Harmonetta Bass

Some of you, the more astute ones perhaps, may be aware that I am interested in fingering systems for accordions. I have already posted on the Loomes Chromatic and am currently working my way through the Atzarin Accordion (very much a work in progress). And, of course, I already play a D/Em melodeon and a B/C+C# with Hayden free bass.

At the end of the third year of my degree, I was sitting at my spot in the university engineering department library, diligently revising for my exams. In actual fact, I had buzzing round my head an idea based on the Hohner Harmonetta, an amazing instrument which up till that point I had never even heard of.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.de

The Harmonetta is a harmonica, in that it is a breath driven, hand held free reed instrument. However, rather than changing note by moving the instrument relative to your lips, it is keyed. In that sense it is perhaps more similar to an accordina or melodica. Whilst those two instruments are keyed as a Chromatic Button Accordion and a Piano Accordion respectively, Hohner invented an entirely new fingering system for the Harmonetta.


Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.de

The Harmonetta has contoured keys. Each key is hexagonal, snugly tessellating together and dished at the top so that it holds the fingertip securely. However, the keys are also sloped in three directions, such that you can easily press three keys together. The picture on the left of the Harmonetta layout should show what I mean. The shaded areas are sloped. Pressing three keys together will give a major chord (if you press in the dip) or a minor chord (if you press where the points join). This means that with one finger you can play a major or minor chord.

So what? You can do that with a Stradella Bass like on a Piano Accordion. The thing that interested me about this instrument was that starting with a major or minor chord, you can then add any note at will and indeed with ease, as all the notes are within easy reach. This makes minor and major sevenths, flattened sevenths, sixths and ninths very easy, easier than on a stradella. In addition, pressing three buttons in a row will give you either a diminished chord, an augmented triad or a suspended 4th, depending on orientation. All very convenient.

So the Harmonetta system is a very well designed way of having huge harmonic versatility as efficiently as possible. If you are lucky enough to have a Harmonetta then you can even change what octave you play in – a key will allow air through (as far as I recall) four octaves of reeds – which one sounds depends on where on the instrument you blow.

The Harmonetta layout is not exclusive to this instrument. It is now known as the “Harmonic Table” and has been used on a number of MIDI devices. But, to my knowledge, nobody has ever tried to adapt it for the Accordion. This is my attempt. Click on the link to view a larger size image.


Bellows are at the top, the left hand is at the bottom. The keys without the triangles are the bass keys. As you can see, what I’ve done is rotate the standard Harmonetta layout and stretch it.

I’ll start with the bass. I like the Stradella system of bass and counterbass a major third above. So I’ve gone with that, staggered as the rest of the layout. After much thought, I decided to have the tonic diagonally in line with the tonic and dominant on the chord side. Stradella naturally causes you to use your little finger for the counterbass and your second finger for the minor chords, which I don’t find terribly ergomonic. With the bass in this position, majors are in a diagonal to the right, meaning that you would use your index and middle fingers for the bass and counterbass and your other two for the chords and added notes. This I think would be easier. It also makes putting thirds and fifths over the bass a little more convenient. Bass runs are as possible as on Stradella. All the notes of the diatonic scale are easily accessible, with the other notes doable.

As before, pressing any three keys together via the dips gives a major chord, with the points giving a minor chord. Starting with the tonic (i.e. C major) on dips, the dips to the right give the dominant (G) and the dips to the left give the subdominant (F). The points to the right give the mediant (Em) and the points to the left give the sub mediant (Am, the relative minor). So the five most commonly used chords are within a few buttons of each other. The supertonic (Dm) is a little further away but is still reachable. The B diminished is a diagonal line of three buttons next to the tonic.

What about playing in the minor keys? Using the lower two rows, the points directly below the major chord give the minor (Cm). The dips to the right give the mediant (Eb, relative major), and the dips to the left give the sub mediant (Ab). The points to the right give the minor dominant (Gm) and the points to the left give the minor subdominant (Fm). The subtonic (Bb) is on the dips next to the minor dominant and the supertonic (Dm) is on the points next to that.

