History of the Accordion
THE SHENG--CHINESE ANCESTOR OF THE ACCORDION
Said to be several thousand years old, the Sheng (Cheng, Zheng) is one of the oldest musical
instruments and is the ancestor of the accordion. The Sheng consists of 17 to 36 bamboo pipes
mounted on a gourd-shaped wind chamber. Each pipe is affixed to a reed. Notes or chords are
produced by blowing or inhaling air (like a harmonica) through a metal tube connecting the base
while covering one or more air holes on the bamboo pipe.
Legend has it that the mythological Yellow Emperor of China, Huangdi, dispatched Ling Lun to
establish a central pitch to which the nation's music would be tuned. Traveling to a valley in the
Tibetan Himalayas, Ling Lun selected a bamboo stalk of 3.9 inches and the pitch blown through that
stalk became "standard pitch." Ling Lun then observed six male and six female phoenix birds (also
a mythological bird which symbolizes harmony.) and chose eleven other bamboo pipes of varying
length to reflect the birds' beautiful voices. This division of the octave into twelve parts represents
cosmic harmony (yin and yang). Ling Lun affixed these bamboo pipes into a gourd, arranging them
in the shape of a phoenix and presented the Sheng ("sublime voice") to the Emperor.
The Sheng continues to be used in modern China, updated with brass reeds and a metal wind
[Modern Day Sheng]
The introduction of the Sheng to the West is also steeped in legend. By some accounts, Marco Polo
returned to Europe with a Sheng. The Sheng was also known to the Court society of St. Petersburg,
Russia in the 1740's. French sources claim that the first Sheng was sent from China by
missionaries in the 1770's.
EUROPEANS DISCOVER FREE REED INSTRUMENTS
By the 19th Century, a wave of free reed instruments developed including the mouth blown
harmonica, later to be manufactured by Matthias Hohner by mass production in Trossingen,
Germany in the 1840's. (It later became an accordion factory.)
In 1821 Christian Buschmann of Berlin patented a "Handaoline" which operated with levers. In 1829,
Cyrillus Damian of Vienna patented the "akkordeon" with accompanying chord buttons. M. Button of
Paris introduced an accordion with piano keys (but without any chord buttons.)
Sir Charles Wheatstone patented the concertina in 1829. In the 1850's, Heinrich Band of Germany
developed a square accordion which became known as the "bandoneon." The bandoneon became
popular in Argentina and typified tango music.
[Peter Souve, Bandoneon Virtuoso]
Similar to the bandoneon, the chemnitzer concertina was developed in Chemnitz, German and was
brought to the United States by German immigrants. It became popular with Midwest polka bands
and remains a staple of polka bands today.
By the late 1800's, Italy became the center of accordion manufacturing. Paolo Soprani began
manufacturing accordions in Castelfidardo in 1872. Tessio Javani of Castelfidardo developed an
accordion with pre-set registers including violin, flue, organ and tremelo. Mariano Dallape developed
a system of bass buttons arranged in the Circle of Fifths (see Accordion Anatomy) with bass and
counterbass rows and four rows of chords. This became known as the "stradella system".
In the early 1900's, Hohner of Trossingen, Germany, expanded its harmonica factory to the
production of accordions and in the 1920's introduced an accordion orchestra which played classical
pieces and toured Europe.
The first accordions developed were diatonic (a different note on the push and pull, like a
harmonica). By the 1850's, the chromatic accordion was developed. It plays the same note on the
push and pull and has buttons on both the right hand and left hand. By the 1930's. the musette
(button) accordion became popular in France. Gus Viseur was a well-known accordionist who
played with Django Reinhardt.
In Russia, a form of chromatic accordion, known as the Bayan, was developed. It was promoted by
the early Soviet government as an instrument of the people and the Jupiter Bayan factory was
established as a department of the Red Army.
[A Jupiter Bayan Accordion]
ACCORDIONS COME TO JAPAN AND CHINA
Accordions were introduced in Japan from the West as early as the 1800's and German accordions
were imported for ladies of high society (See Accordions Worldwide). The Yamaha Corporation
manufactured organs and piano keyboards in the late 1800's and expanded into accordions. By the
1930's, accordions became popular, but manufacturing ceased in World War II. Accordions later
enjoyed a resurgence until the 1950's.
Meanwhile, in China, accordions were introduced from the West in the 1920's and enjoyed popularity
as the "people's instrument" which could be used to play folk music without the need for electricity.
