Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Music: Mechanized Instruments

Instrument Biography: The Accordion

with 6 comments

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Accordion History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concertina History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melodeon History

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

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

Accordion Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concertina Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melodeon Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accordion Names

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Players and Performers

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Instrument Biography: The Free-Reed Organ (Harmonium)

with 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reed Organ History

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

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

Pump Organ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reed Organ Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Name

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

Other reed organs include accordions, concertinas, and harmonicas.

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

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

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

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

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

Reed Organ Composers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reed Organ Players

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ

with one comment

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, 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 organ is an instrument of one or more rows (called ranks) of multiple pipes, organized by the quality of sounds they produce (called divisions), each played with its own keyboard. The keyboards are called manuals when played with the hands and pedals when played with the feet. Organs can be played by a single player with both hands and both feet, or by two or more players.

Pipe organs use wind moving through pipes to produce sounds. The wind is moved by bellows, water, steam, or electricity. Most organs have pipes of some sort although some reed organs don’t. After some introductory remarks, this blog addresses the large church organs that add fabulousness to any ordinary cathedral.

There are many varieties of organs. The one you think of right away is probably at or near the top of this list. But organ development has been hot and heavy for two full millenniums, so be prepared to learn about some new types. These are some of the larger categories:

  • Church organs are the largest and grandest organs with as many as four or five manual keyboards and a pedal keyboard. Pipes can fill a whole cathedral wall and the individual pipes can be from a few inches high to many feet high. Pipes are made from reeds, wood, metal, precious metal, and semi-precious stone.
  • Positive organs are small organs, meant to be portable. The pipes are contained in a box the size of a large trunk, and they have only one or two manuals. Positives are usually in two pieces (the pipes and the keyboard) to facilitate being moved.
  • Portative organs are not only portable, it’s possible to play one while walking. About the size of a peanut vendor’s box, they hang from one shoulder. The player pumps the bellows with one hand and plays a single keyboard with the other.
  • Regal organs are portable in much the same way that positive organs are—they can be pushed around, and they had a limited number of keyboards and pipes. In the 16th century, the resonance pipes were removed and the regal became a beating-reed organ, which is the ancestor of the harmonium and other squeezeboxes. The regal’s sound was characterized as “snarling” and loud.
  • A chamber organ is small, often with only one manual, and sometimes without separate pipes for the pedals. These are for small rooms, and are confined to chamber organ repertoire, as they’re too quiet for larger halls. Music from before Beethoven could be played on a chamber organ, just as it might have been on a piano or harpsichord, and it’s occasionally considered preferable to a harpsichord for continuo playing because it can sustain tones. (The harpsichord is a plucked instrument, so the decay of sound begins immediately.)
  • Reed organs are also called harmoniums. They’re quite small and are a relative of the accordion in that the box containing the keyboard also contains the bellows. Concertinas, shruti boxes and accordions are all reed organs. It’s also (vaguely) the ancestor of the harmonica, which sometimes gets called the mouth organ.
  • Theater organs are large and ornate, like church organs, but have a different variety of sounds, such as percussion and special effects, suitable for accompanying silent movies and ball games. They are smaller than church organs, but use higher wind pressures to provide the variety of tone and more volume with fewer pipes.
  • Electric organs have sound produced by electricity instead of a bellows and the sounds are digitally altered to produce the various divisions. Some have pipes and others simply produce the sound through speakers.
  • Mechanical organs include the barrel organ, water organ, and orchestrion (that’s a fancy term for a music box). These are controlled by mechanical means, such as pinned barrels or book music (like a player piano). Small barrel organs dispense with the organist altogether by being wound up like a toy, and bigger barrel organs are powered by a crank that’s turned by an organ grinder or by an electric motor. Barrel organs are mechanical organs made famous by organ grinders. There are also orchestra organs, fairground organs, band organs, Dutch street organs, and dance organs that use a piano roll player or other mechanical means instead of a keyboard to play a prepared song.
  • Steam organs, or calliopes, were invented in the 19th century. They have a loud and clean sound, and are usually used outdoors. Many were built on wheeled platforms, making them portable.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart probably meant the church organ when he called the organ the “king of instruments.”

The church organ is the grandest of the musical instruments in size and scope and has existed in its current form since the 14th century. Like the clock, it was considered one of the most complex manmade mechanical creations before the Industrial Revolution. Pipe organs range in size from a single short keyboard to huge instruments with over 10,000 pipes. A large modern organ usually has three or four manual keyboards with five octaves each (five octaves is 61 notes), and a 2.5 octave (32-note) pedal keyboard.

Really grand organs have pipes as large as 64’ (foot here means sonic foot, which is not exactly the same, but nearly, as an English foot). Church organs with pipes like that have an extremely diverse range of sounds. In fact, that’s the most distinctive feature of an organ; the range and quality of sounds goes from barely audible to hair-blown-back almost intolerably loud, from sounding like grass blowing in the breeze to a locomotive passing through your living room.

Because of the multiple keyboards, the organ has a polyphonic effect built right into it—all of the keyboards can be played at the same time as the others, if you can get your friends to join you on the bench. In addition, the sounds of each keyboard can be mixed and interspersed with the others, creating the effect of a whole orchestra from a single instrument.

Most organs in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia can be found in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, with some in concert halls and private homes. The harmonium is a staple of Indian music, especially as part of the Hindu and Sikh celebrations. Muslims do not include music in their worship services.

