Accordion Guide for Composers


Piano Accordion details for composers:

This guide is primarily for composers addressing the Piano Accordion, which is primarily been relegated to various forms of folk music (certain Irish folk, Klezmer, Balkan and Italian music especially). Of the many kinds of accordion, it is probably the most common in North America, and therefore a composer working with musicians on this continent are most likely to encounter the challenge of integrating the piano accordion, with stradella bass system, into an ensemble or into their compositional framework. This is primarily a list of technical limitations for the instrument as a whole, and for treating the right and left hands independently. A few things will be applicable to other kinds of instruments, but I am very minimally familiar with the diatonic accordion, concertina, bandoneon, chromatic button accordion, or any of the MANY variants of free-reed instruments with bellows, so I can't guarantee that all of this will translate.

Please note! This guide is a work in progress, and will be expanding as I get questions. It is also NOT meant to be a complete resource about the accordion, as there are others who have done better and more thorough jobs of detail the instrument. (for example, accordionist Hans Palm has some great resources, diagrams and explanations of some of the instrument’s idiosyncrasies here ( I am here to provide a somewhat less technical perspective, but one that I think will be valuable, addressing questions that have come up over the last few years of working with composers (and composing for the accordion myself). Some of these are questions I wish composers had asked me before assuming, others are theoretical or actual questions I’ve been fielded from colleagues and composers who have tried to develop a truly playable piece.

Technical concerns, General:

(REVISED)Primary rule:
Don’t treat the accordion like a piano. In terms of timbre, the accordion is much closer to an organ – notes decay immediately after you stop pressing them, there’s no real sustain (just some tiny natural reverb that isn’t really perceptible more than a few feet away from the instrument), and on a piano accordion with Stradella bass, the left hand is usually limited in the range of a major 7th (usually from C to B or F to E, although on one accordion I played it was A to G#). With a kind of Shepard illusion, a 'master' left-hand setting can have the illusion of spanning multiple octaves, but this loses the richer quality some accordions have with settings that utilize only one bank of reeds at a time. As an improviser and composer this is a quality of the instrument I especially like to explore, as much as the larger organ-like sound.

The possibilities of left hand melodies are somewhat limited due to the design of the Stradella system. It is theoretically possible to perform major, natural and harmonic minor, and small chromatic runs utilizing the bass buttons, but please check with the comfort your accordionist has with bass melodies. Since the first draft of the guide, I've learned more of these scale patterns, both on their own as technical exercises, and incorporating them into song arrangements and compositions. This has made it possible for me to play some intermediate level piano scores more or less right off of the page - but just because it is possible, doesn't mean it's the best use of the instrument.

Similarly, without having the keyboard in front of you, many large, precise intervallic leaps that would be easy on the piano are somewhat more difficult with the accordion's right hand. Full-sized piano accordion keys are similar in width to piano keys, so my comfortable span for a chord is around a 10th. Generally, larger leaps are OK if there's a little more time, but 16th note passages with a bunch of up and down leaps of over a 10th are difficult to do precisely. (This sort of thing is seen in a lot of European classical accordion literature, where chromatic button accordions place a range of two octaves well within most hand spans.)

With the exception of a few tricks possible on accordions with many combinations of stops, it is difficult to control the volume of each side of the accordion independently. These tricks may include using a “thinner” voicing on one side than the other – i.e. utilizing a single-reed setting on the left hand and a coupled setting on the right hand or vice versa, although not every accordion has the capability to do this.

Generally speaking, the left side of the accordion on the Master setting is going to be quite louder than the keyboard side on the master setting if both are played simultaneously.

Harmonic movement –
Due to the layout of the Stradella bass system, the piano accordion primarily favors diatonic rather than chromatic harmonic movement. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t write chromatic, bitonal or atonal musics for the instrument, rather that the more advanced harmonically the music becomes, the more the player’s attention will be devoted to the successful execution of it (and thusly less will be devoted to trying to make it sound nice). This is primarily a concern if you’re trying to write music that takes full advantage of the accordion – if one is solely playing a melody on the piano side, it becomes much easier to take huge leaps and sophisticated rhythms into account without too much forethought.

The accordion is frequently associated with the “oom-pah” sound, that is, a sort of 1-5 alternating bass note (“oom”) with a chord on the off-beat for punctuation (“pah”). The layout of the Stradella system makes it very easy to do a sort of (1-4-5) movement without too much difficulty. Adding in more complex substitutions, as in a jazz-styled harmonization of a 12-bar blues, becomes progressively more difficult although still quite doable. Accordion players are pretty much forced to think in terms of substitutions in order to get certain advanced voicings, like a CM9 being realized by depressing the C and G Major buttons in coordination with the C Bass note, and this can make a difference in how to properly notate such movement.

Keep in mind that the left hand can become considerably more agile when not having to also contend with chords. The sounding pitch of a standard accordion bass setting sounds within the span of a single octave (with kind of a shepard-tone illusion when multiple sets of reeds are layered together). This means that melodic material that depends on intervallic relationships beyond that of a major 7th will lose some of their impact. Various accordions differ on the details, but usually the highest note on the bass side is a B natural, and the lowest note is a C (although for many settings the lowest note is an F and the highest an E).