This makes the Aeolian mode (i.e. the scale of Eb major starting on C) very straightforward. The harmonic minor requires a major dominant (G) and that can be found on the upper two rows very close by. The dorian mode (the scale of Bb major starting on C) requires a major subdominant (F)and that can also be found on the top two rows.  For completeness sake I will note that the mixolydian mode (the scale of F major starting on C) is a major mode but requires a flattened seventh (Bb). This can be found easily on the bottom two rows.So again, without moving the hand there are all of the common chords for the most common modes.

The same could well be said about Stradella. What about complex chords? All of the chromatic notes of any scale bar the diminished fifth (F# for C major) are within three buttons of the tonic, if the tonic is on the middle row. As mentioned earlier, diminished triads (e.g. A-C-Eb) and augmented triads (e.g. Ab-C-E) are on diagonal rows. A horizontal row will give you a suspended fourth (e.g. F-C-G). I will leave more complicated chords to those interested, but most things can be done with two or three fingers.

After prompting from squeezy (see comments below) I should mention that another significant benefit of this system is that you don’t have to play chords. Not only can you do bass runs using just the bass buttons (as you can using Stradella), but you can also use the chord buttons as a free bass system. The Harmonetta buttons have dishes in the middle, which will help with this. Playing tunes would not be particularly easy, by any means, since it is set up for chords, not melody. A purpose designed free bass like a Hayden, Janko or CBA system would be more versatile in that regard. But it does open up another avenue of melodic exploration and simple treble countermelodies would, with a bit of practice, be quite straightforward. It would give another distinctive sound to the repertoire of the instrument.

I have mentioned before that any instrument will have limitations. What does this one have? Well, it would be difficult to do complex bass runs and complicated chords at the same time. I suspect that for most people, the chord used would determine the bass, depending on which finger happens to be free. You would probably continually change the orientation of your hand, depending on what is coming next and this could prove tricky to get to grips with. Indeed I would envisage that all four fingers would regularly be used for counterbass, bass, chords and additional notes.

The other limitation is that in order to make it workable, you would have to use reed sharing in the bass end (I envisage something similar to the mechanism and reed layout used for the Schwyzerorgeli) and that means that all of the chords will be in equal temperament (if that doesn’t mean anything to you then see my earlier post on the subject). This is unfortunate, but necessary. I wouldn’t see this system being of particular value to a standard two row quint box, instead it would be a box designed to be chromatic, like the B/C/C#, Loomes Chromatic or the Atzarin Accordion. Systems like those, designed to be played in any key, are inevitably going to have to be in equal temperament, so it is sadly an unavoidable problem.

I’ve been sitting on this system for a long time and for quite a while was intending to make one. I made a 3D CAD model of a key, I worked out what diameter would be suitable, I designed a way of adapting a Stradella mechanism and everything. But recently my thoughts have strayed away from the Harmonetta, for the temperament reason mentioned above.

I am in the process of procuring a Loomes Chromatic instrument with Stradella bass. I am however in my copius spare time, working out a bass layout based on the Hayden free bass system I have in my B/C+C# Liliput but adding thirdless unisonoric chords. I haven’t got it quite right yet, but when I do then you will hear from me again.

I do think though that this bass layout does have potential. Anyone reading this is more than welcome to have a go at building it, please do get in touch.

I always try to end a long post with a video, so here is one. This is one of the few groups to feature a Harmonetta in their lineup. Sväng are a Finnish harmonica quartet, consisting of diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, bass harmonica and a Harmonetta. Enjoy!


5 thoughts on “Harmonetta Bass

  1. I’ve never looked at the harmonetta or this kind of layout before – but it does seem to be the ideal kind of left hand system that will incorporate the ideas of both free bass type playing together with a logical layout of single finger major and minor chords. Turning the keyboard round 60º is the icing on the cake making the rows go in the usual 5ths and 4ths associated with accordion systems.

    I am all too well aware that systems on paper never show up all the pitfalls and bonuses and that a working prototype really needs to exist to play before you can get to the bottom of whether it is a good idea in practice or not. This is even more in evidence for a tactile system of angled hexagons!