Organs are also used for concerts and recitals. In the early 20th century, symphonic organs flourished in secular venues in the US and the UK, designed to replace symphony orchestras by playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces. Using organs in concert with symphonies fell out of favor in the 20th century as a reformation movement took hold (called the Orgelbewegung, and having a particular interest in historically accurate focus on performance) and builders began to look to historical models for inspiration rather than creating something new.

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 seems to be 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.

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. The panpipe is also an ancestor of the organ, as it toyed with various lengths of pipe and the effect of blowing air across or through them.

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. It was probably a domestic instrument as well. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum.

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.

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 by 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.

By the 8th century, the organ was no longer associated with gladiators and combat and had assumed a prominent place in the liturgy of the Catholic church. It soon also became a secular and recital instrument. In that same century in the Middle East, a notable singer called ‘Ulaiya al-Mausilki played an “urgan rumi” which was a Byzantine or Roman version of the organ.

The organ was introduced to France through Constantinople in the latter half of the 8th century and the simultaneous sound of different notes on the organ by two players might have inspired imitation with the beginning of sung polyphony, organum (chant with a second voice—see? It might have gotten its name from the organ!), and conductus (which didn’t really pop up until the 12th century, but is two or three voices, usually in the form of chant, and used to musically conduct the holy books from the back of the church to the front during Mass). Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England and can be seen in museums there.

The decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reigns of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries.

In the 9th century, an automatic flute player, which was possibly hydro-powered, was a mechanical organ made by the Banu Musa brothers, Islamic scholars in Baghdad who wrote a book called “The Book of Ingenious Devices” that reported on automatic and mechanical devices of the time. Look these guys up—they’re the stuff fiction is made of! One was a highwayman and the other was an astrophysicist (or the 9th-century version of such a thing).

By then, the organ started taking the form that you might recognize today, 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 there to come and build an organ for him in Rome.

The largest instrument of the Middle Ages of any kind was an organ built in the 10th century—in 980 CE, an instrument was installed at Winchester Cathedral in England that possessed 400 pipes, 26 bellows, and two manuals, each furnished with 20 sliders (stops). A single one of those sliders could cause 10 pipes to sound simultaneously.

In the 12th century, substantial design improvements were made. Even monastic churches had early organs by 1100 and by 1300, they were common in cathedrals as well. Proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them, like a carillon’s keys.

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.

The organ of the church of Notre Dame de Valiere, in Sion Switzerland had 4’ pipes in the 14th century, and lower pipes had been added since it was originally built. There were three high ranks, their metal cast in sand, dating from around 1390. It was probably used to play the Faenza Codex in the 15th century. By then, larger organs were commonly placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and with the bellows operated by a second person (positive organs).

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 (on the positive) 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.

Praetorius gave specifications for an organ in “Syntagma Musicum” in 1618, some of which were built in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance movement. There’s one at Harvard University and another at the Westminster Choir School in Princeton New Jersey.

Protestant German countries used the organ as accompaniment to choral singing and paid particular attention to the softer registers by using flue pipes. Roman Catholic countries used the organ as more of a solo instrument and favored the sharper reed registers.

Around this same time (the early 16th century), the number of pipes within a register also increased, increasing the range of the keyboards. As early as 1519, Anthony Doddington wrote of an English organ with a range of four octaves, and in 1523, Pietro Aron wrote about a Venetian organ that also had a four-octave range. Germany didn’t expand the range of their organs until the close of the 16th century.

Great pains were taken in Italy to develop the manuals, but the pedals lagged behind. Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591) speaks of the pedals disapprovingly, and his is the only Italian mention of pedals. But in Germany, where polyphony was king, the pedals were an essential part.

The organ was particularly well-suited to polyphonic music by the 17th century. By then, it had clearly distinguishable registers that didn’t merge into one another, although dynamic contrasts were still limited and could be achieved only within very restricted limits—neither thunder nor whispers. Crescendos and decrescendos were impossible. The tone was clear and unromantic, as the taste of the late Renaissance for unemotional and classic art demanded.

During the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th, the organ was modified to produce more expression, and to have a more flexible and variable tone. Things like tremolo, string registers, Vox Humana, couplers and transmissions, swell, and equal temperament were invented. (See the structure section for more on these topics.)

During the Baroque period (1600-1750), the organ became increasingly important as vocal accompaniment and as a participant in orchestral music. During this era, organs were used to provide continuo (where the bass line or chords were left to the creative powers of the player but the other lines were written out. Other continuo instruments were harpsichord, lute, theorbo and chitaronne).

Organ music enjoyed a golden age in the Lutheran areas of Germany between 1650 and 1750. It was greatly aided by famous (and reportedly astonishing) organists such as Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707), several members of the Bach family, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), and a tradition that had been established earlier by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654).

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on the musical styles of Italy, France, 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 the pipes having a particular character and function.

The main group, the Hauptwerk, sits high above the player. Other groups include the Rūckpositive that was mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, the Brustwerk that was directly above the music rack in front of the player, and the Oberwerk that was high above the Hauptwerk. The pedal organ had pipes that were arranged symmetrically on the sides of the Hauptwerk. Only the largest German organs had all of these components. 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 early 18th century was musically focused on dynamic range, and even the somewhat unsuited organ was affected. The organ had grown less appreciated during the Classical period (1730-1820) because it was regarded as too rigid and lifeless, so a contrivance was made to vary the volume. Both portative and positive organ styles gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the great church organ remained in general use.

