by-side, much like a detached bongo) and a dholak (a two-headed barrel-shaped hand drum).

Because the harmonium can’t be tuned and is certainly not flexible in tuning while being played, it’s controversial in Qawwali music (Sufi worship music), although it’s often the only instrument providing the music.

Harmoniums were particularly popular during a folk music renaissance in the late 1970s in the European north, particularly in Finland. Folk bands often consisted of a violin, double bass, and harmonium.

There is a 22-microtone harmonium developed by Vidyadhar Oke (dates unknown, but he’s still alive) that can play all the notes required in Indian classical music rather than the more limited 12 tones of the western scale. The fundamental tone and the fifth are fixed, but the other 10 notes of the western scale have two microtones each, one above and one below the pitch. The microtone is produced by pulling out a knob beneath the key.

Another fellow called Bhishmadev Vedi (sorry, again I couldn’t find dates, but I did find a contemporary mention in 1915) changed the instrument by augmenting it with a harp-like string box attached to the top. His disciple, Monohar Chimote (1929-   ), called the instrument a samvadini.

A near relative of the harmonium is a shruti (or sruti) box. This is a simple form of harmonium, where only a single note is meant to be played at a time. A stop allows airflow past the chosen reed, and the bellows are worked with one hand. The shruti box looks something like an office file with accordion pleats, and sounds like a reedy bagpipe drone. It’s used to accompany singing or flute playing, but is too quiet to participate in orchestral compositions. I have one, and I adore it for singing chant against, or teaching a voice student about tuning. It has 12 notes, but the scale is pentatonic (five notes to the scale rather than eight), so some notes are repeated in the octave.

Reed Organ Structure

“Reed organ” is the generic term for a keyboard instrument whose sound is produced by freely vibrating reed tongues, usually without individual resonators, and activated by air pressure or suction.

First, a definition. A reed is considered “free” if it is allowed to vibrate without restraint. So an oboe or a shawm is technically a free reed instrument. One end is attached, and the other vibrates, as a function of air pressure, within the player’s mouth. An instrument like a recorder or a pipe organ is not a free reed. The air passing through the tube of the instrument bounces of the walls and is squeezed through a specific stiff opening in order to produce the note. You could think of it as the difference between blowing across a blade of grass (free reed) and blowing across an open bottle (fixed reed).

Reeds can be made of wood, metal, paper, or cloth. Anything that retains its shape and can be affixed snuggly at one end will do, really. In the case of pump organs and harmoniums, they’re usually metal or wood.

The reed is screwed down tightly at one end and is shaped to fit closely into an aperture in a rigid piece of metal, which lies between a lower wind-chest and an upper wind-chest. Air fills the lower wind-chest and spreads around the reed into the upper wind-chest. The upper wind-chest’s opening is covered by a felted block of wood. When the appropriate key is depressed, the block is raised and the air that surrounds the reed escapes from the upper chest.

When the block is raised, the pressure surrounding the reed changes. There is greater pressure below the reed than above (because of the open block), and the reed is forced upward, with the air rushing past it from the lower chest. Before the pressure in the two chests can equalize, the reed returns to its original position so that the flow of air is stopped. Now the pressure in the lower chest increases until it forces the reed to move out of the way again. This happens very quickly, in the form of a vibration.

The free reed of the pump organ is riveted into a metal frame. The range of vibrations from the reed is affected by damping (being mechanically touched), allowing the sound produced from the various reeds to be somewhat homogenous. Air must be pumped at a minimum speed to get any sound, and pumping too hard silences the reeds. Between the two extremes, it’s possible to get degrees of loudness. For this, there’s a stop, often operated by the player’s knee, that can increase or decrease the volume by changing the speed of the airflow.

The free reed mechanism is identical for both western and Indian harmoniums as well as the reed organ.

A reed organ is similar to an accordion or a concertina in that the reeds vibrate with either suction (a vacuum) or pressure. An accordion accomplishes this through the player’s hands, pulling and pushing on the bellows. A reed organ is usually on the floor (rather than held in the arms), and the bellows might be hidden by a wooden casing.

The bellows are operated by means of a treadle, like an old-fashioned sewing machine. (Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the sewing machine?) Harmoniums are hand pumped. In fancy pump organs, an assistant might be required to maintain the flow of air.