    From my personal background of playing systems that are bisonoric on the right hand I find that the natural left-hand position for playing makes a big difference in the ability to control the bellows. The standard system of diatonic basses on melodeons give a very flat hand shape against the left hand side of the instrument and for me that large amount of contact area gives the best bellows control. Moving as I am to stradella – I find my hand position has a wrist that rolls anticlockwise to cope with the diagonal nature of the stradella system (counterbass, bass, major minor) and that the reduction in contact area makes the bellows more unwieldy. My one massive concern about experimenting with this otherwise perfect looking system you’ve come up with is that the diagonal is now going the other way. It could be overcome by reprogramming the fingers to play bass on index finger and chord on middle finger (or bass on middle and chord on ring) – but that goes so against every system I have played that it would take a lot of re-programming of the brain.

    Anyway – that probably just comes across as a jumbled head full of thoughts … and that’s sort of what it is. But a potential system like this with individual notes available to play in an octave higher than bass register frees up so many current restrictions without taking away the ready made major and minor chords. And that is very exciting!

    • Hi John, nice to hear from you again!

      You post reminded me that I didn’t make the crucial point in my post that of course you don’t have to press more than one key at once, you can just play single droned notes or simple countermelodies, both on the bass and on the chord buttons. This is a significant advantage over any other designed-for-chords system. It would give a smattering of free bass free of charge. And, of course, with an intelligently designed reed configuration then you could play in any octave (and your chords could be mighty, six voice chords and four voice bass). Depends on the size of box obviously, but the Schweizerorgeli is a bit of an inspiration there.

      Which leads me on to your next point. The elephant in the room as far as this system is concerned is ergonomics. The problem is that these buttons need to be quite a bit larger than their stradella cousins – I estimated 15mm flat to flat when making my model. The CAD model that I did make of the key is available on Shapeways (here: http://shpws.me/onTY), you are free to download the CAD model or indeed print a few keys out (they cost around $3+ each). I haven’t done that yet, so I don’t know whether that model works at all. I was put off by the cost of 3D printing them. If you have a 3D CAD software (I don’t any more, my free license ran out once I graduated) then you can edit them and play around with them. 3D print is probably the most cost effective way of prototyping this system, but would still work out to be very expensive. You could, of course, just buy a Harmonetta, but they don’t come cheap…

      I thought a lot about what angle to have the board of keys. Both the melodeon and the stradella systems use bass keyboards at around 80 degrees from vertical. The Schweizerorgeli uses a keyboard of around 30 degrees. There are advantages and disadvantages to each system, essentially having the buttons at right angles to the direction of travel of the bellows decouples those two movements, so you can treat them entirely separately. But in the case of the Harmonetta, I think that it should be somewhere in between, perhaps around 60 degrees from the vertical.

      My original draft had the bass buttons more like stradella. i.e. shifted to the left one place from my diagram above. That shifts the hand position to one which would be more intuitive to most box players. My worry is that this leaves the shortest finger with the longest reach, with larger buttons than stradella. So I changed it. As it happens, this gives quite an interesting balance of hand positions that I suspect would be quite comfortable, but as you say, no way of knowing until someone mocks up the system. Moving the bass buttons two places to the left would make the hand position always similar to stradella, moving them two places to the right would make it always the mirror of stradella. With the layout above I think that your concern about wrist rotation would be minimised. But that is merely a hypothesis. Hope that makes sense to you, I’m not sure that it makes sense reading it back!

  2. Now that would be fun to try out. Though for what it’s worth, I’d be strongly tempted to add a minor counterbass row, like in the French Stradella system (i.e. in the C row, the counterbass is E and the minor counterbass is G sharp), for maximum versatility in playing harmonic minorish things on the bass notes. Hey, one can dream :-)

    • It won’t surprise you to know that I have thought of that! Three rows of counters would be beautiful and would match the three rows of chord buttons. It’s just a matter of space – as I said above to squeezy, I’m cautious about the ergonomics of this layout, given that the keys are likely to be larger than the equivalent Stradella.

  3. Pingback: Inside and Out Part 7 – The Atzarin Accordion | Music and Melodeons

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