Accordions now are the most popular musical instrument in China. Early inexpensive accordions
have given way to high quality sophisticated accordions such as the Baile brand manufactured in
Shanghai, and accordion players from China have competed and won numerous international
[Chinese Virtuoso Zuang Guo Ping]
By the late 20th Century, many of the established accordion manufacturers, notably Hohner, moved
their manufacturing operations to China.
ACCORDIONS COME TO AMERICA
German immigrants to Louisiana in the late 1800's brought with them the one-row diatonic
accordion (known as melodians) which soon became popular . Cajun fiddle dances were adapted
to the accordion.
[Savoy Cajun Accordion]
German immigrants to Mexico and Texas at the turn of the century brought diatonic accordions with
them and soon adapted polkas and waltzes into a Tex-Mex or Conjuncto style music. Diatonic two or
three row accordions soon became popular.
[Flaco Jimenez, Conjunto Accordion Player]
In 1909, Guido Diero introduced the piano accordion to the United States. He soon became one of
the most popular (and highly paid) accordion players of the early 20th Century. He was, for a time,
married to Mae West.
Accordions soon became a staple on the vaudeville circuit.
By the 1930's, accordion schools began to flourish and even formed their own bands.
Leading accordion players including Charles Magnante formed the American Accordionist
Association in 1938 and Pietro Diero, Guido Diero's brother, became the first president. Pietro Diero
founded American Music Publishing Company (AMPCO) later known as Pietro Diero Publications
which popularized accordion music. The AAA also adopted an accordion music notation by which
only a single note was used for the left hand with designations of M (major), m (minor) 7 (dominant
seventh) and d (diminished). Magnante performed a repertoire of classical music at Carnegie Hall in
1939 demonstrating that its capabilities went beyond folk music.
In 1948, Dick Contino won the nationally broadcast Horace Heidt/Phillip Morris talent show with his
rendition of Lady of Spain and became wildly popular.
Dick Contino's movements on stage later inspired Elvis Presley to copy him. (This was wrongly
attributed to Forrest Gump.)
In the 1950's and 1960's, (the Golden Age of Accordions), between 150,000 and 200,000 accordions
were imported annually into the United States. Many accordion manufacturers also established
operations in the United States, notably Columbo & Sons in San Francisco, Italo-American
Accordion Company in Chicago, Iorio and Excelsior in New York.
In Batavia, New York, Roxy Caccamise founded Roxy's Music, toured widely with his wife, Nellie, and
set up an accordion school where he taught many students who became leading accordionists of
Their daughter, Rose Caccamise, continues to own Roxy's Music Store in Batavia,
New York and still sells and services accordions including the Roland line of accordions.
Many genres of accordion music thrived. Not only the well-known polka music, but Country
Western, Jazz and Classical music as well.
[Pee Wee King was elected to the Country
Western Hall of Fame. He was co-author
of Tennessee Waltz]
[Art Van Damme, Jazz Accordionist]
THE ACCORDION FADES THEN RE-EMERGES
Though John Lennon played the accordion (see Notable Accordion Players), the Beatles
spelled a drastic change in musical tastes by the 1960's. Electronic accordions such as
the Cordovox or Duovox, though popular with accordion players, never caught the public's
attention. Titano produced a "Combo Accordion" hoping the ride the Rock 'n Roll wave,
but it was not a success.
[Titano Combo Accordion]
Though accordions remained popular in Europe and England, as well as with ethnic
groups, the love-affair with the accordion in the United States waned in the second
half of the twentieth century. Many of the manufacturers which dominated the accordion
industry merged and then went out of business. Hohner, which dominated the
accordion market, transferred most of its production to China. Dallape, one of the
earliest Italian accordion manufacturers, went out of business in 2010, although
Roland agreed to digitize and thus preserve the Dallape accordion sound for use
in the Roland V-Accordion.
Yet as the 21st Century saw light, the accordion has slowly but surely begun its
resurgence. With Lady of Spain and Lawrence Welk a distant memory, pop musicians began
to utilize the accordion sound and even Bruce Springstein's E-Street Band included
an accordionist. Hollywood and now TV advertisements have relied on accordion music
to a greater extent. The Roland V-Accordion has brought the accordion into the digital
age and has sparked renewed interest.
[Punk Rocker Katie McConnell of the Mahones]
Thus, deeply rooted in the past, the accordion has retained its niche in the music industry
and hopefully will continue to flourish.
Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren entertained millions on the TV Series, the
Lawrence Welk Show, between 1955 and 1982. However, the younger generation
rebelled against anything beloved by their parents-- including the accordion which
soon garnered an unpopular stigma.