For composers

This page describes the possibilities and notation rules for the accordion.  In addition to already existing material (see links section for examples), this pages includes not only text, but also sound examples and video’s. Besides that, I wished to include the accordion’s musical and artistic qualities, not solely describing its technical possibilities and boundaries. The technical examples are on the basis of existing works as I think having a musical context can be beneficial. Furthermore, a webpage could be updated at any time – which will hopefully happen during the coming years.

Personally, I like to encourage (young) composers who have little experience with the accordion, to first focus on what they want to hear. From a musical starting point, we can find out how to translate your ideas through the instrument. This way of working not only gives a clear goal and direction, but also invites both the performer and the composer  to be creative and open for new insights.

The name accordion derives from Akkord: musical chord, concord of sounds. It’s a family of box-shaped musical instruments of the bellows-driven free-reed aerophone type instruments. The first use of the word accordion was in 1829 by Demian.

The sound is produced by a ‘free-reed’ and the bellows control the volume of the air passing through the reeds. When a button or key is being pressed, a pallet lifts and the air can pass the reed.

A side view of the pallet mechanism in a (piano) accordion. source: wikipedia.

 Accordions come in many forms and sizes. Differences between models are much bigger compared to differences between models among other instruments. Within classical music, the instrument players use in general is called the classical accordion. This instrument evolved during the early part of the 20th Century and was developed in the early 1950’s. It is also known as the free-bass accordion,  bajan and modern concert accordion a.o.

The difference between a classical accordion and the more familiar traditional accordion is not clearly visible to the eye as it involves the mechanics within the left side of the instrument. The classical accordion has the possibility to switch from the well known ‘oom-pah pah’ pre-fixed chord system in the left hand to a single tone manual keyboard – creating a mirror image of the right hand.

General notation requires two staves. Place the left hand on the lower stave and the right hand on the upper stave. Accordion players are aquanted with both treble and bass clefs. The left hand, the lower stave, has the possibility to have a higher pitch than the right hand and vice versa. Cross-staff notation, which is common on piano, is not logical for accordion notation at all.

The accordion has no resonance effect. Expression is solely dependent on dynamics and articulation. A change in tembre can be created by registers (see chapter 5). Contrary to most keyboard instrument, the accordion’s sound is most closely related to woodwind instruments.

The lower a tone, the bigger the reed. Therefore, low tones require more air which results in a more dominant sound when one plays an interval. This is something to keep in mind when writing extremely broad intervals.

The core of the instrument is the bellows: by opening or closing, the air can pass through one of the reeds. Because there is only one bellows, we can  create a single dynamical line at a time – though we can differentiate in dynamics through articulation, registration, or dividing tones in different hands. For example, you can emphasize the lower line in this fugue by Bach by articulation:

The left hand controls the bellows and is in charge of the dynamics. You can enter a tone from al niente, or with an attack, or anything in between:

One can also play with vibrato’s. The player can vibrate using their left hand or right hand in several different ways, or even use their legs.  Best is to notate very specific what kind of vibrato you want by means of sound quality. Below are three examples of different vibrati. Samandari worked with a visual notation of the vibrato, which makes the direction and speed visually clear. Martin chose to use an extra stave for the bellows to notate the rythm of the vibrato. Soerensen choose to write ‘sempre vibrato’, to indicate a steady line thoughout the entire movement.

Another commonly used bellows technique is the bellows-shake. It is comparable with a tremolo for string players. The way to notate a bellows shake is by using the п and v symbols, п meaning open and v meaning closing the bellows. One could also simply write BS (meaning bellows-shake), and NB (meaning normal bellows), particularly when the bellows-shake is a repetitive movement. Tremolo-notation could be used as well, when one wants to indicate the rhythm of the repetitive shake.

It’s hard to play a loud bellow-shake, as the reeds don’t get a chance to reach fortissimo in the fractions they are being addressed.
Making dynamical lines and accentuate different chords is possible.

One could also shake in three or four, by using just one corner of the bellows to create a break in the airflow.

d

There are many different keyboard systems which all have their own strengths and weaknesses. I play the chromatic button accordion with free-bass, which is now considered standard within classical music, along with the classical accordion with a piano keys in the right hand.

I play a pigini sirius bayan. On this instrument, the left and right hand have the same range.The picture on the left shows the exact range and the instrument itself. Ranges differ slightly among different models.

 

The right side shows an image of the two common systems of the right hand. The three rows below are in chromatic order. The two rows at the top are dubbled, in order to create more fingering-options. I play the c-griff system, in which the c lies on the first row and the chromatic movement goes from top to bottom. Since the buttons are close to each other, I can reach two octaves plus a fifth in one hand.

As an example, a big range makes it possible to play the following motive legato:

(Sequenza)

from: Sequenza VII (Chanson) - L. Berio

The left hand system has two systems:

– the free-reed system
– the stradella bass system

The free-reed system has the same system as the right hand, mirrored. Technically the only difference is that I am less flexible with my hands, as I have to control the bellow as well. Therefore I can only use my thumb on the first row (the c, eb, geb, a).