Abt Vogler (1749-1814), a German organist of some renown, replaced the large and expensive pipes of the church organ with smaller ones, which produced the deepest low note by sounding only part of the harmonics of the note (the octave and the twelfth). He got rid of any registers that he didn’t think were essential and enclosed the rest in a chamber that could be closed with the Venetian Swell that had been invented by Burkat Shudi in 1769. Vogler also rearranged the pipes and introduced “free” reeds, borrowed from the Chinese mouth-organ (that also later became part of the harmonium). Vogler’s efforts made the organ less expensive and easier to manufacture, repair, and maintain, and in addition, made the tones clearer, which suited the tastes of the Classical period. But they also made the instrument sound thin and ordinary. The early Romantic period opposed his reforms and they soon disappeared.

The 18th century in the New World meant an effort to adhere to Old World sentiment and aesthetics. Anglican churches in large cities presented music that differed little from their English cousins. French Canadian and Spanish colonies emulated the Catholic music of France and Spain. They used organs and choirs of men and boys, just as they had in the Old World. Two groups were especially notable regarding these efforts: the Puritans of New England and the Moravians of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The Puritans were Calvinists and their music centered on metrical psalm singing—congregations were taught to read music, not to depend on rote learning like in the Catholic tradition. The Moravians embellished their church services with concerted arias and motets using organs, strings, and other instruments.

The Reform movement in Judaism during the early 19th century brought many Protestant-style practices into the synagogue, one of which included singing congregational hymns (often borrowing melodies from Lutheran hymns) and introducing organs and choirs. The first influential composer of the movement was Solomon Salzer (1804-1890), who was a Reform cantor at a synagogue in Vienna. He updated traditional chants and wrote service music in modern styles for soloists and for the choir. He also commissioned music from other composers, including Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) choral setting of Psalm 92 (written in 1828) that used the Hebrew text.

Soap operas popularized organ music when they were created for the radio in the 1930s and later for television in the 1970s. They played in the background to enhance the mood and performed the theme songs before and after the show. In the early 1970s, the organ was phased out in favor of full-blown orchestral music, which, more recently, have been replaced with pop-style compositions.

Sporting events, particularly in the US and Canada, often have organs punctuating occurrences during the games, especially baseball and ice hockey. The Chicago Cubs were the first to use an organ before, during, and after games at Wrigley Field in 1941. Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hired the first full-time organist (Gladys Gooding) in 1942. The trend caught on. In the 1990s, several teams replaced their organist with recorded music and sound effects, but many fans appreciate the presence of a live organist, considering it traditional. In an ultra-modern move, the organist for the Atlanta Braves uses his Twitter account to take requests from fans during games at Turner Field.

Pipe organs continue to be common in church services and electronic organs are available for those with a lower budget. And as the repertoire developed for the pipe organ and affected its development, church and concert organs became increasingly similar.

But pipe organs are not limited to classical or traditional uses. Rock music has been known to employ church organs and occasionally synthesizers that sound like pipe organs. The artists record in cathedrals, and enjoy the lovely slow decay (like a long echo) that is to be found in such huge buildings.

Organ Structure

Predecessors to the organ include panpipes, pan flutes, syrinx (the reeds out of which panpipes are made), and the ney (an end-blown flute, like a recorder). The aulos, an ancient double reed instrument with two pipes is where we get the the word hydra-aulis (water aerophone).

The hydraulis was a piped instrument, where levels of water determined the note played. The concept of the pipe, sounded by air maintained at a fairly stable pressure by weight of water, could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes. It was played with a series of sliders that were pulled out and pushed in to affect the water levels (and therefore the amount of air movement).

Next, they 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 a keyboard 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 of 18 pipes each. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, and the balance are reeds. The player would have used both hands, his left hand for changing the drone note, and his 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.)

Older organs had two to four manuals, but modern instruments might have five or six, depending on what the instrument was used for.

  • The Great organ used in cathedrals operates the greatest number of registers and the largest stops.
  • The pipes of the keyboard on the Choir organ was usually situated behind the player.
  • The Solo organ has stops specifically designed for playing solos.
  • The Echo organ has soft-toned stops that are at some distance from the majority of the other pipes.
  • The pipes of the Swell organ are enclosed in a wooden box that can be opened and shut by means of a “Venetian swell,” producing a crescendo (getting gradually louder) and decrescendo (getting gradually quieter).

The solo, echo and choir organs are often fitted into swell boxes with shutters. Some instruments also have a tuba organ with stops that are played by unusually high wind pressure.

Toward the middle of the 19th century, the double-touch keyboard was invented in England. These are especially sensitive keys that produce the normal amount of sound when barely touched and get super loud with a firmer pressure.

Older organs sometimes had two levels of pedals, but this was thought to be both uncomfortable and unnecessary. Combination pistons make a single tier sufficient, and the player can prepare combinations of registers in advance so they’re all activated with a single touch. In the 19th century, J.F. Schultz made the pedals slightly concave on the organ in St. Peter’s church in Harrogate (England), making it easier to reach the highest and lowest notes.

A crescendo pedal was added in the 19th century. This is a pedal that, when depressed, sets a cylinder spinning that activates additional stops and makes the sound louder.

Since the 16th century, pipe organs have used various materials for the pipes, each with a different timbre and volume. Pipes are distributed into ranks (rows) and controlled by the use of hand stops or combination pistons on the console (near the keyboard).

