Accordion Registrations

The accordion is relatively young compared to most other acoustic instruments; it was patented and named “accordion” in 1829 by the Viennese piano and organ-builder Cyrill Demian. He described his simple instrument as “a little box with feathers [reeds] of metal plates and bellows fixed to it.”

The instrument rapidly became popular with the proletarian classes for several reasons; 1) it was relatively easy to learn to play simple diatonic folk melodies with minimal instruction, 2) it was small and portable, 3) it was affordable because of new manufacturing technologies which appeared during the Industrial Revolution, and, 4) as it had two manuals, the second consisting of buttons which provided bass and preset chords, it could accompany itself. No separate accompanying instrument was needed as the right hand could play the melody while the left hand could pump out a bass-chord “oom pah pah” harmonic pattern. Demian recognized the appeal of his new invention, and even hinted that it might assist in the musical courtship rituals between young men and women: “It is easy and comfortable to carry and should be a welcome invention for travelers, country and parties visiting individuals of both sexes, especially as it can be played without the help of anybody.”

Within a few short years, propelled by the massive waves of poor immigrants seeking a better life, the instrument spread throughout Europe and overseas to North and South America. Eventually accordion builders began to enlarge the instrument to include more than one set of reeds for the right-hand manual. Like the pipe organ, which contains many different ranks of pipes, the accordion evolved to contain different ranks of reeds, each reed rank having a different range and timbre. Early in the 20th century, the accordion was standardized with four separate reed ranks for the right-hand manual. Registers (also known as stops) were added to easily change the registration. The modern accordion contains four reed ranks and eleven different stops, each stop having a distinctive pitch range and tone color.

Perhaps because of its popularity with the uneducated masses, the accordion developed a reputation as a folk instrument, and classical composers rarely used the instrument in their works. When they did, composers used it sparingly to add a little folk color to their pieces. Tchaikovsky included four optional accordions in his Orchestral Suite No. 2 in C Major, op. 53 (1883) in the movement titled “Burlesque”. Umberto Giordano used the accordion in his opera Fedora (1898) to accompany the singing of a peasant shepherd during a scene set in the Swiss Alps. Charles Ives used a chorus of accordions in Orchestral Set No. 2 (1915) to imitate the sound of an organ grinder. Paul Hindemith included the accordion in Kammermusik No. 1 (1921), a chamber work in four movements which sometimes imitated the sound of a German dancehall band. Alban Berg included a short on-stage accordion part in his opera Wozzeck (1922) during the tavern scene. Serge Prokofiev included an accordion band in his 1936 Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, op. 74.

Since then, many composers have included the accordion in their oeuvres, such as Virgil Thomson, Jean Françaix, Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Alan Hovhaness, Lukas Foss, David Del Tredici, Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel, and others, but, as opposed to most composers for the organ who specified suggested registration of pipes in their works, not all composers of accordion music specified in their scores a preferred registration of reeds.

Some composers leave the choice of registration up to the performer, perhaps because they may not be intimately familiar with the intricacies of the various reed ranks and tone colors within the instrument, but I think composers who write for accordion could benefit from learning a little about the different sonorities of the stops, especially for the right-hand manual.

The modern accordion has four ranks of reeds for the right-hand manual:

  1. one sixteen-foot rank called the “bassoon” reeds (also known as the “low” reed rank) which sounds one octave lower than written;

  2. one eight-foot rank called the “clarinet” reeds (the “middle” reed rank) which sounds as written; and

  3. one four-foot rank called the “piccolo” reeds (the “high” reed rank) which sounds one octave higher than written.

  4. The fourth reed rank is different from all the others, as it is an eight-foot rank of reeds which is tuned slightly sharp. In combination with the clarinet reeds, the two unison ranks of reeds sound together to produce a shimmering or pulsating effect, similar to the voix celeste stop on the pipe organ. This combination of reed ranks (two middle reeds) is called the “violin” stop.

This violin stop can be tuned either “wet” or “dry.” In a wet-tuned accordion, the difference between the pitches of the two eight-foot reed ranks is pronounced, which produces a wide and sometimes jarring vibrato. This clashing effect is considered pleasing by many folk music devotees.

On some accordions, the four-foot rank is replaced by a third eight-foot rank tuned slightly flat! This stop, called the authentic “musette,” produces a great amount of tension as three unison reeds sound simultaneously with each key depressed, each reed slightly out of tune with the other. This type of stop is greatly prized by many French and Irish folk accordionists, and it has become what many people consider the characteristic “accordion” sound.

On the other hand, in a dry-tuned accordion the two eight-foot reed ranks of the violin stop are tuned to nearly the same pitch. This results in a subtle and refined shimmering tone. I usually use this stop when playing with symphony orchestras, as I think the sound is more sophisticated and pleasing, unless the score obviously demands a musette sound. I used the dry-tuned violin stop when I played Carlos Gardel‘s “Por Una Cabeza” in concerts with violinist Gil Shaham and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in November 2003. During rehearsal I had an opportunity to demonstrate to conductor Mariss Jansons a passage which I played first with the violin stop and again with the master stop. Jansons decided, “Play with the first set of reeds; the second is too noisy.”

