A Question of Classification

The text of today’s sermon is on classification. One of the most common questions that I am asked as a melodeon player is “What is a Melodeon?” and its supplementary relative “What’s the difference between that and an Accordion?”. Today I will be trying to answer both those questions. The classification of instruments is loose even compared to that of species, so nothing here is “right”, even as none of it is “wrong”. What I am outlining is a system which makes sense with the instruments that we have and is broadly similar to what most other free reed musicians understand. One note before we start – all of the below classifications are based on the treble end only. There are a number of boxes with different systems for bass and treble end. Since the treble end is generally the tune side, as opposed to the chord side, it is this side which will be classified. Bass systems are for another day…

Except where otherwise stated, the images used are from Wikipedia. The licensing details are available if you click on them. I am grateful to the people who have uploaded them and have allowed them to be used.

The family of bellows driven free reed aerophones (collectively ‘Squeezeboxes’) is characterised by the use of hand powered bellows to provide the pressure differential necessary to power the reeds, where the direction of travel of the bellows is across the chest of the player. This family is distinct from those instruments requiring breath (harmonicas, shengs, accordinas, melodicas and so on) and from harmoniums and reed organs, which require pedals, a compressor or else have bellows operating into the body. Somebody is going to think of an exception to that, I just know it.

This family may be split into two sections, ‘Accordions’ and ‘Concertinas’. The former have buttons which operate in a plane perpendicular to that of the bellows, the latter have buttons which operate in a plane parallel to that of the bellows. This post won’t be concerned with Concertinas, but will focus on the Accordion family.

The Accordion family may be split into two further sections, the ‘Diatonic’ Accordions and the ‘Chromatic’ Accordions. Diatonic Accordions have a fingering system which is primarily based around one or more scales with seven notes per octave. I could say Heptatonic rather than Diatonic because this scale is not necessarily based on the seven modes of the major scale. It appears however that musicologists can’t make up their minds on the terminology either, so I’m using the more familiar term. Chromatic Accordions, by contrast, have a fingering system which is primarily based around one or more scales with all 12 notes in the octave.

However, the Accordion family can also be split into two further sections based on different criteria, namely ‘Bisonoric’ or ‘Unisonoric’. Bisonoric means that a button or key will give a different pitch on different directions of the bellows, whereas Unisonoric means that the pitch will remain the same.

Lastly, the Accordion family may be split into ‘Keyed Accordions’ and ‘Button Accordions’. As you might think, Keyed Accordions have piano-like keys, Button Accordions have buttons.

So where does this leave us? An Accordion has buttons perpendicular to the bellows travel and is Diatonic or Chromatic, Bisonoric or Unisonoric and has Keys or Buttons.

Using this classification, what I play is a Diatonic, Bisonoric, Button Accordion. It is Diatonic because each row is based on a seven note scale, usually a diatonic major. In England, all instruments of this type are generally referred to as ‘Melodeons’, no matter how many rows it may have or what scales it is based on. In other parts of the world, the word melodeon refers to a one row instrument or is unknown (or refers to a reed organ for some reason). Melodeons have a classification of their own, which is perhaps a topic for another blog post! Don’t want to overwhelm my hypothetical readers with information.

As an aside, I personally don’t think that Melodeon is a particularly good term for this group, as it is a very anglocentric one that will be unfamiliar to many and will mean different things to others. I prefer the french term ‘diato’ to refer to any of these instruments. I will go into this in the next post on classification (you’ll all be looking forward to that, eh?).

Aside from my instrument though, we have a huge amount of different combinations of these three categories. I’m going to go through each in turn and give examples of as many as I can.

Diatonic, Bisonoric, Keyed Accordions – There are a few of these around. The Klingenthal company “Ludwig” produced some and the concept has been utilised by various companies. I don’t think that it has ever been taken really seriously. For more information, see this very informative photo-essay on melodeon.net by Stephen Chambers.  Theo at The Box Place is selling a similar instrument, which is pictured on the left. Thanks to Theo for letting me use this image.

Diatonic, Bisonoric, Button Accordions – Many examples, including the English Melodeon. Rarer examples include the flutina, which looks rather like a one-row but has all of the reeds reversed, i.e. tonic pull rather than tonic push. This is an antecedent to the instrument that I play. I’ve tried to play one, it made my brain hurt.

Diatonic, Unisonoric, Keyed Accordions – I believe that some Russian ‘Garmoshka’ are diatonic and keyed, but unisonoric. Here is an example of the sort of thing that I meanRussia has a fantastic culture of accordion playing, which is a blog post in itself. 

Diatonic, Unisonoric, Button Accordions – Most of the Russian Garmoshka that I have come across are diatonic and unisonoric, although as above, not all! Garmoshka of this type also have an interesting and unique bass system, which is explained in this YouTube video. I will admit that I know very little about these instruments. If someone knowledgeable can shed light then please feel free.

Chromatic, Bisonoric, Keyed Accordions – I don’t know any of this type and don’t think that any are extant. You could adapt one of the systems below to be keyed, but why I have no idea.