The stradella bass system is the original left-hand system of our instrument. It is based on western harmony. There are two rows of low single notes and four rows of chords. Pressing one button makes an entire chord speak. 

Notation for stradella Bass is slightly different from the single-note system. This is nescesairy, because not all instruments have the same chord positions – eventhough they are always fixed. One always writes the single notes as a note below C3, and the chord notes are written above.

See this example of traditional Stradella bass use:

Ausencias - A. Piazzolla (arr. James Crabb)

Some composers have used standard bass in creative manners:

Free bass

The left hand free bass system has the same system as the right hand. Changing from standard bass to free bass is nowadays done by an inner mechanical switch. The buttons stay the same, but the notes change.

Note, that the single notes from the standard bass system remain unchanged. This makes it possible to combine high-pitched notes with a note from the lowest octave in one hand, as they are available on the 5th and 6th row. 

Technically, the left hand is a little less flexible compared to the right hand, as we control the bellows with our left hand as well. This is partly compensated by the size of the buttons.

Eventhough the range in left and right hand are similar, the left hand’s purpose was originally the lower accompaniment and it is still developed with this in mind. Low notes in left hand speak slightly ‘better’ compared to the right hand and high notes vice versa in the right hand. However, it all depends on what you like to say with your music, and what sound quality you like to have.

from Looking on Darkness by Bent Soerensen

In our right hand, each button corresponds with four different read blocks, comparable with the different stops on an organ. All four blocks have a different sound quality. They can be used on their own or combined with any of the other blocks. Thus we have 4*3*2*1 different registers.

The left hand has three blocks. An instrument has one 4′, or an extra 8′. Not all blocks enable to be played alone, therefore we only have four registers. My instrument has 8′, 8’+8′, 2′ and 8’+8´+2′.

In the right hand, one uses a circle with three chambers to notate registration. In the left hand, a rectangle is preferred.

 

Specifying registration is not obligatory and depends on whether the piece asks for specific registration instructions. Keep in mind that registers don’t sound the same on different instruments. So when aiming for a certain sound, one player might choose 8′ while the other one will use 16′.

Some pieces make a very specific use of registration, which makes notation inevitable:

Extended techniques

Pitch bending, also known as tone glissandi, is possible by applying pressure on the bellows and ever so gently depressing a button halfway. It works it because this will restrict the air supply so the reed can’t get up to its natural rate of vibration. One can control the bend with the bellows – more pressure means a greater bend.

The reed can gliss downwards only. It is possible to start on the lower pitch, however, it needs time to prepare. Bends function best in the right hand. Lower notes bend more easily and are easier to control – the lowest octave can often bend a minor third. Above d’, bending becomes challenging and rarely exceeds a quarter tone.

A clean pitch-bend can only be created by a single-reed register. Using combinations of reeds results in hearing less of a bend and more of a tone getting false, because of all the reeds responding differently. Furthermore, using a casotto-register works better in general.

It should be notated whether the tone the glissando ends on should be played. If not then a note (reduced in size and in brackets)should be notated to show where the glissando should end.

Two examples of pitch-bend. In looking on Darkness, the pitch of the end of the tone is indicated, just as whether or not to play the end not on an actual lower button or should be kept as a bend from the button above. 

In Black Birds, the only information is the glissando itself. The actual bending itself is more important – the final pitch is not fixed.

There are two different button glissandi. It can be made by sliding on one note at a time or an entire cluster. Note that only a piano key can make a glissando over white keys. On a button keyboard, a vertical glissando results in a glisando with minor thirds.

Clusters can be made by using the palm of the hand, a fist, the lower arm, or a couple of fingers.. If any specific technique is required, this is notated by simply writing what to use. A cluster is notated by black filled note values within the lowest and highest note value.

For both techniques, a clear visual picture of the desired sounding result is optimal:

There are four types of percussive sounds that are often used: air button, button noise, hitting of the bellows and change of register clicking.
 
The air noise is performed with the left hand where the air button is situated and most of the other noises are made with the right hand. Therefore it can be practical to notate the air sounds in the left hand and other pitchless noises in the right hand.
 
Alternative noteheads can be used and are idiomatic especially if the use of a normal five-lined stave is preferred. Air sound is often notated in many different ways – a rectangular notehead is recommended.
 
The ‘Handbook on accordion notation’ suggests capital letters  to inform which pitchless sound is to be used: K (Keyboard), B (Bellows), R (Register).  The sounds are often notated with an ‘x’ as the notehead, a notation which is also used with other instruments. The ‘x’ can also be encircled so that
the length of a minim and longer can be notated precisely.

Links & credits

All recordings are made by me, unless specified differently.

I am thankful for colleagues who have done the same work as me. The following links could be useful in addition to this page:

  • Handbook on accordion notation, written by Geir Draugsvoll and Erik Hoeysgaard, translated by James Crabb
  • This video made by Marko Kasl

    This document is made by Erica Roozendaal. You can reach me through email at info@ericaroozendaal.nl

    Questions, comments, ideas are welcome.

    www.ericaroozendaal.nl