A clever invention is called “unification,” where an extension is added to a pipe. Instead of one pipe per key for each pitch, the higher octaves (and some lower octaves) are achieved by adding 12 pipes (one octave) to the top or bottom of a specific rank. In a church organ, for every 61 keys on a single keyboard, there are 183 pipes (three times 61). In a theater organ, there might be only 85 pipes (61 plus two octaves of 12 each). Unification gives the smaller instrument the capability of a much larger sound that is thicker and more homogenous than a classically designed organ. They often rely on something called tremulant, which varies the air pressure passing through the pipe, lending a wavering to the sound much like human breath does in singing or playing a wind instrument. It provides a complexity of sound greater than that usually found on a classical organ. Unification also allows pipe ranks to be played from more than one keyboard (rather than one key per pipe).

Organs of the middle ages required a lot of wind. As late as the 14th century, there could be as many as 24 bellows, operated in pairs by the feet of the bellows workers, with one player to each pair of bellows. The enormous organ at Winchester Cathedral (England) was one of these.

In Germany in 1667, Christian Förner (1609-1678) invented the wind gauge, which is a manometer-like device, making it possible to measure the pressure of the air inside the bellows.

In older organs, there were many folds of leather in the bellows, but in the middle of the 16th century, a new kind of bellows was introduced that was made of wood with only a single fold. This simple and stronger construction made a more regular supply of wind possible and a more equal tone. The wind still reached the interior of the organ in puffs, which was remedied by drawing the air into a reservoir (like a bagpipe’s) before it was conveyed to the pipes.

This reservoir of air was called a wind chest. Air pumped from bellows passed through conduits into the wind-chest and from there into the soundboard. The soundboard contained a number of grooves for each individual pipe that affected volume. Spring soundboards had a special valve fitted into the grooves to interrupt or admit wind. But this was complicated and expensive.

The tremolo  device was invented around 1600. It operated in the wind-channel, giving the notes a tremulous, plaintive tone.

Around the end of the 17th century, they invented a slider soundboard, which was more efficient than the spring soundboards. Slider soundboards had grooves underlying all the pipes that were specific to a particular key on the keyboard. The sliders working across the grooves are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off, depending on its position. The solid portions of the sliders closed the pipes. When the register was to be included, the slider was pulled out until the holes were situated at the bottom of the pipes so that the wind could enter unimpeded when the key was depressed. The slider was less likely to break than the spring version, and was universally adopted during the Baroque period.

At the beginning of the 19th century, bellows were still operated by manpower. As the century unfolded, steam, hydraulic power, gas, and electricity were used to provide the necessary wind. To even out the wind, the single feeder (as the outer part of the bellows is called) was replaced by several smaller feeders that work alternately. There are even special devices to put a feeder out of action as soon as the necessary pressure is reached in the reservoirs.

Wind pressure makes it hard to connect a single key with several pipes. To depress several of the valves (or pallets) that allow the wind to enter the pipes, considerable effort was required, so much so that organists of the 19th century used to strip to their skivvies in preparation for hard physical labor before concerts. English inventor Joseph Booth (d.1797) had invented puff valves, or little bellows, to improve this situation and they were improved further by the pneumatic lever that was invented in 1832 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879) and used for the first time in 1841 by the famous French organ maker Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899) for the organ of St. Denis, in Paris France.

With the pneumatic lever, the depression of a key opened the valve of a small auxiliary bellows, which opened the valve on the pipe. In 1867, Henry Willis (1821-1901) constructed tubular pneumatic keyboard action in which the wind activating the tiny auxiliary bellows was led through tubes of sometimes considerable length. The tubular pneumatic action was used successfully in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England in 1874.

Almost simultaneously with this device, the electro-pneumatic action was invented in 1868 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879), which was an attempt to operate the pneumatic lever using electricity instead of air. This system was improved by Schmöle & Mols of Philadelphia, USA, a system that was put into the organ at Paris’ famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1890. Even more recently, all-electric organ actions have been built.

Stops were invented around 1500. These are sliding pulls that alter the length or width of the associated pipe or its flue and affected the quality of the sound, making it louder or softer. They could also make the pipes sound like various instruments, such as flutes, strings, bassoons, and so on. As far back as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), little bells were affixed to the organ along with other things that imitated percussion instruments, like the triangle, xylophone, timpani, and drums—even cuckoo birds!

Organs of the 19th and 20th centuries have devices for controlling the wind pressure. Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899), the same man who used the pneumatic levers at St. Denis in Paris) introduced over-blowing flue pipes, such as the Flute-Harmonique, which sounds a harmonic instead of a fundamental note. (Notes are actually an accumulation of sounds. The note you intend to play is called the fundamental, and the higher—and lower—sounds that make it up are called overtones and harmonics. The other sounds that comprise a note are the ones that sound prettiest when you play them too, as it happens.)

The church organ had a huge number of registers—scales—from enormous 32’ pipes to tiny 1’ pipes. Each register was named for how long the pipes were, and the longer pipes produced lower notes. The most important register of the organ is called the Open Diapason (“diapason” means full and rich sound from the full range of the instrument) which were powerful mid-range flue-pipes, usually in 8’.

