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Instrument Biography: The Virginal

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If you’re interested in the Tudors, you’re already familiar with the sweet little instrument known as the virginal (or the virginals—the S doesn’t make it plural, it’s just that some people pronounce it that way). The virginal looked like an itty bitty upright piano and sounded like a harpsichord. It only had a couple of centuries of popularity, but some of the biggest names in music wrote songs for it.

The virginal is a chordophone, which means that the sound is made by the vibration of strings. It sounds funny to say it because of the keyboard, but the virginal is a member of the zither family. The family of chordophones includes bows (like jaw harps), lyres, harps, and lutes (which includes guitars and violins) on one side, and zithers on the other. The zither side of the family includes simple instruments, like an array of strings across a board like a psaltery, more complex struck-string instruments like hammered dulcimers or pianos, or the strings can be plucked like a harpsichord or virginal.

The virginal was a popular domestic instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in England, and major composers like William Byrd (1543-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote a lot for it. The spinet version (more on that in a minute) was first popular in Italy in the 16th century and, by the 18th century, was a favorite all over Europe. One of my favorite painters, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), painted several portraits with virginals in them, including Young Lady Seated at a Virginal (c1670).

Where the idea for the virginal came from and who built the first virginal isn’t known. Musical inventors of the time were fooling around with keyboards and organs, plucked psalteries, and bowed stringed instruments, all of which were being expanded by families (for more on that, read my blog post Instrument Biography: The Vielle or Instrument Biography: The Recorder or even Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ). The virginal probably existed by the end of the 14th century.

Germany and England were both influential in the development of the instrument, along with Italy to a lesser degree. Virginals weren’t really musically significant until the 16th century when, due to developments in music notation (for more on this, see the History of Music Notation) and chords (for more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony), their harmonic opportunities could be properly exploited.

The oldest dated spinet version of the virginal that has survived was built in 1493 by Alessandro Pasi (dates unavailable) in Modena. The oldest dated harpsichord is also Italian, completed in Rome in 1521 by Geronini di Bologna (dates unavailable), and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The same collection also has the most valuable spinet in existence, which is encrusted with nearly 2000 gems, built in 1577 by Annibale Rosso of Milan (dates unavailable). In 1867, that instrument was bought for $2000, which was a pretty hefty sum, roughly $33,000 in today’s money.

Posh versions aside, by the 16th century, everyone who was anyone had a virginal. Henry VIII had 32 virginals in his collection when inventory was taken in 1547. He also had three hybrid instruments that were part organ and part virginal. (For more about Henry VIII’s musical affinities, see my post On Their MP3 Player: Henry VIII.)

Henry’s very musical daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, played the virginal, and many people think that it got its name because she was “The Virgin Queen.” But the truth is that the virginal was already the most popular household instrument by Elizabethan England., and had its name long before Elizabeth was conceived, let alone crowned queen.

To show how ubiquitous it was, let me cite some examples. The virginal was mentioned in a proverb inscribed on the walls of Manor House, Leckingfield, Yorkshire, England in about 1500. The court organist at Budapest played the virginal to entertain the prince at mealtimes in 1501. Henry VIII bought five of them in 1530, and in 1549, the Innsbruck court bought one from an organ builder in Königsburg. By 1582, the orchestra of the Berlin court possessed four of them. In fact, by 1600, virginals were played throughout all of Europe.

Virginals were very popular domestic instruments in the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders), England, Austria, and Germany. In England, they eventually gave way to the spinet and in Germany to the clavichord.

Virginal Structure

A virginal looks like a flat rectangular box with a keyboard cut out near the end of one long side. By definition, it has strings that run nearly parallel to the length of the keyboard. The virginal’s relative, the spinet, has strings that run diagonally away from the keyboard, and the harpsichord, another near relative, has strings that run perpendicular to the keyboard, directly away from the player.

The rectangular shape was the earliest and the longest-lived shape. Italian virginals included a wide variety of harp-shaped or polygonal designs with the keyboard protruding from the main body. Flemish models had a keyboard recessed into the box, which was either centered in one of the long sides or off to the left. The ones that had the keyboard off to the left were called spinetts (notice the double-T) and the ones that had the keyboard off to the right were called muselars. English virginals followed the Flemish design, with the keyboard off to the left.

There was also a double virginal that had two keyboards superimposed and played separately or coupled and played together. This was a Flemish development. The smaller of the two keyboards was called an ottavino, and it fitted like a drawer under the soundboard of the larger keyboard.

In the early models, the player placed the box on a table, or, more rarely, on their own lap. Later versions had their own stands. The boxes were small, perhaps five feet long, a foot and a half wide, and eight inches deep, and light enough that a musician could place it on the table without help.

Until late in the 17th century, the terms virginal and spinet (one T) were used interchangeably in the various countries of Europe. Both terms were used in England, but there, they described different instruments: the virginal had an oblong rectangular case and the spinet was approximately triangular or wing-shaped, with the keyboard at the the left of the strings, accommodating the long bass strings.

The 32 steel strings are plucked by plectra or quills rather than struck with a hammer like a piano. The strings are attached by a mechanical device to the keyboard.

Each key on the keyboard was attached at the far end to a small wooden rod or jack. The upper end of the jack had a hinged and movable wooden tongue that held the plectrum or quill. The plectrum projected horizontally with a hog’s bristle that served as a spring. The hog’s bristle held the wooden tongue in an upright position.

When the key was depressed, the jack rose and the plectrum plucked at the string above it. After the key was released, a lead weight in the bottom of the jack caused the key to fall back to its original position. The wooden tongue turned aside and the plectrum slid past the string so that the string wasn’t plucked a second time on the way down. A small patch of cloth was fixed to the upper end of the jack to dampen the sound.

The plectrum vibrated the string at the point of impact. In a plucked instrument, the whole string vibrates, which is the major difference between a virginal and a clavichord. In a clavichord, the string is divided so that two notes can be plucked on the same string on either side of a dividing node. That means that a clavichord can have twice as many notes with the same number of strings; a virginal has a single string for each note.

The keyboard could be off to either end of the rectangular box, in the middle, or two separate keyboards could be offset from one another. A spinet keyboard with a harp or pentagonal shape had the keyboard occupying most of the length of the rectangle because it housed more strings.

Remember back when I first started talking about the strings? I said that they ran NEARLY parallel to the keyboard. In truth, they’re at a slight angle, which means that the strings ended up being different lengths when strung from one short end of the box to the other. Lower notes, with longer strings, were harder to play than higher notes because the length of the string meant that the jack and wooden tongue mechanism had to move more weight.

The range of the instrument was limited to the number of strings the case could hold. To extend the range, the keyboard was moved to the narrow end of the soundboard. When they put the keyboard down at the narrow end like that, they had invented the harpsichord. Over time, the length of the keyboard and the number of strings increased until they’d invented the harpsichord you’d recognize today.

Virginals usually had only one register (only one type of sound, compared to organs, which could have many different sounds) and one keyboard (except for the aforementioned ottavinos). It was cheaper to make a virginal than a harpsichord and they were much easier to move. A virginal was louder than the clavichord so it could be used both as a solo instrument and in chamber music with other instruments. This made it as popular as both the harpsichord and the clavichord—it was like a combination of the two.

The tone was full and loud, and couldn’t be altered by varying the pressure on the keyboard. That’s what made the later invention of the piano so exciting—the piano could be played both loudly and softly—its full name is piano-forte, which means “soft-loud” in Italian.

The virginal had 32 metal strings (four octaves) that lay nearly parallel to the keyboard. Each string was longer than its neighbor, forming a triangle inside the case, with the long bass strings at the front. In Flemish virginals, the keyboard was placed either to the right or to the left of center of a long side, a feature that determined the timbre of the instrument. When placed to the right, the strings were plucked nearer their centers, producing a nasal tone that was described in 1730 as “grunting like pigs” by one critic. This form was called a muselar.

With the keyboard to the left, in the form called a spinett (with two Ts), the sound was brighter because the strings were plucked near one end, providing more resonance. It had a more flute-like sound than the muselar or the harpsichord, both of which are plucked near the end of the strings.

The double virginal (ottovino) was nicknamed “mother and child” and combined a large keyboard with a smaller one half the size. The smaller one was set in a recess between the soundboard and the bottom of the case, usually to the left of the larger keyboard. It could also be played on its own, but during performance, the child could be withdrawn and placed on top of the mother so that the mother keyboard played both instruments. The child sounded an octave higher than the mother. These instruments were built in the late 16th century.

