By Anna Barker, MusicWorx Intern
Ahh, the music of hand-held bellows! As their distinct sound cuts through a large crowd, the accordion and concertina allow for the portability and a “one-person band” experience other instruments fail to offer. What sort of music comes to mind when you think about “the squeezebox” or a concertina?
If you’re like me, you may think accordions and concertinas are synonymous terms used interchangeably when talking about accordions. Additionally, I thought a concertina was a type of accordion. Both are played by pushing and pulling the instrument while pressing buttons… right?? The truth is, the accordion and concertina are two different instruments. Accordions and concertinas come from the same free-reed, hand-held bellow family. Think of them more like siblings!
Why should we care to learn about the accordion and concertina?? For starters, these two instruments are used in over 40 different styles of music across the world, spanning over 30 countries and regions from Argentina to Kenya to Thailand. The expansive reach of the accordion and concertina demonstrates their importance to many different cultures.
A Brief History
The accordion and concertina lineage began over 2000 years ago with a Chinese instrument known as the scheng. The scheng produces sound under the same principle as the accordion and concertina: airflow passes over a free vibrating reed that resonates, or creates, a tone. The tone that sounds is based on the length of the reed. Instruments such as the scheng, accordion, and concertina are known as “free reed” instruments. The scheng made its way to Europe during the 13th century and didn’t face any adaptations until the 19th century.
Fast forward to 1829! Sir Charles Wheatstone patented the design of the first concertinas and Cyrill Demian patented the accordion that year. Please note that Demian’s instrument was not the earliest history of an accordion-like instrument. Rather, this point in time was where the name “accordion” began. The origin and meaning of the two words help describe their roles:
- Accordion → 19th century German word “Akkordeon/Akkord” → “musical chord, concord of sounds”
- Concertina → “Concert” + “ina” = “little concert, little harmonizer”
To begin, three major physical characteristics distinguish the difference between an accordion and a concertina. Ask yourself:
- What’s the shape of the instrument? (e.g. rectangular, hexagonal)
- Does it have only buttons or both buttons and piano keys?
- How are the buttons pushed? Perpendicular to the *bellows or in the same direction?
*Bellows are the middle “lung” part of the accordion and concertina which expand and contract when “pushing” or “pulling” the instrument
For this blog, I will discuss the piano accordion, the button accordion, and the concertina. My hope is at least from the surface, you’ll be able to quickly identify which instrument is in front of you. Use the flowchart below for quick reference!
The piano accordion is a broad category of accordions with a rectangular box and piano-like keyboard on one end. The keyboard is commonly placed on the right-hand side and bass notes in the form of buttons are placed on the left side.The piano accordion can have a maximum of forty-five keys and is considered a “chromatic” accordion. The right hand keys of the accordion are pushed perpendicular to the bellows. The piano accordion became popular in the United States during the early 1900s. Several European immigrants made their way to the U.S. during this time period, bringing button accordions with them. However, due to the diverse number of button accordion types (refer to next section), teachers struggled to teach students searching for lessons. Piano accordions offered a solution to the problem by promoting consistency between teachers and students. Shoulder straps are another key feature of the piano accordion.
Commonly heard in: Forró, Polka, Klezmer, Zydeco music
Button accordion is another broad category of accordions which look similar to piano accordions. However, button accordions only use buttons to play notes. Button accordions are chromatic or diatonic and also utilize shoulder straps if necessary. Similarly to the piano accordion, the buttons on the right hand are pushed perpendicular to the bellows. Different cultures adapt the button accordion to fit their needs, such as changing the number of rows of buttons and how many buttons are in each row in the right hand. As a result of cultural adaptations, several variations of button accordions exist! A musician may know how to play one type of button accordion such as the Russian bayan (pictured below), but not know how to play another like the Basque Trikitixa accordion.
Commonly heard in: Cajun, Conjunto, Tejano, Norteño, Swiss, Slovenian-Austro-German-Alpine, Rake ‘n’ Scrape, Colombian Vallenato, Schrammelmusick & Basque music
Rake & Scrape Example
First and foremost, the concertina is not an accordion. The concertina has buttons for notes on both ends of the instrument and the buttons are pressed in the same direction as the bellows. Rather than playing only supporting bass notes on the left hand side, the concertina utilizes single notes on both hands allowing for intricate melodies. The common body shape of the instrument is hexagonal or square. Concertinas come in different types such as the English, Anglo, and Bandoneón.
- The English concertina, the first member of the concertina family, has a hexagonal box with support loops for the thumb and little finger on each end. The English concertina is the only member of the concertina family which is commonly “unisonoric” (when holding down a button, it plays the same note when pushing and pulling the instrument)
- The Anglo concertina also is a hexagonal box, with different amounts of buttons and a wrist strap for support (pictured below). The Anglo concertina is considered “bisonoric,” playing different notes on the push and pull. Low pitches are on the left hand side and high pitches on the right.
- The Bandoneón is a square shaped, larger concertina and commonly heard in South America and Lithuania (pictured below). The Bandoneón is commonly “bisonoric” and covers the largest range of notes when compared to the English and Anglo concertina.
Commonly heard in: Argentinian tango (bandoneón), traditional Irish folk (anglo), Scottish folk (English), American folk (English) music
English Concertina Example
Anglo Concertina Example
This blog is just a tip of the iceberg in exploring the differences between these two instruments. I highly encourage you to continue learning more about the accordion and concertina!
If you’re a music therapist reading this blog, I highly encourage you to integrate the accordion and/or concertina into your sessions! Not only do these instruments provide a great cultural learning opportunity, they also promote fine and gross motor skills, hand/eye coordination, sensory stimulation, and foster exploration of a new instrument. Have you used an accordion or concertina in a session? Let us know about it in the comments below!
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