On the other hand, I used another accordion with a musette stop when I played Howard Shore‘s Lord of the Rings Symphony in concert with the same orchestra, because the accordion, along with the bodhran, hammered dulcimer, nylon-string guitar, Irish whistle, harp, and fiddle, was used to depict the simple and rural atmosphere of the Shire, the peaceful and quaint home of the simple and earthy Hobbit folk, by presenting a dulcet weave of Celtic-sounding melodies. Shore knew exactly what type of accordion sound he wanted, as he clearly specified “musette” in the score.

During the remainder of this article, I will describe the various timbres of the most common accordion reed ranks and stops, and provide MP3 sound files of recordings which demonstrate those reed ranks. [All recordings were performed by the author on a dry-tuned Italian-built Victoria “Emperor Model” accordion custom-tuned to A=440 by technician Leo Niemi, except for example 4b, which was recorded on a wet-tuned Giulietti accordion model “Classic 125″ owned by Robert Kubacki, and example 12, performed by Nick Ballarini on a Petosa Musette Accordion.]


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Score used in audio demonstration.

The round symbols which accompany each stop depict the commonly-used internationally-known standardized accordion register symbols, and clearly indicate which reeds are to be used, as the common names for the stops, such as bassoon, clarinet, violin, etc., are often ambiguous and can vary from country to country.

A) Single-reed stops

1) name The bassoon stop (sixteen-foot rank) has a full and meaty tone which is especially favored by jazz accordionists. In most modern accordions this reed rank is encased within a wooden chamber (called a “tone chamber” or “cassotto”) which mutes the tone by eliminating some higher partials.

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    2) name The clarinet stop (eight-foot rank) produces a round tone relatively pure and free from harmonics (at least among accordion reeds). Like the bassoon stop, it is also encased within a tone chamber, making the resultant color darker. This reed rank is somewhat lighter in timbre than the bassoon stop, even within the same pitch range.

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    3) name The piccolo stop (four-foot rank) is thin and reedy. Because it is not muted by a tone chamber the sound appears brighter. It is very rarely used as a solo stop because the sound is relatively quiet. However it is often used in combination with other reed ranks, to add a brighter edge, as will be demonstrated below.

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  • B) Double-reed stops

    4a) name The violin stop (two eight-foot ranks, one tuned slightly sharp) is beautiful and projects well within a small ensemble. While the first rank (clarinet) is enclosed in a tone chamber, the second rank is unenclosed. This example was recorded with a “dry-tuned” accordion.

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    4b) name This violin stop example was recorded with a “wet-tuned” accordion.

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    5) name The bandoneón stop (one sixteen-foot and one eight-foot rank) is a characteristic accordion sound which is round and mellow, as both reed ranks are enclosed within a casotto.

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    6)name The organ stop (one sixteen-foot and one four-foot rank) has a slightly reedy quality because of presence of the unenclosed four-foot reed.

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    7)name The oboe stop (one eight-foot and one four-foot rank) has a thin quality, and is sometimes used to imitate Eastern reed instruments.

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  • C) Triple-reed stops

    8)nameThe accordion stop, consisting of one low reed and two middle reeds, has a heavier sound on account of the sixteen-foot reed.

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    9)name The harmonium stop, consisting of one low, one middle, and one high reed, has a bright, but dry sound, as all the reeds are perfectly in tune together.

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    10)name The so-called musette stop contains two middle reeds and one high reed, and combines the sounds of the violin and oboe stops. Although in America it is known by the name “musette,” that is not entirely correct; it is actually an imitation musette. The authentic “musette” accordion is completely different, as will be explained below in example 12.

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  • D) Four-reed stops

    11)name The master stop (one sixteen-foot, two eight-foot, and one four-foot rank) utilizes all four reed ranks of the accordion, and is the instrument’s loudest and fullest sound. It can be quite powerful when four or five-note chords are played fortissimo.

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  • E) Special stops

    12) name The authentic musette stop (three eight-foot ranks, all tuned slightly off-key) is very strong and distinctive. This does not appear on standard American accordions, but only on special “musette” accordions which have three ranks of unison eight-foot reeds. Some instruments are tuned to A-443 or higher, to exaggerate the strident effect and enable the instrument to “cut” through the texture of a folk or polka band.

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    Henry Doktorski

    Composer and concert accordionist Henry Doktorski currently serves on the faculty of The City Music Center at Duquesne University. His recording Vaudeville Accordion Classics, featuring the complete works of Guido Deiro, was released on Bridge Records in 2003. He has also recorded with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (including the 1997 release Cinema Serenade [Sony Classical] with violinist Itzhak Perlman).