Believe it or not, the accordion is perhaps the most played instrument in the entire world, especially when you take the entire accordion-family into account. The truth is, the accordion is not just a mainstay of folk music but has managed to penetrate as far as the pop world. With that in mind, let’s get to know this one-of-a-kind instrument.

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!
Photos: Gerard Burgers

An Alternative to the Piano

“I just found it,” says accordionist Mark Söhngen as he shows us a photo of Bill Haley and the Comets. The image shows the legendary fifties rock ‘n’ roll outfit, a member of which is posing with his accordion. “Back then, the accordion was often an alternative to the piano, since it was much easier to get to gigs. A lot of acts from that period included an accordion player. Even Elvis Presley played one, and there are photos of John Lennon playing the accordion.”

We’re having a cosy chat with accordionist Mark Söhngen (part of various bands himself, including Captain Gumbo) about this world-renowned instrument, and it’s worth noting that, when we mention the accordion, we’re referring to the entire accordion-family, which encompasses instruments like the piano accordion, the button accordion, the squeezebox, the concertina, the bandoneon and so on. Mark Söhngen has played them all, so he’s not only a seasoned authority on the subject, but a seasoned authority on the array of genres that these instruments are able to span. “Every style demands its own type of accordion,” says Mark. “In many styles, the accordion plays a central role, and since older models had their limits – so, for example, some don’t have the full note range – the corresponding music style developed because of these limitations.”

A Central Role

Obviously, the accordion’s roots lie in folk music and still plays a central role in some genres: the squeezebox is still central to cajun, zydeco, tex-mex, and cumbia music; the concertina is central to Zulu folk music; the bandoneon is central to Argentinian tango music, and so on. Further to that, the accordion has managed to insert itself deeply into pop music, and not just because it’s a more portable alternative to a piano, since electric-pianos and keyboards are just as portable these days, but because of its unique sound. This sound gave the accordion its own place in pop. Think of tracks by The Band or Tom Waits, or ‘Backstreet Girl’ by The Rolling Stones. If you only look for it, the accordion can be heard in plenty of pop numbers. Of course, the inclusion of an accordion can lend a track a distinctive ‘folky’ edge, but that’s not always necessarily the case.

The first basic form of the accordion appeared in 1822 in Berlin where it was invented by instrument builder Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann. The original design combined multiple harmonicas which, rather than being played by manually blowing and drawing breath, were played with bellows. It was no coincidence that the first harmonica was also invented by Buschmann shortly before, and was based on the principle of one or more metal reeds that are set to vibrate by air pressure. Anyone who does a little research will find that there are now renowned accordion builders across the whole of Europe, but that many seem to have diverged in one Italian village: Castelfidardo in the province of Ancona.

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

Folk Music

Following its introduction, the accordion very quickly found its way into folk music and wherever the accordion went, it was immediately embraced by the local musicians. “The accordion was a brilliant alternative to many traditional instruments,” explains Mark. “With a single instrument, you could suddenly get the same enormous volume that you could only previously get with maybe three musicians. This immediately gave the accordion a lot of power. You could play both bass notes and chords with any accordion model, so you could really build a groove and make music that people could dance to. This is exactly why the accordion became such a leading folk instrument all over the world.” The accordion is also incredibly versatile and can be seamlessly inserted into an immense range of different music styles. It can be found in anything from English morris dancing to punk-folk; from classical music to endless forms of pop music.


“In pop, the accordion often takes on the melody and can give the music a beautiful colour, but you can also use it to support the chords.” In Mark’s own experience, people sometimes have different expectations of the accordion, since they only know it from a particular kind of music. “They can have a view of the accordion as a kitsch or ‘old-timer’s’ instrument, then as soon as you start playing it, they immediately hear something that they didn’t expect. And the reaction is always positive, in my experience.”

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

How Difficult is it?

Say you’re a pianist that wants to expand their abilities or enrich the sound of their band with an accordion. How hard is it to step over? “A pianist’s right hand will feel at home with a piano accordion, but the bass buttons are a different story entirely,” comments Mark. “But if you play in a band with a bassist, then they might not be needed. Of course, the accordion is played by moving air, so all of the expression of playing the accordion lies in how you move the bellows back and forth. This is the essence of playing the accordion and is also the hardest part to learn. To do it, you need to have a feel for the soul of the instrument.” Ok, so is this something you can teach yourself? “That depends on what kind of musician you are,” answers Mark. “Some musicians are prepared to spend hours figuring stuff out and experimenting, and it’s these kinds of musicians that are able to teach themselves to play an instrument like the accordion. If you want to get the same results a bit faster, of course, you can just take maybe ten lessons and then go from there. But if we’re pitting lessons against self-learning, then I do recommend some lessons so that you learn the correct techniques and prevent any aches and pains in the future.”