The Flemish Ruckers family was famous for producing the mother and child version. The child, or ottavino, was placed over the strings of the larger instrument with the jack rail removed, so the jacks of the child instrument, which passed through a slot in the bottom of the ottavino, could activate the strings of the larger mother instrument. The jacks of the larger instrument activated the keys of the ottavino, so both instruments sounded together, giving a brighter sound.

Italian keyboards projected from the case, and the cases were often cypress wood, and quite delicate. Flemish keyboards had the keyboard recessed within a keywell, were often made of poplar, and were sturdier than the Italian instruments.

The earliest Italian virginals were hexagonal in shape, with the case following the lines of the strings and bridges. A few early Flemish examples were also hexagonal. After 1580, nearly all virginals were rectangular, although the Italian models often had an outer case like harpsichords. There are few surviving English virginals, and they look like Flemish instruments, with vaulted lids.

In the muselar version, plucking the string near the middle makes repeating a note difficult because the vibrating string prevents the plectrum from connecting again. Because of this, the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music, without complex left-hand parts. It could be provided with a stop called the harpsichordium, which consisted of lead hooks that were lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings so that the vibrating string produced a buzzing sound. Muselars were popular in the 16 and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century. But, like other forms of virginals, it fell into disuse in the 18th century.

Most virginals have between 32 and 45 notes, or four octaves. There were some Italian models with 54 notes, or five octaves.

They came in several sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (c1650-c1725) mentions instruments with strings from two and a half feet long to six feet long. The pitch difference between models offered by the Ruckers family corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone: a fourth, a fifth, an octave, and a ninth. Pitch assignments have been suggested based on scaling provided by Douwes.

Many virginals throughout Europe were plain wood, but many others were richly decorated. From the moldings on the case edges, through the jack rails, and name battens, they could be adorned with ivory, mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell, semi-precious stones, and intricate painting.

Flemish virginals often had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths, and even images of food, within blue scalloped borders and intricate blue arabesques. Many symbols are meant to suggest the Christian resurrection story.

The keys were in two tones, just like today’s keyboards. The natural keys (white keys on a piano) were covered in bone and the sharp keys (black keys on a piano) were of oak or chestnut. They might be left plain, or keys might be lavishly decorated with ivory, ebony, mother of pearl, or tortoiseshell.

Case exteriors were usually marbled, sometimes painted that way, and sometimes covered with marbleized paper. The inside was covered with elaborately block-printed papers. Sometimes the inside of the lid was painted with a scene, but more often, it was covered with papers printed with a Latin motto having to do with morality or music. Mottos were so often applied to the keywell batten that it’s often called the name batten.

Italian virginals didn’t have a standard form of decoration. The outer case was usually decorated in some way, but the actual instrument was often left plain. Cases might be decorated with grotesques (fantastic curly-cues and human forms), intricately painted classical scenes, or marquetry.

Soundboards were rarely painted. Soundboards of both Flemish and Italian virginals were pierced with a rose, sometimes two or three roses in the earlier models. The piercing served no acoustic function but was purely decorative. These decorations were a throwback to the rose in the medieval lute and were never carved integrally as part of the soundboard.

Italian soundboards were constructed by layering pierced parchment, so the final result looked like a gothic rose window or an inverted wedding cake. In Flemish instruments, the rose was usually cast lead that was gilded and often incorporated with the maker’s initials.

The Name

The name virginal has been erroneously connected with virginity and with the maiden queen Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was born in 1533, quite a few years after the first mention of a virginal. The term goes back to the 15th century, seen first in a poem during Henry VII’s reign (1485-1509, and Elizabeth’s grandfather) and nearly at the same time, in a manuscript in Cracow, written between 1459 and 1463, called the Liber virginti atrium by the Bohemian instrument maker Paulus Paulirinus (c1413-1471).

The word virginal is probably related to the Medieval Latin word virgo, meaning rod or branch. Virginals (with an S) is one variation, and like scissors or pants, is often used in the plural.

In Italian, the word is spinetto, from the Latin spina, meaning thorn. In Middle High German, they’re called Schachtbrett from Schacht or New High German Schaft, or rod, both meaning rod.

In French, the word is echiquier from a mistaken translation of the German word Schachtbrett. Echiquier may be where the term “jack” comes from, that describes part of the plucking mechanism lined up in little rows, like chessmen, which is at the root of the word “check” in echiquier.

A harpsichord could be called a virginal in England, a clavecin in France, and a clavicembalo in Italy. But remember, these are relatives of the virginal, not different forms.

Virginal Composers

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is probably the most famous collection of keyboard compositions, and contains nearly 300 pieces from English composers. It was compiled by a Catholic recusant (for more on recusants, see Composer Biography: William Byrd) called Francis Tregian (1574-1618), between 1609 and 1618. The most frequently represented composers are Byrd, John Bull (c1563-1628) and Giles Farnaby (c1566-1640). No one seems to know why it’s called the Fitzwilliam book, though. Perhaps it was a patron.

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is not necessarily meant only for the square form of harpsichord, and even within the square type, the term “virginal” was not limited to a single form. The use of the words spinet and virginal at the time were both vague and somewhat contradictory. The word harpsichord is commonly used for the grand piano-shaped elongated form, and virginal or spinet for the upright and square form. But the book was intended for all keyboard instruments, even organs.

The “Parthenia” was the first music ever printed for virginals. It contained 21 short pieces, including preludes and dances by William Byrd, John Bull (c1562-1628), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), appeared in late 1612 or early 1613.

Although he didn’t write much for the virginal, English madrigalist Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) wrote variations of “Go from My Window” in his Consort Lessons.

Italian Andrea Gabrieli (c1532-1585) wrote Capriccio sopra Il Pass’ e mezzo Antico for the virginal. It was markedly unlike his usual work.

Both William Byrd and Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640) composed their virginal pieces on “grounds” (a phrase that repeats throughout the song in the same voice—in the left hand on the virginal) and extended sets of variations, usually on popular songs, but sometimes on dance tunes or the notes of the hexachord (a six-tone scale, like a mode).

Virginal works grew increasingly complex, culminating with Spaniard Antonio de Cabezon (1510-1566). Cabezon was certainly in England with his master, Philip of Spain (1527-1598), for more than a year, during 1554-1555, when it is likely that he was known to composer John Blitheman (c1525-1591), who was organist at the court of Queen Mary.

The most important English virginal composers were William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1557-1602), Peter Philips (1561-1628), Giles Farnaby (c1565-1640), John Bull (c1562-1628), Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), Thomas Tomkins, (1572-1656), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The repertory consists of dances (mostly pavanes and galliards), variations on popular tunes, preludes, fantasias, liturgical pieces (organ hymns and In nomine), and transcriptions of madrigals.

Other big names in virginal composition include:

  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Italian
  • Giovanni Picchi (c1571-1643), Italian
  • Samuel Scheidt (c1587-1654), German
  • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Dutch

Famous Makers

There were quite a few virginal makers, some of whom were also harpsichord or organ makers. There were three major centers of virginal making: Italy, Belgium, and England.

Andreas Ruckers (1579-c1640), for instance, was a member of a famous Flemish family of plucked string instrument makers that flourished in Antwerp from 1580-1670. They’re thought to have made the earliest harpsichords with two manuals (keyboards) and a single register (like an organ stop, that controls what kind of sound the instrument makes). The first of the outstanding Ruckers was Hans Ruckers (c1550-c1625), whose instruments had a beauty of tone that won them—and him—a lasting reputation throughout Europe. Some of Hans’ innovations sprang from his expertise as an organ tuner.

Lodewejck Grauwels (dates unavailable), was Flemish and from the late 17th century. I found no other details about him or his instruments.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

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

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

Instrument Biography: The Accordion

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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)

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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

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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.

Instrument Biography: The Oboe

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The oboe is a soprano-ranged double-reed woodwind instrument. It’s made from a wooden tube roughly 23.5 inches long and has metal keys, a conical bore, and a flared bell. Sound is produced by blowing into the reed and causing the air within the tube to vibrate. The way I’ve described it makes it sound like a kazoo, but when played properly, it’s one of the most magical instruments in the whole orchestra.

The oboe’s sound is clear and penetrating. It was mentioned by Henry Playford (familiar to all you contra and English country dancers) in 1695 as a majestic and stately instrument and others have claimed that the oboe sounds like a duck if the duck could only sing. The timbre of the oboe comes from its conical bore (unlike the cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets), and is readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.