Debain (remember him from the History section?) developed a reservoir so that the action on the treadle was reflected through the feeder bellows directly onto the wind channels, creating crescendo and diminuendo (gradual loudness and softness). At about the same time (the 1840s), L.P.A. Marin de Provine (sorry, I couldn’t find dates) invented the prolongement to sustain notes after the key was released, and percussion, in which small piano hammers struck the reeds as if they were strings, giving a quicker and more precise response than wind.

Pitch depends on air pressure. In bass notes, the fundamental frequency (in hertz) decreases with medium pressure and increases by several hertz at high pressure (the note raises or lowers with more or less wind). High pressure can bend the reed beyond its frame, which limits its use.

The overtones of the reeds are harmonic rather than inharmonic (they’re limited to certain specific notes from the overtone scale), which matters if you’re looking for a rich and full sound. Overtones contribute hugely to whether an instrument sounds in tune, especially when played loudly.

Air pressure affects both pitch and volume. How fast or slow the bellows move determines how loud the notes are. In order to control the difference between pitch and volume, pressure bellows were invented to stabilize the amount of air available to the reeds. Instruments with pressure bellows are harder to build and are often more expensive, so North American and British reed organs and melodeons often use suction bellows and operate by creating (using) a vacuum.

The American reed organ is a foot bellows or electric reed keyboard similar to the harmonium but works on negative pressure (it sucks air through the reeds rather than pushing it through).

German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) wrote “On the Sensations of Tone” in 1875, which used a harmonium to test a variety of tuning systems. He said that the instrument sustained tones evenly with a piercing character, and that it combined tones in a unique and distinctive way. He considered the vibrators (reeds) to be tunable to a particularly fine degree.

Using two manual keyboards and two stop sets tuned differently, Helmholtz was able to compare Pythagorean tuning (a complex system where all intervals are based on a ratio—it has to do with dividing string lengths, and is WAY too complicated to go into here) to Just tuning (another ratio-based interval system) and Equal tuning (this system is based on equal distances between notes) and observe the “out-of-tune” degrees inherent in each temperament. Helmholtz subdivided the octave into 28 tones so that he could modulate among 12 minor and 17 major keys in Just intonation without creating unpleasant dissonances. Quite difficult to play, this was not a popular arrangement.

Other modified instruments were used for experimental and educational purposes, most notably the generalized keyboard designed by Englishman Robert Holford Macdowell Bosanquet (1841-1912). He built it in 1873 for use with a 53-tone scale (a “normal” chromatic scale has 12 notes). This harmonium had 84 keys, to make fingering convenient.

Lord John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), an English physicist famous for explaining why the sky is blue, used the harmonium to measure sound frequencies because of its clear overtone patterns that could be counted easily. He approximated Equal temperament intervals and examined their overtone beats. He had to concede, though, that the air pressure had to maintained exactly, or the tone fluctuated.

Orchestral instruments are tuned to 440 Hz, harmoniums are frequently tuned to 438 Hz, accordions are tuned to 442 Hz, and Baroque groups tune to 415 Hz. This is why you don’t see a lot of harmoniums (or accordions) playing with orchestras.

The Name

Common names for reed organs are harmonium, melodeon, lap organ, pump organs, vocalion, seraphine, orgue expressif, cabinet organ, or American organ (used in Europe to distinguish a suction instrument from a pressure instrument). Also aeolina, aeolodicon, euphonion, melodiflute, melophone, organochordium, and physharmonika.

Other reed organs include accordions, concertinas, and harmonicas.

The poikilorgue was Cavaille-Coll’s version of the pump organ, with a range of an octave and a half.

To make things more confusing, in North America and the UK, a reed organ with a pressure bellows is called a harmonium and a suction reed organ is called a melodeon. In Europe, any reed organ is called a harmonium, even if it has a suction bellows.

Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang.

In India, the melodeon is what westerners would refer to as a concertina (see the article on accordions for more on these), and a harmonium is the portable chest variety of reed organ described above. Indian Sikhs call the harmonium a vaja or a baja. Some also call it a peti (which means “box”).

The name “harmonium” has been used in England and Europe to refer to reed organs in general. Larger instruments in Germany were sometimes called Kunstharmonium (art harmonium).