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

Bending & Blue Notes

Mark says that because it’s not physically possible to bend notes with an accordion like a guitarist can bend the string of a guitar, it’s missing something. “I actually know an instrument builder who’s trying to design an accordion that can bend notes, but it seems a pretty difficult job to me.” But as it stands, you simply can’t play blue notes with a one-row accordion, since the note range is so limited. The average one-row accordion (usually tuned in C) only includes the white notes of a piano. “What you could do,” says Mark, “is play the blues in G with a one-row accordion that’s tuned in C. The F in the C-scale then serves as the minor seventh in G – the blue note. A lot of blues harmonica players use this trick all the time, but it does limit you in other ways, since it means you’re missing out on the diminished fifth and diminished third which are also essential to the blues. You can get the fifth and third on a one-row accordion that’s been tuned a little lower, so you can still add that blues flavour. Two-row or multiple-row accordions include the minor third though.” Clifton Chenier was a phenomenal blues accordion player and was considered a legend of zydeco; the more bluesy variation of cajun music.

Summoning Spirits

“The accordion is an amazing instrument,” claims Mark, “To this day, I’m still discovering tracks from all over the world that do something surprising with an accordion. I only recently discovered that Madagascan accordion music is used to summon spirits. I have a CD of it. I had no idea that you could make such hallucinogenic music with an accordion.”

Good to Know

Common Accordion Models

The accordion family includes a large number of different models, the most common of which we’ve included below:

The Squeezebox Accordion

This is the standard form that an accordion can take. This version is at the centre of styles like cajun and zydeco. The growling bass has a nice groove to it and it can be heard in a lot of European folk music. It’s also sometimes referred to as a squeezebox, and can come with one, two, or three-rows, referring to the number of rows of note buttons. The two-row accordion is commonly featured in Latin American music.

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!


The concertina is recognised by its hexagonal shape. The concertina made its way to South Africa with German colonists, where it was introduced to members of the Zulu nation. The instrument returned to western music with its new South African flavour in the work of musicians like Paul Simon.

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!


The bandoneon is actually a variation of a concertina. It’s a little larger, has more notes than a concertina, and is best known for voicing the Argentinian tango.

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

Piano Accordion

The piano accordion is probably the most recognisable accordion. Naturally, it gains its name from the piano keys fitted on the right, which are used to play the melody, while the left side is fitted with buttons for playing the bass.

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

Button Accordion

The button accordion is very similar to the piano accordion but has buttons instead of piano keys.

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

Electronic Accordions

These days, you can get an electronic equivalent of almost every acoustic instrument going and this is also true of the accordion. Roland have released an entire range of electronic accordions and these instruments are not only capable of producing the sound of an accordion, but other sounds as well. Electronic accordions come with a few nice benefits: they’re lighter, they can’t fall out of tune, they can be transposed, and you plug your headphones into them.

Playing Amplified

You could probably tell a long story about amplifying any instrument, and when it comes to the accordion, there are a few different methods available, like using a built-in microphone. Here we’ll stick to the method that Mark developed himself. “I threw the idea around for a while, but until about five years ago, the right microphone for the job just didn’t exist. Basically, I needed a microphone that could be placed on a ring. Once I found the right one, I took it to the jewellers and had them fit it onto a ring for me which I wear on my middle finger, so it’s always placed right in front of the grille where the sound comes out. I have a thin cable running from the microphone, along my arm, and this is connected to a little transmitter clipped onto my belt.” Mark only wears his innovative ring-microphone on his right hand so that the melody and the tone of the accordion is captured. “When you’re playing with a band, that’s all you need. The bass notes played on the other side are left out because the bassist plays them, so they don’t need to be amplified anyway. That’s not to say that I don’t play the bass notes. I do. It gives me something to hold onto while I play.” The bass notes are captured when making studio recordings, however, since they can be nicely mixed and balanced with the bass guitar. On stage, it just doesn’t work as well. Mark also always makes sure he has a floor monitor set up right behind him. “I can hear myself perfectly and don’t have any feedback problems since I’m literally standing between the microphone and the monitors. I have my own monitor. It’s a pretty robust Dynacord AM12.”

The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

See also…

» Accordions
» Accordion Bags & Cases
» Accordion Straps
» Accordion Microphones
» Accordion Books
» All Keyboard Instruments & Accessories

» How to play basic piano chords
» Classical Piano Music for Beginners: 6 Well-Known Compositions
» Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?
» What is Velocity Sensitivity?
» Here’s Everything You Need to Learn to Play the Keyboard

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