Oboe music written in C (it’s a tuning thing—more on that later) and has a soprano range, although there are other voices in the oboe family (more on that later, too). Orchestras frequently tune to the A of the oboe because the pitch is secure and its penetrating sound makes it ideal for a variety of instruments to tune to it.

Oboe History

Wind players and instrument makers at the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) are in large part responsible for building an oboe from a shawm. The oboe first appeared in England in the 17th century, under the French name of hautbois, and surely came from France, as the French were especially fond of the instrument. This name “hautbois” was also used for the oboe’s ancestor, the shawm. The two major differences between the shawm and the oboe include the oboe having three sections (or joints), which allow more precision during manufacturing and precision in both tuning and comfort, and the elimination of the pirouette, the wooden ledge or ball below the reed that was a resting point for the player’s lips on the shawm.

The 17th century flutist Michel de la Barre wrote that the Philidor and Hotteterre families might have been the inventors (separately or together, it’s unclear). Regardless of who or how it came to be, it grew in popularity all over Europe and in England, where the name morphed through hautboy, hoboy, hautboit, and howboye before settling on oboe (in English—the French still call it an hautbois). It was the main instrument in military bands until the clarinet came along and dislodged it.

The reason for the oboe’s popularity was that it was an expressive instrument, equal to that of the traverse flute (another rising star in the 17th century). The shawm had demanded attention by being almost obnoxiously loud, but the oboe tempered the sound with dynamic range (loudness AND softness) and eloquent nuance. It soon became a favorite instrument of the Baroque era, especially played in conjunction with the violin, which was another new invention (evolved from the vielle).

In the early 18th century, the oboe’s sister, the oboe d’amour developed, which was even more evocative, as the name rather romantically implies. The oboe d’amore is pitched a third lower than the regular oboe and was unknown until the early Romantic period. In the 1870s, Victor Charles Mahillon (1841-1924), of the Mahillon instrument makers in Brussels, revived the instrument for historical performances. It’s evolved further since then to include the same improvements as the modern oboe (more about that in the Structure section).

The alto bombard (one of the names for the shawm) became the alto oboe (the same way as the shawm became the oboe), and it had a pear-shaped bell, like the oboe d’amore. It had a warm and full tone and was also called the oboe da caccia (the horseman’s oboe) and was used during fox hunts. The oboe da caccia was 30 inches long and had a peaceful and quiet sound.

The English horn is another version of the oboe, but it’s curved, carved of two pieces of wood at an angle, like a sickle, and is encased in leather to make it airtight. It’s a little bit longer and although the finger holes are wide apart, it’s fingered the same way as a regular oboe and oboe d’amore. It rose in popularity around the middle of the 18th century and had an elegant pear-shaped or spherical bell. By the 19th century, it had gained the oboe’s helpful key mechanisms. The English horn is often found in large orchestras today and plays a fifth lower than the oboe.

The baritone oboe plays a fourth lower than the English horn (or an octave below the oboe, if it’s easier to think of it that way). It’s more than three feet long, has the pear-shaped bell of the English horn, and is blown, like the bassoon, through an S-shaped tube. It sounds a lot like an English horn, only lower.

The heckelphone is an even lower oboe, made in the early 20th century, with a wide conical bore. It was made of maple-wood and has a barrel-shaped bell. The heckelphone was more than four-feet long, producing a rich sound, so much so that it was used by Richard Strauss (1864-1049) in “Salome” and “Alpine Symphony” and by Max von Schillings (1868-1933) in “Der Moloch” and “Mona Lisa.”

The pioccolo-heckelphone is a smaller version of the heckelphone and sounds a fourth lower than an oboe. It’s still pretty big.

In the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715), French ensembles consisted of an oboe, a tenor oboe, and a bassoon, but by the middle of the 18th century, they had expanded to two oboes (or two clarinets) with two horns and two bassoons.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) orchestra had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and between 12 and 16 strings (violins, violas, and cellos, doubled by bass viol), and a harpsichord. Trumpets and timpani were occasionally added.

Viennese orchestras of the 1790s often had as many as 35 players, often also including clarinets. In the 19th century, orchestras grew from about 40 players to nearly 90. Oboes (along with flutes, clarinets, and bassoons) developed elaborate key systems by mid-century, and their ranges were considerably expanded (piccolos, English horn, bass clarinet, and contra-bassoon).

Oboe Structure

The oboe has a narrower bore than the shawm, which is why its tone is softer and more delicate. It was narrowed during the Classical period (1730-1820). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be played more easily, and composers indulged themselves in this broadened range. The new half-octave inspired Classical era composers (including Mozart) to write concertos for the oboe instead of leaving it buried in the orchestra adding color.

Also during the Classical period, the oboe’s bore was lined with a conical metal tube, which made it sound a lot more like a trumpet or a horn than a shawm. It didn’t last, and today’s oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore with no metal lining.

The oboe ends in a funnel-shaped bell.

The Baroque oboe was made of boxwood and had only three keys. After improvement to the keys in the 1840s, oboes were no longer made of boxwood, but of ebony or rosewood instead. Occasionally, metal or ebonite have been used.

Since the middle of the 19th century, the differences between the French oboe (also used in England, the U.S., Belgium, and Italy) and the German-Austrian oboe has increased. The French oboe is thinner and has a more delicate tone.

Instead of being constructed from a single piece of wood, instrument makers for Louis XIV (1638-1715) divided the oboe into three sections that fitted together nicely, facilitating the most delicate adjustments in tuning. This improved instrument had two octaves, and its smaller finger holes allowed the player to produce more accurate chromatic pitches.

The modern oboe is usually made from African blackwood, although some manufacturers use cocobolo, rosewood, or violetwood. Ebony is used occasionally, and some student models are made from resin to avoid cracking the wood with rough treatment and to make the instrument less expensive.

The oldest oboes had six finger holes, of which two, producing half-step intervals, were doubled so they could be played with either hand (like the recorder). It also had three keys, one of which was a swallow-tail lever to be played with either hand, called the great key, and the other two were opposite each other to be played with either hand to close the same hole, called the side key. The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the left or right hand on the bottom holes, just like the lowest hole on the recorder.

During the Classical period, the oboe gained keys. One special key was called a “slur” key and was similar to the modern octave key, although it was first used like a “flick” key on the modern German bassoon to facilitate chromatic changes. Later, French oboe makers redesigned the octave key to be used like it is on the modern instrument (held open for the upper register, closed for the lower).

In the 19th century, the Triebert family (Guillaume and his sons Charles and Frederic) in Paris used the Boehm flute (see Instrument Biography: The Flute) as a source of ideas for key work, and devised increasingly complex key systems. The Boehm-system oboe had large finger holes and was used in some military bands into the 20th century, but was never commonly adopted.

But even before 1800, Grundmann and Grenser of Dresden Germany experimented, fitting the oboe with keys so that it could play a chromatic scale. By 1825, the oboe had as many as 10 keys in addition to the holes. In 1825, the leading maker in Vienna was Koch, who developed the instrument that became the standard of the day with celebrated oboist Joseph Sellner (1787-1843), who would later write the seminal tutorial on playing the oboe.

Improvements continued until, by 1840, there were 14 keys. French makers, including Frederic Triebert, really tweaked the thing. The instrument made in 1880 was considered the best ever, and was called the “conservatoire model,” and is essentially the same as the modern instrument. The conservatoire model was made in Paris and was equipped with a complicated and ingenious key mechanism that makes it possible to play the same note in two or three different ways—even four, in some instance.

When he left the Triebert company in 1881, Francois Loree of Paris further developed the oboe by improving the bore and keys, and, after a few more changes, by the late 20th century, it finally settled into the instrument we know today.

Modern instruments have about 2.5 octaves. Some student models are missing the B-flat key that extends the range downward in the professional versions. There’s a similar key on the flute.

The Gillet key system (for the conservatoire oboe) has 45 pieces of keywork, with the optional additions of a third octave key and an alternate key for F or C. The keys are usually made of nickel silver and are silver- or gold-plated.

Oboes are also made using the English thumb plate system, which includes semi-automatic octave keys by which playing in the second octave closes keys from the first. Releasing the thumb plate has the same effect as closing the forefinger’s hole on the right hand, which produces alternate fingerings without distinctive tone changes. This can be handy when rapidly switching octaves running up or down a scale (the fewer fingers you have to move, the faster you can play).