Reed Organ Composers

Repertoire for reed organs includes many pieces written for church organ despite their small range and minimal stops. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Fantasia in C major (BWV 570) can be played on a four-octave reed organ. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote Petite Messe Solennelle for piano and harmonium.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote Symphony No. 7 for chamber orchestra, and it was prepared for performance by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his Viennese friends on two violins, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, horn, piano (four hands) and harmonium. They never did perform it, and it wasn’t performed publically for another 60 years.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, and Movement II: Purgatorio has a reed organ in it. Cesar Franck (1822-1890) wrote a collection called L’Organiste for harmonium, some with piano accompaniment. Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote Five Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium (Op. 47). Alban Berg (1885-1935) wrote Altenberg Lieder. Frederic Clay (1838-1889) wrote Ages Ago, with libretto by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.

Claude Debussy (1862-1914) wrote Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, from a chamber ensemble arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Gustav Mahler(1860-1911) wrote Symphony No. 8. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ariadne aug Naxos, which is an opera that uses a harmonium with many stops, as specified in the score. Edward Elgar (1857-1954) wrote Sospiri, an Adagio for String Orchestra, scored for harp or piano and harmonium or organ, and Vesper Preludes. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote Hin und zurück, which is an operatic sketch that uses a harmonium on the stage.

The Kronos Quartet produced an album called Early Music, with several pieces that feature a harmonium.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) was a harmonium virtuoso who also wrote pieces for the instrument.

Reed Organ Players

As the sources used reed organ and harmonium as synonyms, it was hard to distinguish harmonium from reed organ from melodeon, so here’s a nice list of modern folks who’ve used one or the other of them.

Timo Alakotila plays Nordic folk music, as does Milla Viljamaa and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan play Qawwali music (Sufi worship music) in Pakistan. And Sigfrid Karg-Elert was a German harmonium virtuoso.

Tori Amos played a harmonium during her Boys for Pele tour (1996). The Beatles used a harmonium in quite a few recordings, including Doctor Robert, the Inner Light, We Can Work it Out, Cry Baby, Rocky Raccoon, and the final chord in A Day in the Life. Pink Floyd used the harmonium on their The Final Cut album. Radiohead used an antique harmonium on their Motion Picture Soundtrack album on Kid A. They toured with a harmonium throughout 2001 until it broke at a show in Oxford England. Tom Waits plays a harmonium on his albums Swordfish Trombones and Rain Dogs. It also appears on Night on Earth, the soundtrack of an eponymous film. Neil Young plays Like a Hurricane on a harmonium.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews & Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Leicesteshire, 2012.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

Instrument Biography: The Harmonica

with 5 comments

The harmonica and the accordion are both reed organs. In the interest of space, their biographies have been broken out of the main reed organ (harmonium) article. (Reed organ and accordion articles are coming soon.)

The harmonica may have a reputation as a folk instrument, but it was invented for classical music and is really rather interesting despite its humble circumstances today. It came about as a result of experimenting with organ reeds and various ways of making them vibrate, including forms that include the accordion, the concertina, and the harmonium.

The first time I realized that the harmonica was a serious instrument was when I worked in a little ice cream parlor in high school. The owner was an Israeli immigrant who’d been the dance camp harmonica player at a kibbutz for American tourists. When Schlomo went in the back room and played, it was like a whole orchestra had gone in there with him. He played for such notables as Ray Bolger (of “Wizard of Oz” fame), who one day wandered into the shop hoping to reconnect with him.

It’s not a long history, but I think that you’ll find that it’s an interesting one.

The harmonica is a reed organ, but unlike the accordion or harmonium, human lungs are used as the bellows. The harmonica is also called the French harp, blues harp, and mouth organ among other names (see below for a longer list). It’s used in nearly every musical genre world-wide, but is given a starring role in blues, American folk, jazz, country, and rock and roll.

Harmonica History

The original mouth organs wouldn’t be recognized outside of rural China these days. I was fortunate enough to see these (they’re called shengs) used for folk dances on my trip there in 2010, in the province of Yunnan. Basically, a gourd is studded with long reeds, and a the player blows through a pipe attached to the gourd, through the neck of the gourd itself, or through a tube that crosses the length of the reeds. Some look a bit like a porcupine with very long spines, some look vaguely like a portative organ, and others look like a sideways panpipe. All three styles have very long reeds for a wind instrument, between 1-4 feet in length.

The Chinese sheng sounds more flutelike than harmonica-like to western ears, but it is nevertheless the parent of the harmonica. It’s likely that, along with the panpipe, the sheng was brought to Europe as a novelty and European instruments that suited European sensibilities evolved from it.

