Accordion 101: Brief History

Accordion [accordeon, accordian, squashbox, squeeebox]

(Fr. Accordéon; Ger. Akkordeon, Handharmonika, Klavier-Harmonika, Ziehharmonika; It. Armonica a manticino, fisarmonica; Russ. Bayan, garmonica, garmoschka).

1. Free Reed
Among the families of instruments, the accordion is classified as a “free reed instrument.” “Free reed” means that a reed is set into a frame over an opening, and when air passes through the opening, the reed vibrates freely back and forth to produce sound.

The first free reed instruments were developed in China in the 2nd milleneum BCE, and looked kind of like a mouth pipe organ. This instrument is called the Sheng, and is still played today (photo).

2.Invention & Industrial Revolution

The accordion in its contemporary form was first created in Europe in the early 1800s. Accordions were originally developed as a much cheaper alternative to the pipe organs used in European church music. There is some dispute over where the first accordion was made and who invented it, but an instrument called “accordion” was first patented by a man named Cyril Demian in 1829 in Austria. Photograph is a 8-key accordion from this time, circa 1830. (Collection of Dr. Helmi Strahl Harrington at A World of Accordions Museum in Superior, Wisconsin. Photo by Henry Doktorski (2005).)

These first accordions were bisonoric diatonic button accordions, which means they had buttons instead of piano keys, and each button sounded different pitches depending whether when air was pushed in or pulled out using the bellows. (For more on different kinds of the accordion, see “Accordion 101: Types of the Accordion.”)

Propelled by the forces of invention and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, accordion manufacturing quickly spread throughout Europe. Within a decade or two after its invention, accordions were made not only in its birthplaces of Germany and Austria, but also in France, Russia, and Italy. By the mid 1800s, the Italian town of Castelfidardo became one of the Meccas of accordion manufacturing, and still remains one of the centers of accordion production today.

3. Global Reach: Migration, Immigration, and Colonial Expansion

The accordion was an ideal instrument for the mass migrations of the 19th century –the instrument was portable, loud, and relatively easy to play. It also worked as a “one-man band,” playing melody and harmony at once. As people left Europe to the New World, they brought their accordions with them. Consequently, the United States quickly became the main importer of accordions in the world.

Besides European migration to the United States and to various parts of Central and South America from the Old World, colonial histories play an important role in the popularization and dissemination of the accordion throughout the world as well.

As the accordion became more accessible, there was an effort by manufacturers to change the social reception of the instrument from “folk” instrument to a more “respectable” one. In the 1920′s, Hohner, one of the main German accordion manufacturers, recognized another marketing opportunity, and began publishing classical sheet music, moving the accordion from a folk instrument played “by ear” to an instrument akin to classical instruments requiring musical literacy. It also established a college for accordion teachers, and created an accordion orchestra that toured Germany and nearby countries, presenting the instrument in a new light. Women were a big part of this original Hohner accordion orchestra, and consequently there were many other accordion orchestras for women.

Today, Hohner has relocated its production site to China, and China has become the largest accordion manufacturer in the world.