Some conservatoire oboes have keys constructed of rings rather than plates (called open-holed), so that the finger closes the hole but still manipulates the key, and most professional models have at least the right hand’s third key open-holed. Professional models usually use this open-hole system combined with a thumb plate.

The cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument in the shawm (called the pirouette) was discarded when they were designing the oboe at Louis XIV’s French court. The reed isn’t entirely within the mouth as it is in the shawm, but is held between the lips, about half in and half out of the mouth. The player can control the volume as a result of this change, and it’s also possible to overblow to achieve harmonics for higher notes. The free-standing reed allows greater control of intonation and tone quality than the old-style-enclosed reed.

The oboe’s double reed consists of two thin blades of cane tied together around a small-diameter metal tube called the staple. This staple and reed are bound together with three carefully placed wires and then thread is wrapped around the wires. The cane-surrounded staple is stuffed into a length of cork, and the cork is pushed into the reed socket (called the farrow) at the top of the oboe.

Professional oboists make their own reeds, as every oboist needs a slightly different design to suit their own needs. This way, they can control things like tone color and tuning. Some beginners use reeds made of synthetic materials because it’s both hard and expensive to make your own.

Commercially available cane reeds are available in several degrees of hardness. A medium reed is most popular, and most beginners used medium-soft reeds.

As oboists gain experience, they usually start making their own reeds, often in the style of their teachers, or they buy handmade reeds (usually from a professional oboist) in various stages of construction, and using special tools, including gougers, pre-gougers, guillotines, knives, and other tools, adjust the reed to their own liking. It takes many attempts to get the reed right. Orchestral musicians sometimes make reeds to sell and earn a bit of extra money.

Oboe reeds, like those for the clarinet, saxophone and bassoon reeds, are made from cane that’s called Arundo donx. Professional oboists import their reed cane directly from the growers in southern France.

The cane is split into three vertical parts. Oboes require the thickness of about 10 millimeters and bassoons need the reed to be more than twice as thick. Each player adjusts the reeds for his or her own embouchure, the angle at which they hold their oboe from their bodies, and lung capacity. The reed is considered the most difficult aspect of playing the oboe because slight variations in temperature, altitude, and weather can change a hitherto good reed into an unplayable bundle of twigs.

The oboe’s pitch is affected by the way the reed is made. There can be variations in the construction materials, the age of the reed, and the difference in scrape and length. German and French reeds differ in many ways, and the sound is different in response. Skilled oboists can adjust their embouchure to compensate for such factors by manipulating embouchure and air pressure.

Oboe d’amore, which is larger and a third lower than the conservatoire oboe, has a pear-shaped bell rather than the oboe’s funnel shape, which softens and mellows the tone.

The range of the Baroque oboe is a little more than two octaves.

The Wiener (Viennese) oboe is a modern instrument that retains the essential bore and tonal characteristics of the Baroque oboe. The Wiener oboe was developed in the 19th century by Josef Hajek from earlier instruments designed by C.T. Golde of Dresden (1803-1873), and is now made by several European makers and the Japanese maker Yamaha. Its bore is wider than that of the conservatoire oboe, its reed is shorter and broader, and the fingering system is different. The middle register of the Wiener oboe sounds reedy and the upper register includes more harmonics than traditional oboes. The Wiener oboe was thought to be an improvement on the historical oboe because it was a little easier to get a nice sound out of than the earlier instruments and could be played expressively, like a modern oboe. It was said to blend nicely with other instruments, and is, with the Vienna horn, distinctive and unique to the Wiener Philharmoniker instrument museum.

Other members of the oboe family include the cor anglais, or English horn, which is the tenor (or alto) member of the family. It’s a transposing instrument, pitched in F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d’amore, which is the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made extensive used of both the oboe d’amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, which were both Baroque parents of the English horn.

Less common is the bass oboe (usually called the baritone oboe), which sounds an octave lower than the oboe. Then there’s the heckelphone, which has a wider bore and a louder sound than the bass oboe—and only 165 of them have ever been made, making it hard to find competent heckelphone players. The rarest member of the oboe family is called the musette (or piccolo oboe), which is the sopranino member of the family, pitched at a minor third or a perfect fourth above the oboe. SImilarly rare is the contrabass oboe, two octave lower than the oboe.

Folk versions of the oboe, sometimes with extensive keywork, are found throughout Europe, including the musette (French), the Piston oboe and the bombarde (both from Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (from Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (from Spain). Most of these are played with bagpipes accompanying them, particularly the Italian zampogna or Breton biniou. Similar instruments to the oboe are believed to derive from Middle Eastern instruments, which are also found throughout Asia and in Northern Africa.

Notable oboe makers during the Baroque are the Germans Jacob Denner (1681-1735) and Johann Heinrich Eichentopt (c1678-1769), and the Englishman Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734). With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid-20th century, a few makers began producing copies of surviving historical instruments.

The Name

In English, the oboe was called the hautbois (meaning “high wood” in French) prior to 1770, and because spelling used to be more of a matter of opinion than it is nowadays, it was also called the hoboy or French hoboy. “Oboe” was adopted into English around 1770 from the Italian word oboé, which was a transliteration of the French.

Various voicings of the oboe are called oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, heckelphone, bombarde, musette, taille, cor anglais, English horn, Wiener oboe, Breton piston, and the conservatoire oboe. That last one is the modern oboe.

Famous Oboe Composers

There are loads of composers who wrote for oboe, so I’ll group them first by nationality and then by their dates. This list is not comprehensive by any means.

     Italians: Antonio Lotti (c1667-1740), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

     Germans: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote Brandenberg concertos #1 and #2 featuring the oboe. He also wrote a concerto for oboe and violin and frequently composed for the oboe d’amore. Then there was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and later, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote two concertos for the oboe. Next, Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who wrote an oboe concerto (it’s one of my favorite Beethoven pieces), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who used the English horn in his opera “Manfred.” Another opera composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), used the English horn in “Tannhäuser” and in “Tristan and Isolde.” Next up, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who preferred the French oboe, complaining that the German-Austrian oboe had a thick and trumpet-like voice, and that he thought it didn’t sound nice with flutes and clarinets. He wrote “Domestic Symphony” to illustrate the innocent child with the oboe’s voice. Last but not least among the Germans is Georg Philipp Telemann (1881-1767), who composed for the oboe d’amore in 1722.

     Americans: Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

     English: Henry Purcell (c1659-1695) wanted a tenor oboe for “Diocletian” in 1690 and afterward, the instrument became known as the English horn. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote for the bass oboe, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) managed to eke out a few pieces that included oboes, and Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934) wrote for the bass oboe. Then there were Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Madeleine Dring (1923-1977).

     French: Robert Cambert (c1628-1677) used the oboe in his opera “Pomone.” Next up, there’s Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992),

     Austria: The most famous Austrian musician so far, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), wrote two oboe concertos.

     Russian: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1849-1893), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     Czech: Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) and Jan Antonin Kozeluh (1738-1814)

Famous Oboe Players

There have been quite a few famous oboists. I’ll group them by genre, and within genre, by their dates (if available).

     Classical (etc.): Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790) and Joseph Sellner (dates unknown), who was an oboist and teacher who wrote the seminal oboe studies in 1825.

     Jazz: Garvin Bushell (1902-1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924, eventually recorded with John Coltrane in 1961. Paul Whiteman played jazz oboe in the 1920s and 30s. Gill Evans (1912-1988) played oboe with jazz great Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef used the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) gave the oboe a solo role when played by Richard Hafer (1927-2012) in his jazz groups, and Marshal Allen (1924-   ) played oboe with Sun Ra. Paul McCandless (1947-  ) is co-founder of the Paul Winter Consort and later played the oboe in the jazz group Oregon. Romeo Penque played the oboe on Roland Kirk’s album “Return of the 5000 lb Man” in 1975. The Maria Schneider Orchestra features the oboe. Jean-Luc Fillon plays oboe and English horn, and Charles Pillow plays and teaches jazz oboe.

     Celtic and Folk: Derek Bell (1935-2002) of the Cheiftains, David Cantieni of Wild Asparagus (a contra dance band in the US), Paul Sartin played in folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead, Welsh bagpipe player and maker Jonathan Shorland plays a rustic oboe similar to the Breton piston with the bands Primeaval and Juice. Welsh musician  Karl Jenkins (1944-  ) played the oboe with Nucleus and Soft Machine.

