A perennially popular topic of discussion amongst melodeon players is on the merits and disadvantages of different kinds of box, in particular whether altering boxes in certain ways diminishes the appeal. Gary Chapin recently wrote a very well written post on the relationship between boxes and their music. This is my take on the limitations of instruments and how that relates to the melodeon.
I am someone who by habit and training seeks to improve things. I am an innovator. Not a terribly effective one, it may be true, but an innovator. Such a life when applied to say high technology is fine, but when applied to musical instruments can be difficult. Musicians are notoriously conservative about their instruments, for quite understandable reasons. They have spent their lives mastering something and to be told that it can be improved devalues their effort in some ways. Folk musicians are no exception to this and melodeon players doubly so, as we play an instrument which is hugely limited in what it can do. The upshot is that people like me get into many arguments with other (often better) musicians.
You often hear melodeon players defend their instruments by saying that it is the limitations of the system which give the box its charm, even its soul. And they defend their conservatism by saying that by removing these limitations you destroy that which makes the instrument unique and special.
I do not dispute this, I agree entirely. But I think that there is one thing that people tend to forget, namely that melodeons are not alone in this regard. Every instrument, however big or small, is defined by the limitations of playing it. It is these limitations that make instruments distinct and every instrument has them. There is no perfect instrument which is limitation-less, not even the piano. I must admit here to being under the impression that the piano is the greatest instrument ever invented, but even that has huge limitations – specifically there is no control over the note once the key has been depressed. Every other instrument that I can think of off the top of my head has the ability to change the volume and tone of a note once it has started to sound. But the piano doesn’t and it is one of the things that makes it distinctive. It is also something which has contributed hugely to why piano music is written how it is (see Gary’s post).
The melodeon is no different. It has enormous limitations in what you can do with it. It has a limited range of keys (although you can push the boat out), it has a very restrictive amount of bass and these do not always match up with the treble end. It is an utterly discrete instrument, the user has little control over the pitch of the note unless they delve inside with a file and a determined expression.
Does this make it a bad instrument? No. There are trade-offs. The limited range of keys means that it is small, light and compact. It also means that you can do huge amounts of harmony in the right hand, far more than you can do on a semitone box or on a piano accordion. The stretches are much less than on any other type of accordion, meaning that counter-melodies are a lot more possible. The bisonoric nature means that rhythm and bounce comes easily and the limited bass end means that you are forced to do interesting things with normal chords, which is a skill worth pursuing.
The mistake that people make is to assume that by changing this instrument in any way, you are removing all of the limitations. You may be removing some of the limitations of a D/G box, but you are imposing a whole lot more, just different ones. A 60 bass stradella system is limited just the same as an 8 bass melodeon system. You can’t do everything that you can with stradella bass on an 8 bass, but neither can you do everything that you can do on an 8 bass on a stradella. I’ve tried! Working your way around the limitations of any instrument is the only way to play it to its full potential. It so happens that the limitations of a melodeon lead to a very satisfying sound, but this does not mean that a different system will lead to a less satisfying sound.
Let’s take the current fad for enormous, heavy and complicated 3 voice, 3 row (quint plus accidentals), 18 bass melodeons, currently popular on the continent and with some highly respected players this side of the channel. There are some that will say that this system destroys the beauty of the two row melodeon, that the increased reversals destroy the bounce, that the increased bass make the lines less interesting, that the big size reduces the ability of the player to throw it around, that you end up with long smoochy melodic lines that could just as easily have been played on a piano accordion. This may all be true, it depends on your point of view (mine is that they are brilliant at some things and rubbish at others. I tend to want to play the latter). But I would just say that the same was doubtless said when some bright spark thought of adding an extra row to a one row box, and when someone thought of adding a half row, or adding a few more bass buttons.
Instruments do not have to stay the same for centuries and our free-reed instruments haven’t been around that long. So when someone thinks up a clever way to increase the scope of the melodeon, don’t dismiss it out of hand because of its advantages. Work out what the limitations will be and see whether they are worth what you gain.
Sometimes new instruments are better than old ones. Sometimes designs can improve over time. Sometimes, innovation does make a better instrument. Otherwise we would all be still thwacking at logs.
NOTE: Several people have pointed out that 3 row 18 bass instruments are not necessarily enormous and heavy. I wasn’t criticising 3 row 18 bass instruments as being enormous and heavy, I was criticising <enormous and heavy 3 row 18 bass instruments>! Besides, what doesn’t appeal to me will appeal to others and this is the point.