Chromatic, Bisonoric, Button Accordions – Several possible systems do exist, but to my knowledge, none have been put into mass production. Please let me know if I’m wrong! The ‘Loomes Chromatic‘, invented by Jon Loomes, is technically a Hexatonic instrument, as it is based on two whole-tone scales. The ‘Atzarin System‘ however is a true Chromatic Accordion, even if it is rather strange. I am really keen to try both of these systems, but so far they haven’t been produced. In appearance they would look very similar to existing instruments. I don’t know of any other systems, although there are probably some in Russia.

Chromatic, Unisonoric, Keyed Accordions – The only example of this that I can think of is the Piano Accordion, with which most people are more than familiar. This is the instrument that most people think of when they hear the word “Accordion”, which is why most melodeon players (myself included), prefer their instrument to be referred to as a melodeon rather than an accordion. This is a fantastic instrument when played well…

Chromatic, Unisonoric, Button Accordions – This is the last of our combinations. The most common of these is the Chromatic Button Accordion, which comes in lots of different flavours, depending on where you are from. If successive diagonals of buttons are pressed then a chromatic scale will sound (B system and C system differ on the orientation of these diagonals). This instrument is common all over mainland Europe. It is not the only instrument of this type however. Another example is one such as is pictured on the left. This is a ‘Venezia Chromatic’, owned by Christopher from Gumshoe Arcana. Thanks to Christopher for letting me use this image. This is effectively a piano accordion, but using buttons rather than keys. I thought that this was a good image to finish on, as it adequately illustrates the huge variation in accordion design.

Well, that was a whistle stop tour of the various weird accordions out there. So in answer to the question “What is a Melodeon?”, I can now say that it is a “Diatonic, Bisonoric, Button Accordion” and hopefully you will now know what that means. Hopefully I will also have answered the question “What’s the difference between that and an Accordion?”. I will I hope also have intrigued readers by introducing them to the complexities of the Russian accordion scene. Sadly I know nothing else about this, so you’ll have to find another blog for more on that! Stay tuned for a later post on the difference between the different kinds of melodeon/diato, which believe it or not is even more complicated.


14 thoughts on “A Question of Classification

  1. Great post, Owen. I have seen a number of ‘early’ accordions (pre-1940) that have keys instead of buttons. The factory of Francois Dedenis produced a number of these. The ‘Venezia Chrmoatic’ that I have has Koch reeds inside and it is identical to the box Hohner sold under its own badge as the Echo… later they used this name for other instruments, including a double-sided tremolo harmonica. The Echo PA/button-box hybrid came with as few as 8 basses but you usually see them with 12. It’s definitely a weirdo. If I’m ever forced to sell it in a fit of poverty, I’ll be shouting your way!

    • Thanks for that Christopher and thanks again for letting me use your instrument. And if you sell I may well buy, although if I take home any more instruments (plus one to the collection last week, unexpectedly) my other half might just slay me alive…

  2. I did a post like this some time ago, but much less systematic. That must be the engineer in you. (As opposed to the social scientist in me, who wants to make a story out of everything.) I think the thing we miss is that taxonomy is a science (or art) of evaluation. What are the relevant characteristics according which the taxonomy is being organized? In this case, I think the geographic location of the taxonometrician (wow, not a real word, but I’m loving it) is relevant. The question: what is a melodeon? Has a different answer in England, Ireland, and the US.


    Well done.

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  4. “”Chromatic, Bisonoric, Button Accordions – Several possible systems do exist, but to my knowledge, none have been put into mass production “”

    Isn`t this the classification for B/C, C/C#, C#/D & BCC# type boxes Owen ? .. to further complicate matters of course, some have unisonoric stradella bass from 12 to 120

    • Hi Adam! In this article I defined “Chromatic” as being based upon the Chromatic scale. All semitone boxes are based on two diatonic scales a semitone apart. So they are diatonic boxes, not chromatic boxes, with my definition. The PA is a question mark whether it is chromatic or diatonic, but I put it in the former camp. The CBA is unquestionably chromatic.

      • Yeah, I get it . basically a B/C is a two diatonic rows. I`d say PAs are Chromatic as the black and white notes are all part of the same 1 row,
        especially if you play close to the grille ;-)

      • This was my reasoning! Although the Piano Keyboard did develop from a diatonic one I think. The real question mark is over the Loomes Chromatic or the Janko, or the Hayden. Those are chromatic, in that they can play in any key, but are hexatonic, in that they are based on the whole tone scale. Perhaps a third category? Depends on how rigorous the classification should be. If I’m classifying instruments, I would put them as chromatic. If I was classifying fingering systems I would give them their own category.

      • Agreed but as you say, they`re oddballs, the Janko did appear on more than one prototype though and although not a commercial success, more than a one off .

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  8. So you’re saying a C/C# , such as the mass-produced (bisonoric) Hohner Pokerwork, is not a chromatic button accordion? I think you’d find plenty of musicians might beg to differ on that one…

    • That is exactly what I’m saying! But I doubt that many would disagree with me. The Chromatic Button Accordion is a particular sort of accordion, this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromatic_button_accordion

      I would argue that the C/C# melodeon (which I play by the by) is laid out diatonically, not chromatically. It is in two diatonic rows, which happen to be a semitone apart. This facilitates chromatic playing, but does not make it a chromatic accordion according to my classification system. The point is that the layout of the CBA is such that looking at any one row individually is meaningless – you have to look at the whole, which is clearly laid out as a 12 note chromatic scale. The semitone boxes are not like that and so you can’t label them the same.

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