     Pop: The Carpenters used an oboe in “For All We Know” in 1970, and both Donovan Leitch and Jennifer Juniper used studio musicians on oboes for their albums, rather than regular members of their bands. Peter Gabriel played oboe on some of Genesis’s albums. Robbie J. de Klerk played the oboe on the Dutch metal band Another Messiah’s albums in the 2000s. Hoboe defines itself as a rock band showcasing the amplified oboe since 2000, fronted by oboist Zen Ben.

     Film: The oboe is often used in film music, especially in sad scenes. The Indian film composer Ilaiyaraja uses oboe in much of his film music.


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

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Guistave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

Instrument Biography: The Recorder

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The recorder is an evolved form of flute, a woodwind from the family of fipple or internal duct flutes. Although many of the fingering principles are the same, it’s distinguished from the transverse flute by being end-blown. Although some forms of fippled flutes are older, the recorder as we know it may have originated in Italy in the 14th century. It soon became important as a consort instrument during the Renaissance. Like the viol, the recorder comes in a family of sizes—as many as eight, according to Michael Praetorius.

The recorder was popular from Medieval times through the Baroque, and declined in popularity in the 18th century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the traverse flute, oboe, and clarinet. It was often associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images reflecting those sensibilities can be found in both literature and artwork.

The recorder was far more popular than its loud double-reeded cousin the shawm and its noisy cousin the bagpipe, and volume was probably a contributing factor. Sometimes players bound two recorders together, one to be played with the right hand and the other with the left. This seems an imitation of the ancient Greek aulos rather than an innovation, though.

The modern revival of interest in the instrument began at the turn of 20th century primarily due to resurgence of interest in early music (as defined by “music before 1750”). Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various scholars in Germany, including the Brussels Conservatory where Dolmetsch trained and the performance group Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, were largely responsible for this revival of interest, but even so, there were common misperceptions about it, including by such notables as Igor Stravinsky, who thought it was some sort of clarinet.

Recorder History

There are other end-blown flutes, such as panpipes, but the recorder is made distinctive by the contraption in the throat of it that controls the flow of air. This contraption is called a duct or a fipple, and its use is better described in the Structure portion of this article. It’s an ancient idea, and an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) recorder made of sheep bone has been discovered.

Although common lore claims the recorder as a 14th century invention, Medieval paintings of whistles argue for an earlier inception. The difference between a whistle (like those used in Irish folk tunes), with six or fewer holes, is that a recorder has seven holes in the front and one in the back. The original design of the traverse flute, and the fingering that goes with it, was based on the six-holed whistle, not the recorder. Yup, I was surprised to learn this too.

A 14th century recorder was discovered in a castle moat in the Netherlands. It was largely intact, but no longer playable. They found another from the same period buried in a latrine (we can only wonder how THAT came to be) in Northern Germany. There are a few more from the same period elsewhere in Germany, and in Estonia and Poland. There’s a piece of a bone recorder from the 14th or 15th century that was dug up in Greece and a complete recorder from the 15th century was found in Poland.

The earliest recorders were designed to be played with the right hand below the left or vice versa, depending on the preferences of the player. The holes were all in a straight line, except the lowest hole, for the lower hand’s little finger. This was a double hole so that the player could fill the unused hole with clay, depending upon which hand they preferred to play with uppermost. This second hole is why the French called the instrument flute à neuf trous. Later, the right-hand lower style was declared standard and the second hole disappeared.

The recorder was very popular in the 16th and 17th century, probably because music was no longer strictly the purview of nobility and clergy. The invention of the printing press made music available to anyone with the money to pay for it. The recorder was also brought into royal courts, including that of Henry VIII. When he died in 1547, they found 76 recorders among his possessions.

During the Renaissance, recorders were used for dance music and as accompaniment for singers. Both William Shakespeare and John Milton also mention recorders. There are many vocal works with un-texted lines that were probably meant for instruments, such as vielles and recorders and lots of vocal music was easily playable (within the right range) by these instruments. Increasingly, composers wrote music solely for instruments, and they often didn’t specify which. This meant that a consort (a group containing a bunch of instruments from the same family, like various sizes of cornettos or recorders) could be played by whatever musicians and instruments were handy. This period of innovation and invention proved that if an instrument was good in one size, it would be even better in several sizes and with several ranges.

In the 15th century, recorders were increasingly used in polyphony along with voices, organs, shawms, trombones, trumpets, and cornetti. Polyphony was the style of the day during the Renaissance, but composers were just beginning to write chordal pieces. (For more on this, check out Chords versus Polyphony.) The Medieval tradition of juxtaposing two or three melodies on top of one another co-existed with imitation, where one part has the melody and then another does, each taking a turn. The late Renaissance also ushered in an interest in complex improvisation and ornamentation, something that was so very distinctive during the Baroque period.

There are many existing examples of recorders from the 16th century, all still playable. Like the Medieval recorders but unlike the later Baroque recorders, Renaissance recorders have a wide and nearly cylindrical bore (Baroque recorders tend to be conical). They have great low notes (better than the Baroque instruments, in fact) because of that wider bore. This bore shape meant that the player had to blow harder, but it also made the instrument more lithe and responsive.

The recorder’s relative, the flageolet, is thought to have been invented by someone called Juvigny in Paris at the close of the 16th century. It had unusual finger holes—four in the front and two in the back—and it had a particularly high-pitched sound.

In the 17th century, changes to the design of the recorder made it more suitable to the Baroque era, including improvements to the tone, which made it quieter and reduced its range. Praetorius mentions eight sizes of recorder in his 1618 treatise, but only three were still in use a century later: the descant, alto, and bass. Its gentle and subdued tone couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of the 18th century for dynamic and tonal contrasts, and it was slowly ousted by the traverse flute. In the 18th century, people called the recorder the flute because it was so wide-spread, and they called the traverse flute the traverse to distinguish it.

After the 18th century, there wasn’t much call for recorders. It’s possible that the versatility of the traverse flute made it more appealing to composers. Because of the fixed relationship of the wind-way to the fipple, the dynamics and expression of the recorder were limited, making it ill suited to the dramatic style of the period. Also, music as a pastime for aristocratic amateurs was changing to music for a society of professionals, and composers of the time began to write solely for professionals.

By the Romantic era, the recorder had been nearly completely replaced by the traverse flute and the clarinet. A keyed version of the recorder (called a czakan or Stockflöte) survived into 19th century concert halls. But still, its popularity waned. The recorder was basically ignored during the Romantic period. But in 1912, Arnold Dolmetsch, who was instrumental (ha ha) in reviving quite a few ancient instruments, made them popular again, especially in England and Germany. Now, recorders in various sizes, and mostly without keys, are made for the Early Music Movement, for music education in the schools, and for performances of folk music.

Fortunately for us, playing the recorder never completely died, and there are still makers all over Europe. There was a huge recorder revival in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement of early music, but also because it’s simple and ideally adapted to teaching music to amateurs. Lots of children played recorders as a “gateway” instrument, but there are many professional players who can show us the instrument’s full range.

The recorder is enjoyed by amateur groups large and small, which usually contain multiple sizes of instruments to compensate for limited note ranges in individual instruments. Four-part arrangements (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, just like vocal parts) are most common, although there are more complex arrangements (just like vocal parts). Recorder orchestras are a late-20th century invention, with 60 or more players, and up to nine sizes of the instrument. You can find such groups in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and several other countries.

Recorder Structure

The recorder is a wind instrument with a beak mouthpiece, seven finger holes at the front, and a thumb hole at the back. It was well-known in the Middle Ages and had developed several sizes by the 14th century, when the name, meaning “keepsake” was first used. The recorder achieved its real pre-eminence during the Renaissance when it was the only wind instrument with its own tutorial. This instruction manual was written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535 and showed that great technical brilliance was possible over a range of nearly three octaves.

The recorder is held outward from the player’s lips, rather than to the side, like a traverse flute. The breath is compressed into a linear stream by a channel cut into the block (also called a fipple) in the mouthpiece of the instrument, and travels along the duct, called the windway. As it exits the windway, the air hits the hard edge of the body of the head, called the labium or the ramp, which causes the column of air to resonate within the tube. The recorder uses fingering (open holes, half-holes, and forking) to change notes.

Blowing harder on a recorder affects its pitch, so the dynamic range (loudness) of recorders is limited to subtleties. It’s renowned for its clear and lithe articulation, and a skilled player can take advantage of that to suggest dynamic changes. Some effects can be made by controlling the pitch with partially covered holes or alternative fingerings to accommodate harder breath pressure.