In an effort to create new registers, the pipes changed shape. One way to save both space and materials was closing the 8’ and 16’ stopped registers at the top and using only half the length of open pipes to achieve the same pitch. Even though they weren’t quite as bright in tone color as the open pipes, they have been quite popular. There are also half-stopped pipes with a narrow tube inserted at the top for the wind to exit through. And there were pipes with an inverted conical bore that tapered toward the top. Reed pipes include powerful 16’ trombones that are operated by the pedals, 8’ trumpets with inverted conical tops, 4’ shawms and a nasal sounding fagotte (the Baroque name for bassoon). There are also ways to get harmonics to sound—these are only a few of the dozens of registers that had been invented by the end of the 16th century.

String registers came about because of the increased interest in stringed instruments in the 17th century. The narrow flue pipes had colorful names like viola da gamba or violin.

Couplers that connected individual keyboards and their pipes became more common in the Baroque period. Using something called a transmission, one keyboard could connect with another so that multiple registers were accessed through a single keyboard. The combination of stops meant new tonal values that were similar in quality.

In the 17th century, a series of reed pipes was invented to make a register called Vox Humana, which sounded somewhat like a human voice. The Italians invented it, along with other registers that went well with one another. The rest of Europe followed suit, especially in the Baroque era. Because of all the new registers, the rigid tone of the organ that was standard at the beginning of the 17th century was nearly completely gone by the end of the century.

The keyboard of an organ wasn’t expressive like a piano’s. Although some of the special registers with free reed pipes were expressive, most registers weren’t, and every note sounded at the same volume. Specials devices, called swell registers, were added at the end of the 17th century to allow crescendo (getting louder) and decrescendo (getting softer),  through the use of shutters. In 1712, London organ builder Abraham Jordan (c1666-1715/16) created  a pedal attachment that opened and closed the front wall of the echo chamber to create the effect. They even damped tones to produce echo effects.

Tuning and range became an issue. The Baroque taste for extreme contrasts meant that they extended the range of the organ (and the harpsichord) downward, adding low notes until they almost exceed the ability of humans to hear them. Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706) declared that the introduction of equal temperament (a particular kind of tuning) was urgently needed, and began modifying individual notes on the “well-tempered” organs of the day.

The organ continued to undergo extensive changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. It now has more volume all by itself than an entire orchestra.


Because the organ has both manual and pedal keyboards, organ music is notated on three staves. The music on the manuals is laid out like music for other keyboard instruments on two connected staves, and the pedals are notated on the lowest staff, or sometimes, to save space, added to the bottom of the second staff. The latter was  how it was done in the early days.

Because music racks are often built quite low to preserve sightlines over the console, organ music is usually published in oblong or landscape format.

The Name

The name “organ” comes from the Greek organon, meaning instrument or tool.

The name Regal comes from “regulare,” because it was meant to regulate the singing in churches.

In Germany, the Rūckpositive is the name for the positive, because the pipes are behind the player.

The portative is called the organetto in Italy.

Organ Builders

You can’t really talk about organs without talking about the builders, who are a special hybrid of obsessed engineers and extreme musicians.

Organ Composers

There are so many composers, it’s impossible to list them all. I have dispensed with my usual courtesy of supplying dates and some sort of comment, but I have instead provided links to articles about these fine folks.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Samuel Barber
John Blow
Georg Böhm
Johannes Brahms
Nicolaus Bruhns
Dieterich Buxtehude
William Byrd
John Cage
Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet   Charpentier
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault
François Couperin
Louis Couperin
Hugo Distler
Maurice Duruflé
Edward Elgar
Johann Caspar Ferdinand   Fischer
César Franck (born in Belgium)
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Johann Jakob Froberger
Andrea Gabrieli
Giovanni Gabrieli
Orlando Gibbons
Philip Glass
George Frideric Handel
Hans Leo Hassler
Jakob Hassler
Paul Hindemith
Johann Kaspar Kerll
Johann Ludwig Krebs
Johann Tobias Krebs
Johann Krieger
Johann Kuhnau
Franz Liszt
Vincent Lubeck
Johann Mattheson
Felix Mendelssohn
Olivier Messiaen
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Georg Muffat
Gottlieb Muffat
Johann Pachelbel
Vincent Persichetti
Daniel Pinkham
Alessandro Poglietti
Jacob Praetorius
Michael Praetorius
Henry Purcell
Steve Reich
Johann Adam Reincken
Josef Rheinberger
Ned Rorem
Camille Saint-Saëns
Alessandro Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti
Heinrich Scheidemann
Samuel Scheidt
Heinrich Schütz
Dmitri Shostakovich
Johann Speth
Charles Villiers Stanford
Jan Pieterszoon SweelinckThomas Tallis
Franz Tunder
Johann Gottfried Walther
Matthias Weckmann
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow

Organ Players

Again, there are too many to name, so I’ll tell the stories of just a handful.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) might be the most famous composer of all time. But what you might not realize is that he was also a seriously fierce organist. He was so obsessed with learning all he could that, at age 20, without the permission of his employer, he walked 250 miles to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play in Lūbeck. He stayed there for several months, absorbing what he could from the great master, before returning to fulfill his duties. If he hadn’t been so talented and working for a pittance, he would surely have been fired. Bach would go on to write 225 cantatas, 225 works for other keyboards, 225 organ works, 150 canons and fugues, 100 choral works, 40 pieces for chamber groups, 30 pieces for full orchestra, and five lute pieces. Bach was married twice and had seven children with his first wife and 13 with his second wife, only nine of whom survived into adulthood and outlived him. Five were significant musicians themselves.

Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707) was a German-Danish composer and organist whose works compose the core of the organ repertoire. Sadly, much of his music is lost or was poorly documented, but he wrote over 112 cantatas, about 100 organ
works,  100 choral works, 50 chorale preludes, 50 works for harpsichord, 40 chorale settings, 25 chamber music pieces, 19 preludes, 14 trio sonatas,  a dozen wedding, liturgical, and canon works, a handful of miscellaneous pieces, and another two dozen pieces that may have been falsely attributed to him.

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 court until his retirement in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

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.

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 super famous English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.


“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.

Instrument Biography: The Hurdy-Gurdy

with 2 comments

Here’s the story of the niftiest instrument that you think you’ve never heard play. But you have! It’s a beautiful-looking instrument with a strong drone component, the fabulous-looking back of a lute, and the facility of a small keyboard instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy seems to have appeared in the Middle Ages and it all but disappeared after them. This is the tale of a well-traveled but somewhat obscure instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy is a medieval stringed instrument in which the encased strings (both melody and drone strings) are bowed mechanically by a resin-coated wooden wheel, which is turned by a handle. The melodies are played on a simple keyboard mechanism that bends the melody strings as the wheel passes past them, making them sound.

In the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was used for teaching purposes and for accompanying songs. It has always been popular among minstrels, and remains in use (in certain areas) as a street or folk instrument until today. For a couple of hundred years, it was popular and played by kings. And then it quietly slipped out of the public eye.

You have to remember that the monophonic music of the time was mostly a capella, with the occasional accompaniment by a harp, fiddle, or hurdy-gurdy. Usually, the singer played the instrument to match the melody line, so it wasn’t a matter of accompaniment in the modern sense (no harmony, no second musician or instrument).

The hurdy-gurdy seems to have been well-respected. In the Portico della Gloria of St. Jago di Compostella, a painting with one of the richest representations of 12th century musical instruments, the hurdy-gurdy is given the highest place at the center. It’s probable that, because most paintings that feature the hurdy-gurdy place the instrument in the middle, the leader of the group played it.

But by the end of the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was in decline both in popularity and in size. It had become small enough to be played by a single person when once it required two. It trickled out of popularity with the aristocrats and became the standard instrument of peddlers and blind beggars.

Michael Praetorius damned it in the late 16th century as an instrument fit only for peasants, and denies it a proper place among instruments in general. In the mid-16th century, the painter Pieter Brueghel painted a picture of a group of blind beggars who stumble into a river, one of whom carries a hurdy-gurdy, which was considered to be the badge of forlornness.

A Little Hurdy-Gurdy History

It was once supposed that the hurdy-gurdy originated in Arab lands and was brought to Europe through Spain, but surprisingly little evidence of the instrument in the Middle East appears. So now it’s thought to have been invented in Northern Europe, possibly Germany, around 1100 and spread to other countries around 1200. The organistrum, which is a simpler instrument, maybe slightly older, was used to help monastics learn chant by providing a drone against which the melodies could be sung or played.

The first mention of an organistrum in Europe was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911). Another mention is in an Arabic musical compendium written by Al Zirikli in the 10th century.

By the 13th century, the simpler form of the instrument, with a single player, underwent some development. The keys that had required a second person to play them were reduced in both number and size until they could be played by one person, whose left hand tickled the keys while the right hand turned the crank. The wide variety of shapes for these keys tells us that attempts were made to improve the acoustic abilities of the instrument.

Later versions of hurdy-gurdies had keys that were depressed from beneath rather than from above like an organ’s keys. Because these upward-pressed keys used gravity to release them, they were faster and easier to handle than those that needed to be pulled or mechanically pushed back up.

Although the organistrum was described in 10th century by Odo of Cluny, there are no images until the 12th century. It’s funny, though, that there are so many images of hurdy-gurdies after that, because its popularity seems to have gone from nothing to high and back to absent again very quickly.

There are many depictions of hurdy-gurdies carved on buildings and painted into pictures and illustrated manuscripts. (Most of the carved-stone representations seem to be in France and Spain.) There are lots of descriptions in literature and much discussion of tuning, almost all in German-speaking countries. In many of the paintings, the hurdy-gurdy is always at the center, which implies that its player was the leader of the group of musicians. A miniature from a 13th century French Bible shows four musicians playing at a feast, including a vielle (biography to come), a three-stringed hurdy-gurdy, a harp, and a psaltery.

The hurdy-gurdy is the earliest mechanized stringed instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied. The bow of other stringed instruments was replaced by a hand-cranked wheel, which produces a continuous sound from all the strings. The fingering is also mechanized, each string being stopped at different points to create different notes by means of the keyboard.

This instrument was used like other stringed and bowed instruments to accompany monophonic music. It was used to play interludes between verses or to accompany a singer in unison, perhaps playing the melody more ornamentally and fancier than the voice.

The hurdy-gurdy was pushed out of the church by the portative organ toward the middle of the 13th century. In secular music, hurdy-gurdies were still used to play dance music, and in aristocratic circles, they would have accompanied monophonic songs (all melody, no harmonies).

After 1300, the hurdy-gurdy, by then called the symphonia, was in every part of society. It took on symbolic meaning and appeared in paintings with supernatural and religious subjects. “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450-1516) has a detailed image of one.

Like the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy was popular in the Renaissance, changing its shape to have a shorter neck, a boxier body, and a curved end. And it could be played by one person. At this time, an asymmetrical buzzing bridge appeared that rests under the drone string on the soundboard. When the wheel is cranked faster, one edge of the bridge lifts from lying flat against the soundboard and vibrates against the strings. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from—or made in imitation of—the tromba marina, or monochord, which was a bowed stringed instrument.

