What is an Accordion?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An accordion is a type of hand held musical instrument. Accordions have been made since the 1700s in Europe, and appear in the folk music of several European nations. The instrument has a very distinctive sound, which some listeners find rather unpleasant, while others appreciate the unique auditory experience of listening to an accordion. Because of the characteristic way in which an accordion is operated, the instrument is sometimes known as a squeezebox.

Chromatic button accordions feature buttons in place of piano keys and are often smaller and more portable than piano accordions.
Chromatic button accordions feature buttons in place of piano keys and are often smaller and more portable than piano accordions.

The roots of the accordion can be found in the cheng, a Chinese instrument which was developed approximately 5,000 years ago. Explorers to Asia brought the cheng back with them, along with an assortment of other goods unique to China. German musicians toyed with the instrument, producing recognizable accordions by the 1700s. Several variations on the instrument were developed, including the flutina and the aeoline. By the early 1800s, an “accordion” had been patented by a German inventor.

The accordion is common in folk music written for for dancing.
The accordion is common in folk music written for for dancing.

It is classified as a wind instrument, meaning that the sounds generated by an accordion are caused by the movement of air. A typical accordion has two keyboards attached by a central bellows. When the bellows are squeezed, they force air past reeds located within the body of the accordion, creating notes and chords of music. The keyboards are used to produce specific notes or chords. Accordion construction and maintenance is still accomplished largely by hand, because of the distinctive way in which the instrument is put together.

Many accordions are diatonic, meaning that they produce different sounds depending on whether air is being pulled into the bellows or pushed out. Others are chromatic, generating the same sound regardless as to the direction of the air flow. All accordions have the ability to make sharps and flats, as well as several octaves of notes. Custom versions have been produced to create a specifically desired sound, as well.

Many accordions are festively decorated, and the instruments can border on the gaudy. The sound of the accordion is closely associated with folk music from Switzerland and Germany. The instruments can also be found in some Mexican music, thanks to a German presence in Mexico which led to the introduction of accordions. Many folksy dance bands feature an accordion player, as do mariachi bands and folk music groups. When played in combination with a number of other instruments, the accordion can be quite charming, as well as unique.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - I agree. If you aren't already familiar with the piano layout, you're probably going to struggle when starting with the accordion.

I just had a Hohner accordion handed down to me after my great grandfather passed away. Unfortunately, he was never able to teach me to play it, but I have always been interested in learning. No one else in my family knows how to play, either.

Does anyone know any good books or websites for beginning accordion players? I am pretty musically gifted and can play the piano, so I have that going for me. Obviously, I can read sheet music, as well. I basically just need a good source for how to hold the instrument and different techniques.

It is too bad that more people don't play the accordion. I have already looked around, and there are no teachers that I can find to take lessons from.


@JimmyT - Growing up in Louisiana, I am very much a fan of Zydeco music. It is still extremely popular there, and there are several festivals every year.

I have never personally learned to play the accordion (very well at least), but I am pretty familiar with how it should be played. Like you figured out, the keyboard is just like any other keyboard. The other side with the buttons is for bass notes. I don't remember exactly how they are arranged, but the rows basically have all the notes for different scales. For example, one row has regular bass notes, the next has minor notes, then 7th notes, etc. Some of the professional accordions can have over 100 bass notes on them.

I have never been able to learn how to play the piano itself, so I was never very good with the accordion. I always felt like it was harder, because you can't even see what notes you're playing most of the time!


@stl156 - Actually, harmonicas do use reeds and work in much the same way as the accordion, except the air from your mouth works the same way as the bellows.

As far as additional music goes, someone already mentioned Cajun accordion music. I remember learning about this in a music class I took in college. There are a couple different types, but i think the most popular one is called Zydeco. It is basically a variation of jazz music that uses instruments like the accordion, spoons, and washboard.

In the class I took, our professor actually specialized in playing the accordion, so he brought on in and showed it to us one day. I didn't realize how big they actually were. Maybe someone here knows, but I know what the keyboard part is for. How do the buttons on the other side work, though?


Wow, I never knew that accordions were reed instruments. To be honest, I never really knew how they worked. I just figured there were just different sized air holes that the air was pushed through like with a harmonica.

I also found it interesting that the original ancestor of the accordion was made in China. Most people always think of the accordion as being associated with Germany and the countries around it. I don't know if there is any other instrument that is so well-linked to a single country. Any time I hear an accordion, I automatically think of Bavaria and people dancing to polka music at Oktoberfest.

I have never noticed an accordion in a mariachi band. I'll have to keep an eye out for it next time. Are there any other types of music that typically use the accordion?


My cousin plays the piano accordion. He uses his right hand to play the keys and his left to squeeze the instrument.

He let me play around with it once, and the keys were very easy to mash. They had some sort of cushioning underneath them, so pushing them down felt natural.

He told me that the padding has to be replaced now and then, because it will eventually wear down. He said that when this happens, the keys make an unflattering sound when they are pressed, and that’s how he knows it is time to replace the padding.


Accordion music just gives me a headache. I have never heard any song featuring accordion that I liked, because something about the sound it makes just eats at my brain.

I went to a friend’s birthday party two weeks ago, and her husband had hired a mariachi band for the event. Every single song had an accordion in it, and I found that the faster it was played, the worse my headache got.

I actually had to leave the party early because I couldn’t tolerate the accordion. I have friends who feel this way about the bagpipes, so they could relate to my hatred of a musical instrument, even though they didn’t share my disdain for the accordion.


@lighth0se33 - I’m not too crazy about fast-paced accordion music, because it is a little annoying. I do enjoy the slower kind in many Italian songs, though.

I ate at an Italian restaurant last month that had a live band. The music was mostly romantic and slow, and watching the accordion player slowly squeeze and release the instrument had a relaxing effect on me. It created a pleasant environment in which to enjoy my meal.

I even found myself getting a little sleepy toward the end. I fell asleep that night with slow accordion music in my head, and it felt so peaceful.


I visited Louisiana and saw a man playing Cajun accordion music. The band he was in had a very distinctive sound, and he was a large part of that.

Watching him squeeze and release the accordion while using the keys made me admire his dexterity. A lot of the music the band played was rather fast, and he must have been playing that thing for years to have become that good at it. He knew the instrument inside and out.

Without the accordion, the Cajun band would have sounded a lot less cultural. I’m sure that they planned to have an accordion player before they formed, because it is so essential to the overall sound of their music.

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