The sound of the instrument is clear and sweet, partially because it doesn’t have upper harmonics.

At its upper end, early recorders had a beak-like formation, which was blocked except for a narrow channel in the fipple. Today, some recorders have this beak-like shape, and others are blown into a slot cut into the fipple block itself.

The slit of the mouthpiece directs the stream of air against the sharp edge of the fipple block, which sets up vibrations. The block in the mouthpiece leaves a narrow channel for the air to pass through. The block is called a block in most countries, and in England, it’s called a fipple.

Sound in a recorder is produced in much the same way as in the flue pipes of an organ. Air is passed through a long vented tube that is a specific length to achieve the notes in the desired range. Finger holes provide the ability to change notes (unlike an organ’s pipes).

The recorder has a lightly tapered bore, widest at the mouthpiece and narrowed toward the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared at the bottom on Renaissance instruments.

Recently, organ-pipe-shaped recorders have been built with square cross-sections. These are cheaper than the traditional size, but aren’t as attractive. They have greater ranges and stronger low notes, making these newer instruments more audible when playing concertos. Some of these newer instruments can play three octaves in tune. The tenor is particularly popular because its range matches that of the traverse flute.

When overblown, a recorder sounds the next octave, so there is no way to produce a louder sound.

Internal duct flutes are not all recorders; only recorders have eight finger holes, seven on the front and one on the back for the upper hand’s thumb. Players could choose which hand was above the other; the lowest hole was often doubled and the player could stop up the unused one with clay.

There’s some debate about whether the thumb hole at the back of the instrument was a 16th century development. Pictorial references only show the front of the instrument, so there’s no way to know. No instruments have survived to prove or disprove this theory.

By the middle of the 17th century, the double lowest hole was considered impractical, and they invented a movable hole, putting the last hole on its own section so that it could be rotated to suit the player. It was at this point that four new keys were added to the bass and contrabass forms. Two of these keys were operated by foot pedals.

Double recorders weren’t common in the 16th century, but they did happen. The two pipes lay side-by-side and were carved from a single block of wood. There are two forms of this instrument, one where the holes are pierced in staggered positions and the other where the holes are side-by-side. The side-by-side version survived because adjacent holes could be stopped by fingers on the other hand—it was a more limber instrument to play, but it also required a certain agility from the player.

Double recorders during the Baroque were bored out of the same piece of wood with the finger holes close together so that each pair could be closed with a single finger. The width of the holes, the bore of the tubes, and the position of the flutes in the block was different for each of the two instruments, and it was possible to obtain an interval of a third between each pair of parallel finger holes. The instrument was popular in England and Switzerland. A fellow called Christian Schlegel of Basel was one of the best double recorder makers in the 18th century.

French innovations were brought to London by Frenchman Pierre Bressan (1663-17310). Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734) was an instrument maker, mostly of oboes, in London—he and his son were the other important recorder-makers of the 18th century, along with Bressan.

In the early 20th century, Peter Harlan (a German) developed a (single) recorder that allowed simpler fingering, called the German fingering. Such instruments have a slightly smaller fifth hole, whereas Baroque and neo-Baroque instruments have the fourth hole smaller. This causes a difference in fingering for F and B-flat. Sadly, it also causes other notes to be out of tune. German fingering was popular in Europe, especially in Germany in the 1930s but was obsolete by the 1950s as musicians got more serious about the recorder and the limitations of German fingering became more of an annoyance.

In half-hole or forking fingering, air leaks out through part of the hole making the pitch higher than expected. Some Baroque instruments have divided holes to facilitate playing these notes accurately. Half-covering or not covering a hole and fully covering lower holes is called “forking” and has a different tonal character than those notes in the scale that peel up from the bottom.

Pinching is when the thumbhole in the back is only partially covered, and the higher notes that are achieved by this method call upon the harmonics of the instrument. Again, there is some degradation of the tone.

Recorders can be made of wood, plastic, or ivory. When they’re made of wood, they’re maple, pear, rosewood, granadilla, or boxwood with a block of red cedar. Plastic recorders are mass-produced and are cheaper to maintain than wood, and the good quality ones are equal to or better than the lower-end wooden recorders. Most beginners’ or children’s instruments are plastic.

Modern instruments are based on Baroque style, although some makers reproduce Renaissance-styled instruments. Those (Renaissance-style) have a wider, less tapered bore and usually have a less reedy and more blending tone, well-suited to consorts.

Until 1650 or so, the instrument was a smooth shaft that suited the taste of the Renaissance. But the Baroque style was much more complicated and the recorder was reshaped accordingly. The tube left the lathe with expansions at either end, so that the form curved gracefully.

The change in shape from the Renaissance to the Baroque was largely attributed to the Hotteterre family (see more on them in Instrument Biography: The Flute). They developed the tapered bore, which brought the lower hand’s fingers closer together, allowing a greater range and making it possible to build the instrument in several jointed sections. Separating the instrument into sections allowed more accurate shaping of each individual section, and it offered minor tuning adjustments by lengthening and shortening the length of the instrument with a change to the position of the sections.

In the mid-20th century, recorders were made of Bakelite and plastics, so they were cheap and easy to produce. This made them popular in schools, as they could be bought in bulk for a good price. They are pre-tuned and easy to play in tune, even at the most basic level of skill. Mastery, however, isn’t so easy. The success in schools has led to the misunderstanding of the recorder as a children’s instrument.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was being made in four sizes—a hundred years later, Praetorius describes eight sizes. The larger instruments have double-winged keys instead of the duplicate lower holes, and were blown through a brass S-shaped tube (like the bassoon) for greater ease in performance.

The treble recorder (called the alto in the US) is most commonly used as a solo instrument. If no size is specified, it’s this one that is meant. The descant (called the soprano in the USA) also has an important repertoire of solo music. There is some tenor and bass solo music, but not much compared to alto and soprano.

The largest recorder, the contrabass, even larger than the bass recorder, is seldom used due to its cost and size. It stands about 6.5 feet tall, and is in the key of F.

An experimental piccolino has been produced, which plays about 12 notes above the range of the soprano. The fingering for this instrument requires very small hands, and the holes tend to be side-by side rather than lined up down the length of the instrument (like an ocarina), so it’s pretty darned hard to play.

In ensembles, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are most common, and many players play all the instruments and switch, as the needs of the music demand. Great basses and contrabasses are less common. The sopranino doesn’t blend well and is usually reserved for recorder orchestras and for playing concertos (solo pieces with orchestral backup). Larger recorders require larger hands, and instruments larger than the tenor have keys to enable the reach and provide a better tonal response (through consistently complete hole coverage). Some altos also have keys to aid in completely covering the holes.

The largest recorders are so long that the player can’t reach the finger holes and still reach the mouthpiece with the lips. Instruments larger than the bass (and some basses, too) use a bocal or a crook, which is a thin metal tube like that of the bassoon, to conduct the player’s breath to the windway, or they may be constructed in sections that fold the recorder into a shape that brings the windway back into reach.


German instrument-maker Sebastian Virdung (born c.1465-   ) used alto, tenor, and bass sizes in his “Musica getuscht” of 1511 but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) lists eight, from the great bass to sopranino. Praetorius recommends a consort of the larger sizes as sounding best because the lower ones had a soft and expressive tone suitable for all sorts of music.

Each different size of recorder comes with its own register. They are usually tuned in C or F, meaning that their lowest note is a C or an F. There are instruments in D, B-flat, G, and E-flat, but those are more common historically than today. The treble (alto) recorder is in G, and is commonly used in Renaissance ensembles. The tenor recorder is in D, and is also called a voice-flute because it was much like a human voice in its range.

Most recorders are pitched at “concert pitch” (A=440 Hz), but other pitches are available. For Baroque instruments, A=415 Hz is standard, and Renaissance instruments are at A=466. These alternative tunings are a compromise between historical accuracy and what is practical for playing in groups. There’s an alto pitched at A=403, and there are makers who offer two middle sections, each at a different pitch, so the instrument can be immediately adaptable. (A 415-pitch is an exact half-step lower than 440, so many other instruments, such as vielles, viola da gamba, and harpsichords, can be adapted relatively quickly.)