By the end of the 17th century, people wanted polyphonic capabilities from all of their instruments, and the hurdy-gurdy was relegated to the lower classes.

During the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy enjoyed a brief resurgence of interest as the rococo tastes of Europe idealized all things pastoral, along with the bagpipe. It was thought that the bass drone, the very thing that made Renaissance people discard them, made these instruments seem more woodsy.

During the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy was outfitted with sympathetic strings that moved as a result of the movement of neighboring strings (the effect that is so pleasing in the harp and the psaltery). The addition of a little bellows-like attachment to the wheel admitted a constant stream of air to tiny pipes like an organ.

More common, though, was a hurdy-gurdy with three to six strings, of which at least two act as drones. This was a pet instrument of the aristocracy, who had a somewhat leisurely idea of pastoral life, all draping gracefully on a blanket and eating from a basket and none of the work.

The most common 18th century style of hurdy-gurdy was the six-string vielle a roué, with two melody strings and four drones, tuned in such a way that by turning the drones on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys.

It’s also during the 18th century when Slavic countries and German-speaking areas of Hungary picked up the hurdy-gurdy.

In the 20th century, hurdy-gurdies have mostly disappeared. In the Ukraine, blind hurdy-gurdy-playing buskers were purged by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. One was played in the film “Captains Courageous (1937), by Spencer Tracy’s character.

In our times, revivals have begun in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Hurdy-Gurdy Structure

The organistrum, symphonium, and hurdy-gurdy have a wooden wheel in the interior, turned by a crank, which presses on the strings from below and sets them all vibrating simultaneously. The strings are shortened with wooden pegs, called tangents, that operate by a system of keys with the player’s free hand (the other turns the crank) and changes the note played by some of the strings.

Before the 13th century, this instrument required two players—one turning the handle, and the other operating an unwieldy keyboard. It was called an organistrum and had a shape with a waist, like a modern guitar. Later versions were more compact, requiring only one player and capable of faster music. They were lute-backed or occasionally rectangular and boxy. These later versions had a single melody string and several fixed-pitch drone strings.

By the 16th century, the instrument had more strings and a chromatic keyboard, and was called a symphonium. Sadly, by this time, it was largely relegated to beggars and wandering minstrels and had been given up by trained musicians and musically inclined aristocracy.

The rosin-coated wheel acts like a bow on the strings as it turns. Single notes sound much like a violin. The wheel is made of wood, and is kept sticky with rosin, like a violin’s bow. This is the most precarious aspect of the instrument and is the hardest part to keep properly shaped because it tends to warp in warm or wet weather. Players can turn the wheel, called the coup, faster or slower for musical effect. It doesn’t change the pitch, but provides a rhythmic thrumming.

Small wheeled instruments (with wheels about 5.5 inches in diameter) are from central and eastern Europe. These have a broad key box with the drone strings running through it. These usually have only three strings: one melody, one tenor drone, and one bass drone.

Large wheeled hurdy-gurdies (with wheels of 6.6 inches in diameter) are from western Europe. These usually have a narrow key box with drone strings outside it. They can have doubling or tripling of strings (where the notes are the same). Some have as many as 15 strings, although the usual number is six.

The strings are historically made of gut, which is still preferred today. Metal strings have become common in the 20th century, especially for the heavier drone strings or for lower melody strings if octave tuning is used. Nylon is sometimes used.

The strings are wrapped in raw cotton. The cotton used on melody strings is quite light and is heavier on the drone strings. Improper cottoning results in a raspy tone, especially at higher pitches. The height of the melody strings is adjusted to be above the wheel’s surface by shimming small pieces of paper between the strings and the bridge. Shimming and cottoning can both affect the pitch of the instrument’s strings.

Melody strings can play an octave, with both a B-sharp and a B-flat, nine notes in all. Drone strings are tuned to the octave and a fifth, although there’s no specific identification of this in the literature.

The tangents (components of the keyboard) are wooden pegs that change the notes by shortening all three melody strings simultaneously, providing the typical medieval sound of the octave, fourth and fifth all changing notes at the same time and playing in parallel. The lowest string is left free so that it sounds without being touched by the tangents and provides the drone.

Tangents can be adjusted to tune individual notes, so any temperament is possible. Most contemporary hurdy-gurdies have 24 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves. Notes are played by dividing the string lengths by depression of the tangents against the string, called Pythagorean tuning. (A string divided exactly in half will play a fifth interval on one half and a fourth on the other, and additional divisions make additional notes. It’s how pianos and all stringed instruments function.)

Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses the tangents against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. The soundboard underneath the strings makes the vibrations of the strings audible.

Tuning is usually Pythagorean (where the intervals are not equal, in order to get perfect fifths), but later tunings offer equal temperament (where every note is an equal distance from the next, making it hard to tune octaves) for ease of playing with other instruments.

Most have several drone strings, which give a constant pitch, like a bagpipe’s drone, and provide accompaniment to the melody. Because of this similarity, the hurdy-gurdy is often asked to play bagpipe tunes, particularly in older French and contemporary Hungarian and Galican folk music.

Some hurdy-gurdies have a vibrating bridge that creates a buzzing noise. On the Hungarian instrument called the tekero, some control is achieved by using a wedge that pushes the drone string downward. The player uses his or her wrist to control the buzz.

