There’s no journey quite like discovering the different types of accordions that are available to play. It is a journey that takes people into a realm of genres scattered across the world.
The most common types of accordions include Button Accordions, Piano Accordions, Concertina Accordions, and many more. The different types of accordions vary due to button layout and sounds produced, however all accordions still require bellows and a reed to make their iconic sounds.
Accordions stretch back to the 1820s when they were first built in Germany. Since then, the instrument has popped up and become a staple across Europe, Asia and The Americas.
With it becoming a cult icon worldwide, there’s more to the accordion than meets the eye. It’s an instrument that has a sound and looks unlike anything else out there. So what are the different types of accordions available?
What Makes An Accordion?
No matter what type of accordion you want, there are a few things that it must have to fall into its instrument family. These features are essential to the instrument working such as:
- A set of bellows joining two boxes
- A keyboard
- A pair of reeds within a pallet chamber
All of these combine to generate sound from the instrument. An accordion does this by trapping air from the keyboard allowing it to pass through the reed into the chamber.
During this process, the player manipulates the bellows between the two boxes by moving them in different positions. As the bellows move, it affects the airflow within the tone chamber.
The buttons are then pressed and released to help change the pitch and sounds within the chamber to alter the notes that are produced.
What Are The Different Types of Accordions?
Despite working in the same manner, there are plenty of different types of accordions in the musical sphere today. These have stark variations in terms of look, playing style and sound. The most common types of accordions are:
- Piano Accordions
- Button Accordions
- Digital Accordions
All these have a unique look and sound that have their place in a wealth of different genres. But how do these vary?
The biggest difference between the types of accordions is that they have different keyboard variations. It’s a particularly big difference when comparing button and piano accordions.
Piano accordions have earned their name due to having a keyboard that is played like a piano. As the keys are pressed inwards, it controls the air released as the bellows are moved. Like an organ, they create different drone sounds giving a noisy bellow as it is played.
As the name suggests, button accordions feature buttons laid out like a keyboard and are pressed down to control the amount of air that passes through the reed. These come in a range of different configurations to suit left and right-handed players, and produce different types of sounds.
You will also discover that most accordions don’t come in any particular dimension or size. Many variants will be completely different, even if they share the same playing mechanisms.
What the size does affect though is the type of sounds made when the instrument is played. Generally, the smaller the instrument, the higher the notes that will be produced.
For example, small models such as the concertina are naturally high-pitched even if they are put together with models in the button accordion family.
It’s also why many piano accordions and bass accordions are some of the largest in the entire instrument family. By generating lower tones through their larger body, you will notice the different levels of pitch compared to smaller models.
What Are Button Accordions?
When it comes to accordion variations, you will find that button accordions come in a wealth of shapes and sizes. They also vary particularly depending on which branch they fall under:
- Diatonic Button Accordion
- Chromatic Button Accordion
Despite being under the same family branch, you will find that there are some huge differences between diatonic and chromatic button accordions. So how they can differ so much?
Diatonic Button Accordions
Standing out like a black sheep, the diatonic button accordion has a persona all to itself. Characterized by two keyboards on each end of the instrument, a diatonic accordion can produce two different sound formats.
One side of the accordion is tuned to produce a melodic tone, whereas the other is scaled to produce bass notes. Generally, each button on each keypad is assigned to two separate notes and reacts to the position of the bellows.
This means that as the bellows are pushed in, you will generally have one note on a different scale depending on what button is pressed. When you press the same buttons again and draw the bellows out, a new set of notes will be produced.
Generally, each note will be paired to one step up from the other. For example, C & D will be paired together as would E & F and G & A.
Chromatic Button Accordions
Unlike diatonic accordions, chromatic button accordions are arranged in multiple rows predominantly on one side of the instrument.
What differs here is that each button on the keyboard represents just one note no matter what the position of the bellows is.
As the buttons are pressed, they can represent either a note or a particular variant to help give greater variations in how the melodies and bass sounds are produced.
For example, alongside each button representing the standard A-G notes, others will come with the flat and sharp variants of each note. As you combine it with different button combinations, this will define if a note is sharp or flat.
It means that chromatic accordions will come in different setups depending on the instrument format. There are 4 different variants with two-row layouts whilst some also use either 3 or 6-row layouts.
You will normally find that the higher-row variants will almost always appear on the treble side of the accordion with the two-row format used for hitting bass notes.
What Are Piano Accordions?
Piano accordions are very much a simpler beast to comprehend in comparison to button accordions. Sporting one side is a key layout much like a piano. Each of the keys represents a standalone note in different octaves, while each black key represents a flat or sharp note.