Music isn’t usually transposed for the recorder, but is written in the same key as it’s played. Some family members must transpose for the octave (soprano and above, and bass and great bass). Recorders are referred to as D-fingered, C-fingered, G-fingered, F-fingered, etc. based on their lowest notes (with all the finger holes closed). Players must know at least C- and F-fingering or spend some time transposing at sight.

Sizes from garklein down through tenor are notated in treble clef and bass and lower are notated in the bass clef. The six-inch-long garklein sounds two octaves above the written pitch, even higher than the sopranino and soprano, which both sound one octave above the written pitch. The alto and tenor sizes sound as written, and the bass and great bass sound one octave above the written bass (in bass clef). These transpositions are written by adding a small “8” above or below the treble or bass clef for those instruments that don’t sound as written, although it’s not always written in, and the transpositions must be assumed from context. Contrabass and sub-contrabass sound as written, and the octocontrabass sounds an octave below written pitch.

Recorders sound an octave above the human voice after which they’re named (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They don’t sound like they’re an octave higher though, because of the harmonics involved in making the notes.

Michael Praetorius describes a narrower range than modern instruments have. This is partially from improvements in construction since his time and partially from the general skills of today’s players. Reproductions of period instruments often have a range of as little as an octave and a half, and modern instruments usually have a little more than two octaves.

Some reproductions use Sylvestro Ganassi’s fingerings and offer the larger range of modern instruments—music publishers mean that the range is of two octaves or more when they refer to Ganassi recorder.

Most recorder pieces encompass two octaves, except in virtuoso pieces. Higher notes are more difficult to play, and fingerings vary from instrument to instrument. It’s possible to hit some additional notes by covering the end of the instrument. Usually, this is accomplished with the player’s thigh. Some makers add a key to help with this note, and a longer bore can help reach these notes as well. Although common in 20th century music and later, this maneuver is seldom used in pre-20th century music.

Most modern recorders are based on the designs by Bressan, Stanesby, and Denner. The Denner family in Nuremberg were continental recorder makers from the 18th century.

Popular music in the 20th century required inventing new noises, rhythms, and effects, such as flutter tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics.

The Name

Called the recorder since the 14th century, the earliest known use of the term was in the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV) in 1388—he called it the fistula nomine Recordour which comes from ricordare especiale, which essentially means “remember” in Italian.

The recorder was called the flauto in Italian until the 18th century. Italian is the language (still) used in writing music. The instrument called the flute today was then known as the traverse. This name anomaly led to some music being performed on possibly the wrong instrument. Today, the recorder is known as the flauto dolce in Italian (sweet flute), with equivalents in other Latin languages, such as the flauta doce in Portuguese and flaute dulce in Spanish. In Portuguese and Spanish, the term “flauta” is ambiguous, as it can mean a traverse flute, a recorder, or even some other kind of wind instrument, like the pan flute, and some Central and South American instruments.

In French, the word flûte is similarly ambiguous—the French recorder is usually called the flûte a bec, or beaked flute. The Spanish picked up on this descriptive term and also called it the flauta de pico. The Old French name was flute à neuf trous for the recorder that had two holes in the lowest position depending on the handedness of the player.

From the “block” (fipple plug) in German, the recorder is known as a Blockflöte and the modern flute is known as the Querflöte (the traverse flute), the Grossflöte (great flute) or simply the Flöte. There’s also the Schnabelflöte, the mouth (or beak) flute for the recorder. Dutch follows the same convention as German, with blokfluit being the recorder and dwarsfluit the traverse flute.

An illustration of a recorder appears in England during the 12th century, but the name doesn’t occur until the 14th century. The name means “keepsake.” The English also call it the fipple-flute.

Bach called for two flauti d’echo in his 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major. This instrument was the double recorder, two recorders (both in F) connected together by leather flanges. One was rigged to play softly and the other loudly, causing the echo effect and the name.

Recorder Composers

The numbers are too many to list, but I’ll tell you a few of my favorites: Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594), William Byrd (c1540-1543), and John Dowland (1563-1626). All of these gentlemen composed music for singers that could also be played by recorder consorts.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used the flageolet in Rinaldo and in Acis and Galatea. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used the flageolet in Sacred Cantatas ## 96 and 103. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote three concertos for the flautino and used it in the orchestra for his opera. Initially thought to mean a piccolo, later studies have determined that he called for a sopranino recorder.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was probably one of the last to specify that a recorder rather than a flute be used in his Orfeo and Euridice.

Henry Purcell (c1659-1695), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) all used the recorder to suggest shepherds and to imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued through the 20th century.

More modern composers for the recorder include Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Richard Harvey (1953-   ), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Josef Tal (1910-2008), John Tavener (1944-   ), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was largely responsible for the popularity of recorders for use in schools, and is most famous for his Carmina Burana. He wrote “Music for Children” with many pieces for recorders, plus other instruments.

Recorder Players

There are lots of them. I’ll list just a few. Frans Brüggen (1934-    ), Hans-Martin Linde (1930-   ), Bernard Krainis (1924-2000), David Munrow (1942-1976), Kees Otten (1924-  ), Michala Petri (1958-   ), Piers Adams (1963-   ), and Charlotte Barbour-Condini (1997-   ). Leticia Berlin and Frances Blaker, and their group Tibia Recorder Duo are my two local favorites. I’m not mentioning the years they were born because I don’t want them to bop me on the noggin with a recorder.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997) was the son of Arnold, the big recorder designer and builder. Carl commissioned works from the leading composers of his day.

Famous groups include Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, Quartet New Generation have all combined mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.

Popular Music:

Loads of rock and rollers have used the recorder, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Ruby Tuesday), Yes (I’ve seen all Good People), Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven), Jimi Hendrix, Fairport Convention, and Mannheim Steamroller.


“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.

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

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

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

Instrument Biography: The Positive Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles from the main pipe organ piece, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The positive is a small, usually one manual (a keyboard played with the hands), pipe organ built to be mobile. It was commonly used for both sacred and secular music between the 10th and the 18th century, and it was also popular as a chamber organ, used to play the basso continuo in ensemble works. The smallest positive is little more than keyboard-height, and is also called a chest or box organ. These are still popular for basso continuo work because you can move them into the suitable spot in a suitable chamber. Positives that were meant to be the center of attention were usually taller.

Despite its similarity to an ordinary English word, it’s actually French and is pronounced pos-ih-teev. It’s also called the  positiv, positif, portable organ, and chair organ. It comes from the Latin verb ponere, which means “to place.”

The positive is also a name for a large organ that had the pipes behind the organist’s back. This type is also known as a chair organ or Rūckpositive. Modern organs (after the Romantic era) often call a whole division of pipes the chair organ because they’re the most likely to be in the portable positive. The pipe organ came in many forms between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (see the Church Organ biography for more about those). By the Baroque, even processional and tabletop organs existed, although they were less popular than the larger positives. The Orgelbewegung (the guiding treatise to the 20th century revival of historical instruments) didn’t emphasize them much in the 20th century, though.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century is monophonic dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of score and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player.

There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2nd century (because of the bellows) just as there’s an obvious connection between the panpipe and both the organ and the bagpipe (wind, passing through or across the pipes, makes them sound).

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE and the instrument features prominently in musical life by medieval times. Small portative organs, with bellows operated by one of the player’s hands, are commonly depicted in the iconography of the period. By the 15th century, larger positive organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and had their bellows operated by a second person. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged.

Positive Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum. It was probably a domestic instrument as well, and was thought to have been played by Nero.

The hydraulis’ popularity waned and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, three stopped ranks, one open rank, and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

An early positive is visible on a carving of Theodosius, commemorating his death, in the 4th century.

In the 7th century in the Christian world, Pope Vitalian is credited with introducing the much-evolved bellows organ to the Catholic church service. It served as support for singers, both as a foundation, playing lower notes than could be sung, and to offer timbre options in the higher registers. It’s ideally suited to accompany singing, whether by a congregation, a choir, cantor, or other soloists. Many church services still include organ accompaniment as well as a solo repertoire, often as a prelude at the beginning of the service and a postlude at the conclusion.

Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England, but the decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reign of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th century. This organ wasn’t the hydraulis of history, because that didn’t really make it out of the first century CE. Instead of complicated water and air pumps, the new instrument used a bellows that could be worked by hands or feet. By the end of the 9th century, Franconian organ building was so highly esteemed that Pope John VIII summoned a master from the diocese of Friesing to build an organ for him in Rome.