Free reed instruments, like the sheng, were common throughout Asia for centuries before they came to Europe and they were already known in Europe when a German named Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann got hold of the idea. He’s often cited as the inventor, but other instrument makers were also busy coming up with similar instruments. It isn’t known who really invented it, but Buschmann gets the credit, claiming that he got his idea from pitch pipes used to tune organs . His harmonica was only 2.75 inches long.

Mouth-blown free-reed instruments appeared in the US, South America, the UK, and all around Europe at around the same time.

Chamber harmonicas were available in Vienna before 1824, and the blow and draw mechanism followed shortly. Harmonicas were soon popular all over Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Harmonica makers proliferated and soon machines were used to punch out the covers and speed up the work. Everyone, from weavers to clockmakers got into the new industry, and soon varieties included tremolo, chromatic, bass, chord, and octave harmonicas. (More on those in the Structure section.)

Wherever it began, by the mid-19th century, its popularity had grown, especially in the Germanic regions, with cloth weavers, clock makers, and everyone else getting involved in manufacturing them. By the end of the 19th century, harmonicas were big business, and by the early 20th century, harmonicas were mass produced.

Harmonicas were popular on both sides of the American Civil War (1860s), and famous wild west personalities Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid were both said to play them. Harmonicas crept back to their classical music roots by the 1930s, but that wouldn’t last long.

There was a harmonica shortage in the US during World War II because wood and metals were needed for military efforts. Also, primary makers were in Germany and Japan, the US’s enemies at that time. A Dutch-American called Finn Magnus figured out how to make a molded plastic instrument with molded plastic combs and fewer pieces. The sound was quite different from the metal and wood version, and furthered the attitude that the harmonica was a toy. William Kratt got a patent in 1952 and the War Department allotted a rationed supply of brass to his factory so that the Red Cross could have harmonicas to pass out to overseas GIs.

After the war, the harmonica moved north with the blues as African-American workers headed to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York to find work in the 1950s. Once musicians began to amplify the guitar, double-bass, and voices, it didn’t take long for the harmonica to get into the act.

Japan began manufacturing harmonicas in the early 1900s, and by mid century, there were three companies making them, some of which continue to this day (two of them are Yamaha and Suzuki—don’t they also make motorcycles? Is there something to that?). Japan’s harmonica manufacturing was interrupted by World War II and has been slow to recover fully. Despite the hardship, they were famous for the tremolo instruments, and later for innovating major- and minor-tuned harmonicas.

The harmonica was often associated with the poor in the early 20th century (much like the dear little hurdy-gurdy in earlier times) because of its association with African-American music, hillbilly music, and jug bands. The harmonica only returned to its association with classical music in the 1930s.

Harmonica music became popular in China alongside the sheng, and by the 1930s (well before Mao Tse-Tung and the Cultural Revolution), interest in it had spread to Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. By the 1950s, the chromatic harmonica was popular in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas, and western players were invited to perform all over Asia. The Chinese YMCA Harmonica Orchestra had 100 members in the 1960s and the harmonica’s popularity grew steadily until the 1990s. Although there are still Chinese participants in international harmonica festivals, interest there, much as elsewhere, has dropped off.

These days, harmonicas are made world-wide. Major manufacturers are in Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, and the US.

Surprisingly, in recent years, the harmonica has been used for strengthening the lungs by the medical community. Inhaling and exhaling against a strong resistance are good for the lungs, helping to develop a strong diaphragm, and increasing the volume of air within the lung. Pulmonary specialists suggest that playing the harmonica can help COPD patients as much as a muscle trainer or spirometer. It’s also a nice incentive to exercise if you can make a little music while you’re at it.

Harmonica Structure

The harmonica is a flat, rectangular, metal box, usually small (most are a little wider than the palm of your hand and less than two inches long), with slit-like openings on both of its long sides. Each slit leads to a pair of reeds inside the box: one works by air pressure (blowing) and the other works by suction (inhaling). The instrument is placed against the lips and the player blows into or inhales (called a draw) against the slits, moving it back and forth to change notes along the scale.

The embouchure of the lips and tongue direct air into and out of one or more holes along the length of the mouthpiece. Behind the holes are chambers containing at least one reed. The reed is a flat, elongated spring made of brass or bronze and secured at one end over the slot. The slot is the airway. The free end alternately blocks and unblocks the airway as the player blows or sucks on it, and the vibrations produce sound.