There is also a much smaller button keyboard opposite the piano keys which allows you to control bass notes. Across both key platforms, piano keyboards can cover a three-octave range and hit much lower notes than what a button accordion is able to do.
This ability to hit lower notes is why all bass accordions utilize the piano accordion format. These accordions are tuned an entire octave lower than standard piano accordions to give them the ability to produce much lower notes than different types of accordions.
Are Concertinas Considered Accordions?
Classified as a miniature accordion, concertinas are a smaller cousin that has a history that is almost just as rich as the accordion itself.
First developed in England during the late 1820s, the concertina looks and is played much like a button accordion. It features two button keyboards on either side of the bellows. Each button is tuned to one specific note with each keyboard representing higher and lower notes.
With the much smaller interface, the concertina can be played much faster than accordions, giving a more harmonious sound. It makes them popular for use in folk music across the Western Hemisphere.
Just like accordions, there are different forms of concertinas too. The big difference is the larger German concertina that was developed alongside the classic English model.
Much larger than their English counterparts, German concertinas are constructed in a different manner. The face of each instrument is square rather than hexagonal, and it has a longer reed allowing it to produce longer notes.
Like diatonic accordions, German concertinas have two notes assigned to each button with the notes changing due to the movements of its bellows. This means that notes can cover two different octaves varying across the 52-button layout.
Accordion Variations Around the World
As accordions became popular across the world, they were quickly altered and varied to suit different musical genres across the world.
Each of these variations were made to give instruments a particular sound or quirk relative to the genre they were being played in. But what are some of the different types of accordions found throughout the world?
Developed in Russia during the early 1900s, the bayan has become a staple of folk music throughout the former Soviet Union.
A chromatic button accordion, the bayan is known for its unique construction. Not only does it have three unique key layouts, but the buttonboard also sits very much in the middle of the face of each end of the accordion.
In addition, the reeds are fixed to a central board, giving for a much stronger sound – particularly when playing bass notes. It’s why the bayan has become common in both folk and orchestral pieces across Russia.
You won’t find a tango band without a bandoneon within the ensemble. Based upon a German concertina, the bandoneon is an instrument that is hugely popular in Argentina and Uruguay.
Unlike many of its cousins, playing the bandoneon relies heavily on the bellows to generate different sounds. The buttons are not linked to different octaves, meaning that notes change their tone by how the bellow is moved and positioned as it is played.
While the notes switch between the bellows being opened or compressed, it requires a lot of precision and movement to get the sounds that the player is aiming for. Despite the increased difficulty in playing, it is one of the most iconic instruments in Latin music today.
Everyone has seen Eastern European folk music featuring an accordion. The chances are that the particular instrument seen is the Steirische Harmonika. First developed in Austria during the 1870s, this button accordion variant is very unique.
Firstly, the button roles are reversed, with melody buttons placed on the right face and with the bass buttons located on the left. Each button is placed in a five-row format with each button representing a keynote or its seventh variant, depending on the bellows’ position.
This unique playing style often requires the player to have fingers spread across multiple rows to get the sound they desire. It’s a unique playing style that makes this one of the trickiest accordion types to master.
There’s an interesting backstory to the invention of the Schwyzerorgeli. Originally an Austrian invention, it would be neighbouring Switzerland that would adapt the instrument to its alpine folk sounds.
Originally developed as a standard diatonic accordion, it would have its construction changed as it rose in popularity in the city of Bern. The main change was that each button is assigned three individual reeds – each reed allowing a button to push a note one octave higher.
This means that the instrument also is tuned to a different scale than most. It focuses on being tuned to flat scales mimicking the sound of a clarinet. Therefore, it gives it a sharper and higher pitch than other button accordions, making it representative of the classic alpine music heard across the region
Much like most modern instruments, there’s a digital version of the accordion. It is vastly different from its traditional counterparts.
For starters, the instrument is entirely reedless. All the notes are produced via digital sensors and relays that react as the buttons are pushed and the bellows are moved.
The result is a sound that is a MIDI platform that is digitally manipulated to sound similar to their real-life counterparts – even if the drones are not as strong. It’s an instrument that has been popularized in recent years by musicians such as Weird Al Yankovic.
As you can see, there are few instrument families as diverse and varied quite like the accordion. Sporting no less than 3 different traditional forms, each instrument stands out both in terms of look and playing style.
Even within the same branch, accordion variants differ depending on how the bellows are used and how each note is produced when playing the button pads.
No matter where in the world you might be, there’s always a different accordion type waiting to be discovered. It’s why studying the different types of accordions is a musical journey that stretches across the globe.