Monastic churches had early organs by 1100, probably portatives and positives, and by 1300, positives were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, substantial improvements were made. After that, proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 keys of the octave are already required (remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this). There are questions about whether the accidentals (sharps and flats that are not part of the key signature) are written in by the original documenter or by a later hand.

Until around 1400, the organ had a single keyboard with a range of one to three octaves, the keys were large and cumbersome or consisted of sliders that moved in and out, and there were no stops to allow the variety of color and tone that we’re used to today. The sound was a fixed, and fairly loud, mixture of several ranks of pipes. Pedals and a second manual were added in Germany and the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, the second manual having its own pipe-work located behind the player (which is why it’s called Rūckpositive in German).

National preferences for organ building emerged during the Renaissance. German innovations included additional manuals and interesting new tone colors. Italian and English organs remained simpler, often with a single manual and a basic chorus of stops with only one or two individually distinctive colors. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote the richest source of knowledge about organs as part of Syntagma Musicum.

With the refinement of the keyboard and development of finger techniques in the 13th and 14th centuries, a small movable positive was devised, suitable for church or secular surroundings. In contrast with the church organ, it required only one person to work the bellows. The secular version later became the chamber organ found in English homes and used in consort music.

The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and a great number of keys, and because the combination would have needed more space for this, it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century.

There are many miniatures that include positive images among the illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum from the Middle Ages, especially from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Because a second person was necessary to work the bellows, and because it was neither super portable like the portative nor grand like the Great Organ, the positive organ’s popularity also dwindled during the 16th century.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, positives were used at many civil and religious functions. They were used in the homes and chapels of the rich, at banquets and court events, in choirs and music schools, and in the small orchestras of composers as conspicuous as Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) (biography to come) at the beginning of musical drama (which would later become opera).

According to Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), the two middle manuals of the Halberstadt organ were designed for two-part playing. The two outer ones, the Descant manual, in which each key sounded as many as 32, 43, or even 56 pipes, and the pedal board, where each pedal key controlled 16, 20, or 24 pipes, were provided for powerful effects. Praetorius said it was quite loud.

Less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque, the positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. Both the portative and the positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the church organ remained in general use.

The positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless during the Classical period than the Baroque,. Both portative and positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Church organ remained in general use.

Positive Organ Structure

The positive organ was sized somewhere between the tiny portative and the huge church organ. You might think of it as about the same size as a spinet piano, although it would have been less wide and a little deeper, and possibly taller behind the keyboard.

The instrument is portable, but unlike the portative, it isn’t meant to be played while moving. It has a larger keyboard than the portative, usually having 49 notes or more (older instruments have slightly fewer), and a portative might have as few as 12 or 13 notes.

Many positives, both of the box and cupboard types, can be thought of as upper and lower parts that can be moved separately. The lower part contains the bellows, blower and treadle, and perhaps the largest of the pipes. The upper part contains the pipes and the manuals. Wheeled casters or a custom-made hand truck are used to move them.

The positive has more than one register, and because it was played with both hands, was satisfactory to play later music that used newfangled chords. The Orgelbewegung treatise (a 20th century revival of historical instruments) has created an interest in small positives that can be played with both hands. These small instruments are occasionally called portatives, especially if their pipes are arranged like those of the true portative.

The positive was usually used as accompaniment rather than as a solo instrument. It had a tender and gentle tone, and was popular during the Baroque period.

The hydraulis used water to determine the note played (see the Church Organ post for more). The positive developed from this ancient concept, where the pipes were sounded by moving air pressure that was maintained by the weight of water, and that could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes along the pipe. The air was moved by a bellows.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It was presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes (three stopped and one open) and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

The number of pipes controlled by individual keys and pedals was possible because of something called register-stops. These weren’t a new development in the Middle Ages but track back to antiquity. The Middle Ages appreciated the mixtures in which every note was accompanied by several fifths and octaves (overtones and harmonics), making the original note sound fuller and richer.

By the Middle Ages, it was understood that pipe structure affected the tone and color of the notes, and whole ranks of pipes were built with differing lengths but similar dimensions—some were wide, some were narrow, some conical, some inversely conical, some stopped, and some open—in order to get a certain uniformity of sound within the rank. In the 15th century, sharper and shriller reed pipes were invented, where the pitch was determined by a simple metal reed and the tone was colored by a belled mouth. All of these various groups of pipes could be connected by register-stops.

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on musical styles of the Italians, French, and northern lands. The best known builders were Arp Schnitger (1648-1718) and Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). They adopted the Dutch practice of dividing the pipes into a main group and subsidiary groups, each with its own keyboard and pipes having a particular character and function. The main group, the Hauptwerk (Great Organ), sits high above the player. Other groups include Ruckpositive, mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, a Brustwerk, directly above the music rack in front of the player, the Oberwerk, high above the Great, and the pedal organ, whose pipes are usually arranged symmetrically on both sides of the Great.

Only the largest German organs had all of these components. Yet even a modest two-manual instrument could create a great variety of sounds combining variously voiced principal, flute, and reed pipes as well as mixtures, in which pipes sounding upper harmonics add brilliance to the fundamental tone (the fundamental is the note you mean to sound and the harmonics and overtones are the other notes that make up that note).

The pipes were usually flue pipes in 4’ and 2’ and occasionally a 1’ tone. Positive organs with reed pipe registers were rare.

Innovators made it easier to move the slides by creating keys that could be pressed and returned to the original stopping position by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary, Vitruvius (c80-c15 BCE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The earliest image of keys is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks each of 18 pipes. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, not reeds). The player would have used both hands, the left hand for changing the drone note, and the right for playing the melody. This idea of playing against a drone wasn’t new; Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE-65 CE) makes reference to consonance on stringed instruments in the 1st century CE. (This is an indication of simultaneous differing sounds rather than any kind of polyphony.)

The introduction of pedals was probably because the largest pipes were hard to sound—great pressure was needed to overcome the air-pressure and make the wind move in the pipes. The feet were simply stronger, and so a keyboard for the feet developed. Most positives offer only one keyboard and no foot pedals, although some use pedals to control stops.

In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp). The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and also a great number of keys, and it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century when they were making other renovations.

The wind was supplied by a second person operating the bellows, but modern positives have electric blowers. In the Baroque period, they developed a reservoir to store air so that the bellows didn’t have to be pumped constantly. Air pumped from bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and goes from there into the soundboard, where the keyboard uses it to sound a note through the associated pipe.

The larger the organ, the more stops they can offer; some are specifically treble and some are divided, allowing each stop to be activated in the treble or bass portions of the keyboard. This makes it possible to play a melody and an accompaniment using different registrations at the same time.

Positives usually have few stops compared to larger organs. There are three that are standard—the 8’ stop, a 4’ flute, and 2’ principal (diapason). Somewhat larger positives might also have 2 2/3’ or other mutation stops and a small mixture of other pipes. Some have an 8’ reed stop, like a regal organ.

In a slider soundboards, the grooves underlying all the pipes are specific to a particular key. The sliders work across the grooves and are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off. The solid portions of the sliders close the pipes. When the register is to be included, the slider is pulled out until the holes are situated under the feet of the pipes so that the wind can enter unimpeded when the key is depressed. It was less likely to break than the spring version of stops, and was universally adopted in the Baroque period.

Positive Organ Name

I didn’t find anything to explain why the positive is named that way in English or any other language. It’s called a Rūckpositive in German, because the pipes were behind the player.

Positive Organ Players

Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) was a German who wandered all over Germany and England, and whose fame spread far beyond those boundaries. He opened three music schools and saw a lot of excellent musicians become professionals. He also did some work on changing the design of the organ. The English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian who came to study at the Paris Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. His improvisatory style expanded on the repertoire of Bach and the French Baroque, and in the end, the design of the organ adapted to accommodate it as well. This style included lyrical themes, contrapuntal development, and orchestral color. He reportedly had huge hands  that could easily span 12 white notes on the keyboard (most people can reach eight), which may have affected his style. He only wrote 12 pieces for the organ (he was into improvisation), but was considered the best organ composer after Bach.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was in France with the English occupying forces. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at the Duke’s court until he retired in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

Positive Organ Composers:

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) wrote the “Fauvel” motets (the story of a horse’s exploits), some of which were to be played on the organ.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) documented the rapid development of the positive organ by documenting the Halberstadt Cathedral organ, placed on record in 1618. The instrument had been built in 1361 and renovated in 1495. It had three hand-claviers or manuals and one pedal board (for the feet).


“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.