Reeds are tuned to specific pitches by the manufacturer, and cannot be easily tuned by a player to change key signatures. Tuning involves changing the reed’s length, the weight near the free end, or the stiffness near the fixed end.

If the reed is fixed below the edge of its slot rather than within the plane of it, it’s easier to get the reed to move using air flow, vibrating to produce sound or closing the slot. There are two kinds of reeds within each slot: a blow reed and a draw reed. Older, less flexible harmonicas used flaps of leather (or plastic, later) as valves or wind-savers, to block the non-playing reed.

Longer, heavier, and more flexible reeds produce low notes, shorter, lighter, and stiff reeds make high notes. There is both a blow reed and a draw reed in the same chamber, which allows them to be played separately.

Pitch is produced by making the reeds vibrate, and each reed’s pitch can be altered by changing the mouth’s embouchure. This is called “bending” the notes. It’s possible to bend a single reed in a chromatic harmonica (or other styles that have wind-savers), but also to both raise and lower the pitch in pairs of reeds within the same chamber in a diatonic harmonica (or other styles with unvalved reeds). Such two-reed changes involve making both reeds sound at the same time.

it’s also possible to lower or raise (called overbending, overblowing, or overdrawing) the pitch on a diatonic or other unvalved harmonica. Such two-reed pitch changes involve sound production from the normally silent reed (the draw reed while the player is blowing or vice versa). Overbending, where the blowing or sucking is harder than necessary to merely create a sound, allows otherwise diatonic (do-re-me) instruments to play a chromatic scale. Overtones can be achieved by changing the size of the mouth’s cavity.

Vibrato is achieved by changing the way the harmonica is held, by quickly cupping the hands around the harmonica, or by shaking the head (rather than by fluctuations in wind speed, like on other wind instruments). This head-shaking method is most commonly used in blues, where the breath quickly alternates between two holes. This is slightly stronger than ordinary vibrato in that it changes the pitch by a greater distance than would be found in the vibrato of a stringed instrument or a voice (or a tremolo harmonica). Vibrato can also be achieved with the throat as it is with other wind instruments, although the sucking gesture is unique to the harmonica.

It’s possible to breathe noisily and rhythmically or to chant while playing the harmonica, which adds an interesting texture to the sound. Tongue blocking allows chords by preventing airflow past unused reeds, and hand effects can create bumpy or vibrato sounds.

The harmonica has three basic parts: the comb, the reed plates, and the cover plates

The comb is the main body of the instrument and contains the air chambers that cover the reeds. It looks like a wide-toothed hair comb. Combs were originally made from wood but are now usually plastic or metal—even titanium for high-end instruments. A wooden comb might expand slightly in response to the player’s breath, making it uncomfortable to play. The determining factor for the various comb materials is durability.

Combs often shrink over time, especially in chromatic harmonicas with thin dividers between chambers. This can lead to cracks because the comb is held in place by nails. Some players soak their wooden-combed harmonicas in water so that the slight expansion makes a seal between the comb and reed plates and to makes the covers more airtight. Modern instruments are less prone to swelling and contracting, although some players still dip their instruments into water because of how it affects the tone and eases bending notes.

The reed plate is the housing for the reeds. Reeds are usually brass, but steel, aluminum, and plastic are often used. Individual reeds are riveted to the reed plate, but they might also be welded or screwed in. Reeds fixed on the inside (within the comb’s chamber) respond to blowing and those on the outside respond to suction.

Most harmonicas have the reed plate attached to the comb or another reed plate by screws or bolts. A few brands still use the traditional method of nailing, and some have the reed plates held in place by tension (such as the World War II-era All-American models). If plates are bolted to the comb, the individual reed plates can be easily replaced. Reeds eventually go out of tune through normal use, and some notes are more likely to fail than others, so this ease of substitution saves the instrument from the second-hand store.

Finn Magnus’ all-plastic harmonica molded the reed and reed plate out of s single piece of plastic. This was glued to the comb.

Cover plates cover the reed plates and are usually made of metal, although wood and plastic are also used. Because they project sound, cover plates determine the tonal quality of the harmonica. There are two types of cover plates: the traditional open design of stamped metal or plastic, and enclosed designs, such as the Hohner and Suzuki high-end models, which are louder.

Additional features might include wind-savers, mouthpieces, slides, bells, neck racks, and amplification devices.