To make the bridge buzz, the tail of the bridge is stuck into a vertical slot or held by a peg. The free end of the bridge, called the hammer, rests on the soundboard of the hurdy-gurdy and vibrates freely. When the wheel turns, the pressure on the string holds the bridge in place, sounding the drone. When the wheel is turned faster, the hammer lifts up and vibrates against the soundboard, creating a rhythmic buzz used to make a percussive effect.

On French-style instruments, the buzzing bridge can be altered with a peg, called a tyrant, in the tailpiece of the instrument that is connected by wire or thread to the trompette, which is the highest-pitched drone string. The tyrant adjusts the pressure on the trompette based on the speed of the turning wheel.

These are the parts of a hurdy-gurdy:

  • Trompette: the highest pitched drone sting that features the buzzing bridge, if any
  • Mouche: the drone sting pitched a fourth of fifth below the trompette
  • Petit bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the trompette
  • Gros bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the mouche
  • Chanterelle(s): melody string(s), also called chanters or chanter strings in English
  • Chien: (literally the “dog”) the buzzing bridge
  • Tyrant: a small peg set in the instrument’s tailpiece that controls the buzzing bridge.
  • Coup: The wheel

It’s a mechanically complicated instrument for a medieval innovation and must be constructed with great precision. In addition, the player has to keep adjusting things to control the balance between the drones and the melody.

There are relatively few makers today. It’s not too hard to find the box-like versions, but the really best lute-backed ones come from France. There are some kits here: Music Maker Kits if you want to try building one yourself.

There are folk music festivals in Europe that feature music groups with hurdy-gurdy players, with the most famous faire held in central France on Bastille Day.

The Name

In English, it’s a hurdy-gurdy, but it’s also called the organistrum or symphonia. “Hurdy-gurdy” is thought to be from the Scottish term for uproar and disorder; “hirdy-girdy” and “hurly-burly” are old English terms for noise or commotion. It’s sometimes called a wheel fiddle in English, but not by people who play it. (I suppose it’s the same as no San Franciscan ever calling the town “Frisco.”)

Musicologist Robert Green says that the term organistrum is reserved for the three-stringed instrument played by two people in aristocratic and church settings, and symphonia is the smaller instrument played by one person in secular circumstances.

There was a misnomer in the 18th century, calling a barrel organ a hurdy-gurdy. The barrel organ is a cranked box with organ pipes, a bellows, and a barrel with pins that rotated and played the tunes. It functioned like a player piano. This was a common choice for street musicians because all that need be done was to turn the crank. There the similarity ends.

But I digress. In German, the instrument is called Baernleier (peasant’s lyre) and Bettlerleier (beggar’s lyre). The Dutch call it a draailier, much like the German name drehleier. In French, it’s a vielle a roué or simply vielle (although there’s another instrument with the same name).

In Hungarian, it’s a tekerlant and forgolant, both of which mean “turning lute.” It can also be called a nyenyere, which is thought to onomatopoeic with the sound of the wobbling wheel.

In Italian, it’s a ghironda or lira tedesca. In Spain, it’s called a zanfona, except in Catalan, where it’s known as a viola de Roda. In Basque, it’s called a brenka.

In the Ukraine, it’s a lira or relia, which means “wheel lyre.” There, they are still played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their music sounds Baroque and vaguely religious.

Famous Composers

Nicolas Chedeville (1705-1782) wrote “Il pastor Fido” for the hurdy-gurdy, which was wrongly attributed to Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote “Lira organizzata” not for the simple hurdy-gurdy with strings, but for the more complex instrument with the organ attachment (mentioned in the history section in the 18th century above). Haydn composed numerous nocturns and concertos for the instrument that pleased the King of Naples so much that he tried to convince Haydn to move to Naples. Haydn almost did, but at the last minute, he accepted an invitation to go to London.

Other composers for the hurdy-gurdy include Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

The pop star Donovan wrote a 1968 rock song, called “Hurdy-Gurdy Man.” No actual hurdy-gurdy was played during it, but it sparked a new interest in the instrument, particularly in the Olympic Peninsula area of Washington.

Another modern hurdy-gurdyist is Giles Chabenat, who’s still playing, mostly in England.

Famous Players

  • Faustin Santalices, currently playing in Spain
  • Ethan James was a talented musician who hung out in San Francisco in the 1960s and became a recording artist in Los Angeles. He died in 2003.
  • Patrick Bouffard is still performing in France.
  • Giles Chabenat is still playing, mostly in England.
  • Jean-Francois Dutertre is a French singer/songwriter.
  • Regine Chassagne in Quebec performs with the band Arcadie Fire.
  • David Miles plays with Metallica.
  • Garmarna and Hedringarna are Swedish groups that
    specialize in the hurdy-gurdy.
  • Nigel Eaton is the English son of hurdy-gurdy maker Christopher Eaton and has made his own name as a player.
  • Jimmy Page played with Led Zeppelin.
  • Brendan O’Brien played the hurdy-gurdy on a Bruce Springsteen album.
  • Anna Murphy plays with folk metal band Eluveitie’.
  • Sting plays the hurdy-gurdy.
  • A hobo on top of the train plays a hurdy-gurdy in the movie “Polar Express”

Players of this instrument are called hurdy-gurdyists or hurdy-gurdy players, except in France, where they’re called viellists.


“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.

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

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

“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 and Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.

“Women Making Music; The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.