Composing for accordion

This page describes the possibilities and notation rules for the accordion. In addition to already existing material (see the links section for examples), this page includes not only text, but also sound examples and video’s. I also wanted 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 to actually experience and hear the musical result. 

In my experience, most of the time it works best when the composer and I start from a musical point of view. With a clear picture of what the composer wants to hear, or what to express, we can find out how to translate your ideas through the instrument. This way of working gives a clear goal and direction and 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’. By opening the bellows and pressing the buttons, air can pass through the reeds. The tone quality cannot be changed, but we can control the dynamics with the bellows and articulation with keys. 

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

The classical accordion was developed around the early 1950’s. It can also go by the names free-bass accordion, bajan and modern concert accordion.  

The  most significant difference between a classical accordion and the more familiar traditional accordion are the left hand’s mechanics. 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.

Another prominent difference is the sound of the doubled 8-foot register (the chapter on registers gives detailed information). Instead of creating a tremolo caused by interferention caused by 2 reeds with a slight different tuning, the classical accordion create sound by combining two choirs with a different sound quality, instead of a different tuning. 

General comments on notation

When writing for two hands, the left hand is positioned on the lower stave and the right hand on the upper stave. Cross-notation is not convenient, as our left and right side are two different parts of the instrument. So whether you place notes on the lower or upper staff, is based on what hand will play the notes and not based on the pitch. 

Accordion players are acquainted with treble and bass clefs. 

The accordion itself has not much resonance. A change in timbre 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 broad intervals.

You could see the bellows as the ‘soul’ of the instrument: by opening or closing, the air passes through one or more reeds and causes the instrument to sound. Because there is only one bellow, we cannot play two lines in two hands with different dynamics. This is the reason why dynamics is notated between the two staves. But, 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:


from BWV 539 by Bach

Here is an example of incorrect notation of dynamics:  an sffz in the left hand cannot be played when the right hand has a crescendo because there is only one bellow providing one dynamics at a time:

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.

The dynamical range when playing a bellow shake is smaller compared to normal bellows, but it is possible to create crescendi, accents, et cetera. 

Bellow-shaking in three or four is also possible, by using just one corner of the bellows to create a break in the airflow.

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 c-griff, with buttons on both sides. 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:


from: Sequenza VII (Chanson) - L. Berio

The left hand system has two systems:

– the free-reed system
– the standard or 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).

Standard Bass or Stradella Bass

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 necessary, 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)

A few examples of creative uses of standard bass:

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.

Even though 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 more easy compared to the right hand and high notes vice versa in the right hand. Depending on what sound quality the music you can make choices what hand plays what.

from Looking on Darkness by Bent Soerensen

In the right hand, each button is connected to four different reed blocks, comparable with the different stops on an organ. All four blocks have a different sound quality but do cover the entire range of the keyboard. They can be used on their own or combined with any of the other blocks. 

The left hand has three blocks.  Two blocks are always a 8′ and a 2′, and depending on the instrument the third block is either a 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′. 

right hand register symbols
left hand register symbols

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

Note that the sound of instrument is different in both hands, so the 8′ in the left hand is different from the 8′ in the right hand. The left hand’s reeds are literally bigger and the left hand is more suited for the low octaves – of course keeping in mind what the music is aiming for. The right hand comes out more directly , however the lowest octave needs time to speak, which is lesser of an issue in the left hand.  

Notating registers is not a must and could be left open to the performer’s choice. Keep in mind that registers’ sound and contrast differs from instrument to instrument. 

However, some composers make very specific use of registration:

Extended techniques

Pitch bending 

This is also known as tone glissandi, and is created by applying pressure on the bellows and ever so gently depressing a button halfway. The way it works is that it restricts 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.

from Looking on Darkness by Bent Soerensen
from Black Birds by Kalevi Aho

Button glissandi

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:

left: from Roadrunner by John Zorn. Above: from Flashing by Arne Nordheim

Percussive sounds

There are different types of percussive sounds that are often used: air button, button noise, hitting of the bellows and change of register clicking. In all cases it is wise to write a performer’s note, also when the notation is common. 
The ‘Handbook on accordion notation’ suggests capital letters  to inform which pitchless sound is to be used: K (Keyboard), B (Bellows), R (Register). See the example below. 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 the note can be notated precisely. 

Air sound 

The left hand has an air button, which can serve both musical and practical uses. You can treat it as a note, in the sense that one can make dynamics, use bellowshake, et cetera, with the air sound. Since the air noise is played by the left hand it can be practical to notate the air sounds in the left hand and other pitchless noises in the right hand. Another option is to use the space in between the two staves, or an extra stave. 

Specific bellow directions can be notated while using the air button, but this is not necessary because it only has a visual effect, it does not affect the ‘air sound’. 

From Anatomic Safari by Per Norgaard. Note that both left hand and right hand have their own extra line for the percussive effects.

Links & credits

All recordings are made by me, unless specified differently.

I am thankful for colleagues who have done similar work.
The following links could be useful in addition to this page:
Handbook on accordion notation, written by Geir Draugsvoll and Erik Hoeysgaard, translated and edited by James Crabb
This video made by Marko Kasl
This document is made by Erica Roozendaal.

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