Wind-savers are one-way valves made from thin strips of plastic, knit paper, leather, or Teflon that is glued to the reed plate. They’re used when two reeds share a cell and leakage through the non-playing reed is significant. When a draw note is played, the wind-saver valve on the blow reed slot is sucked shut, preventing air from leaking through the inactive blow reed. These are common to chromatic harmonicas, chord harmonicas, and many octave-tuned harmonicas.

The mouthpiece is placed between the air chambers of the instrument and the player’s mouth. This can be part of the comb, the cover, or an entirely separate unite, secured by screws (such as in chromatics). In many harmonicas, the mouthpiece is purely ergonomic. In the traditional slider-based chromatic harmonica, the mouthpiece also provides a groove for the slide.

Special features, such as bells that could be rung by pushing a button, were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be fun to find one of those, wouldn’t it?

Harmonicas can be placed into a neck rack so that the player’s hands are free to play another instrument (acoustic guitars are a popular choice). The neck rack clamps the harmonica between two metal brackets, which are attached to a loop of metal that passes around the neck. Folk musicians often use neck racks, and lots of pop and blues players do too.

The harmonica may need to be amplified, especially blues harmonicas. This can be achieved with microphones and tube amplifiers. Some varieties of microphones allow the harmonica to be audible even over amplified electric guitars.

There are many types of harmonicas, including diatonic (the do-re-mi scale), chromatic (all the notes on a piano, black and white), tremolo, octave, orchestral, chord, bass, ChengGong, and pitch pipes.

Diatonic harmonicas (do-re-me) continue to be popular in European folk music, and blues and country have joined in, along with American folk. These instruments are in one particular key signature, and special techniques (such as bending) are required to get notes other than those in that specific collection of notes.

The chromatic harmonica uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed. This allows 12 notes in an octave scale rather than eight, as in the diatonic instrument.

The tremolo harmonica has two reeds per note, one slightly sharp and one slightly flat. This makes a wavering sound, like vibrato. This instrument is more popular in Asia than elsewhere, but you can also hear them on ballads, gospel, Latin, and European folk styles.

The octave harmonica is similar in structure to the tremolo harmonica, but the two reeds in each chamber are tuned to in octaves. This makes a richer sound than ordinary harmonicas, but because each note is reeded twice, has less range. These are common in Old-Time, Cajun, and Irish music.

There are eight kinds of orchestral harmonicas, offering a nice variety of sounds vaguely resembling orchestral instruments. The most common is the Horn harmonica, often found in Asia. These have a single large comb with blow-only reeds on both top and bottom, with each reed sitting inside a single cell of the comb. One version mimics the layout of a piano or mallet instrument, with the natural notes in the lower reed plate and the sharps and flats directly above in the upper reed plate. Orchestral harmonicas come in several pitch ranges, and usually cover two or three octaves. There’s another type that has the notes laid out all in a neat row, called the polyphonia or chromatic that play the same note on both blow and draw.

The chord harmonica has up to 48 chords in major, minor, seventh, augmented, and diminished versions. Notes are clustered together, four at a time, each sounding a different chord on blow and draw. Expensive versions have two reeds for each note, tuned in octaves, and gives a richer and louder sound.

Bass harmonicas are double-decked, having two hinged bodies connected along their length, with the natural notes on the lower instrument and the sharps and flats on the upper. Its range is about the same as that of a bass guitar, about two octaves, starting two octaves below middle C. Each hole of the mouthpiece accesses two reeds, tuned an octave apart. The instrument only works by blowing (the draw aspect is absent). These instruments offer a wonderful spooky sound, and I’d sure like to have one!

ChengGong harmonicas have a main body and a sliding mouthpiece that moves along a groove. This nifty thing is tuned to C major, but plays different chords and note combinations depending on the location of the mouthpiece in relationship to the reeds. The body is a 24-hole diatonic harmonica with an 11-hole mouthpiece. It’s capable of playing single-note melodies as well as double stops over three diatonic octaves using tongue-blocking. Blowing and drawing produce the same notes (like a tremolo).

A pitch pipe is a special harmonica that provides reference notes for singers, one note at a time (multiple notes are not possible). Chromatic pitch pipes provide all 12 notes, including the starting note at the octave. Pitch pipes sold to string players (such as guitarists and violin players) only provide the open string pitches.

Harmonica music can be in tablature as well as notation. Tablature indicates where the note is on the instrument rather than duration and pitch alone. This can be easier for untrained musicians to use, much as having the chords spelled out for guitar players does. Text Tab is another common type of harmonica tablature, and indicates when to blow or draw on the note by marking the position of the hole with a B for blow and a D for draw. Tablature usually aligns with lyrics to show tuning and timing rather than above notation.

Regular notation is also used, sometimes with a circled number below each note telling the position of the hole to play. An up or down arrow indicates whether the hole is blown or drawn. Curved arrows are used for bent notes. Cool, eh?

Harmonica Name

The harmonica was originally called a mouth organ both in German and in English. Buschmann called it a Mundäoline or aura. The French call it the harmonica a bouche.

In German, it’s a Mundharmonika (the accordion is the Handharmonika) In Scandinavian languages, the accordion is called the harmonica and a harmonica is a mundharmonika. In Slavic languages, the names are similar or the same as in Scandinavian languages.

In Italian, it’s an armonica a bocca, in Spanish, it’s armonica. In English the slang terms include French harp, blues harp, mouth organ, hand reed, licking stick, pocket sax, toe pickle, tin sandwich, ten-holed tin-can tongue twister. The Mississippi saxophone is a special amplified harmonica.

A Viennese fellow called Ernst Schmidt invented a form of harmonica called an apollolyra, with 44 reeds controlled by keys.

In French and German, the name harmonica is also used for a variety of instruments of the xylophone type (tuned strips of wood—harmonica de bois, Hotz-harmonika), steel (harmonica a lames d’acier, Stahiharmonika—or glockenspiel), stone (harmonica a lumes de pierre). The Ziehharmonika (German) is an accordion.

The glass harmonica is not a harmonica at all, but is a series of nested glass cups mounted sideways on a pole. It’s more of a xylophone than a harmonica. (It has no reeds at all.)

Harmonica Composers

Classical composers include Ralph Vaughn Williams, Darius Mihaud, Malcolm Arnold, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Arthur Benjamin. Jazz, blues, country, Cajun, and pop composers are too numerous to even begin to list. Instead, let’s look at who plays the harmonica.

Harmonica Players

Abraham Lincoln notoriously carried a harmonica in his pocket, and wild-westerners Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid both played.

For more popular genres of music, the number of players is really really long. So I’ll just bundle them up in bulk. These lists don’t even pretend to be comprehensive.

Pop: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon (Love Me Do, Please Please Me, I’ll Get You, and I Should Have Known Better, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, Rocky Racoon, Oh Yoko), Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Beck, Stevie Wonder, Al “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Jack Bruce (Cream), John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful), Donovan, Taj Mahal, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Huey Lewis, John Mayall, Paul Jones (Manfred Mann and The Blues Band), Tom Petty, Scott Thurston (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Roger Daltrey (The Who), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), Bono (U2), Rick Davies (Supertramp), Sly Stone (Sly and the Family Stone), Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds.

Scottish or Irish folk: Benny Gallagher, Philip Achille, John and Pip Murphy, Noel Battle, Austin Berry, James Conway, Andy Irvine, Mick Kinsella, Brendan Power, Joel Bernstein, Don Meade, Paul Moran, Tom Byrne, Rick Epping.

Blues: Jimmy Reed and John Hammond Jr., Sonny Boy Williamson II, Big Walter Horton, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, Norton Buffalo, Jerry Portnoy, Lazy Lester, Sugar Blue, Billy Branch, Charlie Musselwhite, Corky Siegel, Junior Wells, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Kim Wilson, Slim Harpo, Howard Levy, Jason Ricci, Carlos del Junco, Chris “Buddha” Michalek, Frederic Yonnet, Adam Gussow, Paul Nebenzahl.

“Race records” (meant for black audiences in the 1920s) were popular and featured DeFord Bailey, Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry.

Hillbilly: Frank Hutchison, Gwen Foster.

Jug Bands: Memphis Jug Band.

Classical: Larry Adler, Philip Achille, Nikki Gadout, Steve Baker, Johny Mueller, Will Burger.

Jazz: Philip Achille, Yvonnick Prene, Jean “Toots” Theilemans (also known for his whistling and his contribution to the theme song from Sesame Street).

Qawali (Sufi devotional music): Philip Achille.

Latin American: Flavio Guimaraes.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

”The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Harmonica,” by Randy F. Weinstein, and William Melton. Alpha Imprint of Penguin Group, New York, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by The Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co, Inc., New York, 1997.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson, Lorenz Books, Leicestershire, 2012.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Carl Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” Edited by Stanly Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.