Writing for the accordion - clefs, symbols, keys.

The accordion is frequently notated as a single line with lead sheet-styled chords along the top of the staff. More intricate pieces can utilize two staffs, and there are some specifics of each staff to note:
For treble clef, I frequently see the written range as the F below middle C to as high as the player is comfortable reading. Extreme registers are usually indicated by stop suggestions, so make sure you’re clear to the player, either in writing or verbally, about what the sounding pitch is. (In this way, the accordion is kind of like a transposing instrument.)

Accordion notation for the bass-clef is as follows: Any note meant to indicate a single note is placed below the middle line of the staff, and any note meant to indicate a chord is placed above that line, with a M/m/7/dim/etc used to indicate the type of chord. If you are building a chord for the left hand utilizing a combination of bass notes and chords, it is ideal to spell the chord rather than just name it – for example, a C Major 9th chord is built with a C bass, C Major triad and G Major triad, and to indicate it ideally in an accordion score would be to place a C note below the middle line, and a C and a G above it. This particular system is considered the standard, although in many cases it is more effective to do a piano-like score in order to maximize voicing suggestions.

I can’t stress enough the importants of indicating which register stop the player should be in. Many large accordions have multiple register options on either side of the instrument, and these markings can be placed corresponding to staff. Not every accordion has every stop availability, so check with the player before you indicate something that the instrument cannot do.

As far as available keys – for the keyboard side, follow the rules of a piano, wherein accidentals usually correspond to difficulty. For the bass side, the key really doesn’t matter to the accordionist so much as the key changes do. Certain chromatic key shifts (like C7 to B7 or C#7) require large leaps on the bass side, given that the bass buttons are laid out in a circle of fifths. I’ve also found that, due to gravity, quicker passages moving up on the keyboard are easier to negotiate than ones moving down it.

The accordion’s timbre is ranked according to stops, similar to organ pipe classification. In many accordions there are four distinct sets of reed banks – one 16” Bassoon stop, two 8” (usually Oboe and/or Clarinet, and Violin when combined) stops and one 4” Piccolo stop. The bassoon stop a low and rich tone that is sometimes a bit slower speaking at its lowest notes – it has a great sound for solo or more minimal passages, but that character can very easily be drowned out, even by the accordion's left hand. The 8" stops are usually somewhat lighter, and in accordions with two such sets of stops you can isolate one or select both for a punchy sound that both cuts through an ensemble and blends nicely. Note that in some accordions, one of the 8” banks can be tuned slightly sharp or flat for a “musette” effect that gives a wide vibrato and has a very distinctive sound associated with tango and French music. Accordions with this tuning have a very distinct and rich sound, but the setting is somewhat lacking in subtlety, especially with full harmonies – it is difficult to play quietly and often an accordion's pianissimo is still louder than the same dynamic of another instrument. Doubling a melodic line, however, it is a wonderful character, blending nicely with strings and winds in unison or harmony. In an experimental or improvisatory capacity, the "vibrato" caused by two voices a few cents off beating is quite interesting from a drone perspective, especially when the slight pitch variations that are possible with bellows pressure are taken into account.

The piccolo stop is has a great lightness to it, although for technical reasons piccolo reeds are the first to get jammed up or otherwise affected by dust. They are also somewhat slower speaking but have a tremendous sound, almost electronic in nature. Harmonies utilizing this register will have TREMENDOUS overtones, and several composers I've worked with have exploited the sine wave-like sound of this stop.

Many higher-level accordions feature a cassotto or Tone Chamber effect, in which one or two sets of reeds are installed differently to create a mellower sound. The effect on these banks (usually low and one of the middle) is that the sound travels further to leave the accordion, mellowing and deepening the sound. I will provide examples of both in the next update.

- Simultanous possibility for articulation and sustained notes.
Frequently the accordion is broken down for understanding as a combination of a melody instrument, a chordal instrument, and a bass instrument, and many folk traditions take advantage of the instrument as such. As the accordion is powered by wind, any number of keys and buttons can be sustained as long as the bellows are in motion, although the instrument uses more air the more keys/buttons are depressed. It is possible utilizing certain techniques to use the bellows to articulate or accent a note, although this is only useful in certain situations as it doesn’t allow the instrument to do anything else.

Extremely large chords will require frequent re-articulation to be sustained over the course of a long period of time.

It is possible to sustain certain notes and articulate others, although this all depends on the size and flexibility of the player’s hand. In this circumstance it is advisable, in order to avoid player fatigue, to place the sustained note(s) either on one end of the hand or the other (i.e. thumb and forefinger or pinky and ring finger), and employ reasonably linear counter-melodies (within the range of an octave or less) when utilizing this technique. Keep in mind that the sustained notes will almost always be louder than the shorter ones, and that this will come into play especially at loud dynamic levels.
Some accordions contain a bass reed setting that has a similar range to a violin stop on the keyboard– writing that doubles these can contain some very nice textural possibilities and acoustic trickery, although before planning to take advantage of this, ascertain the available reed stops on the instrument.

The bass side of a stradella bass accordion is organized into columns of (X) and rows of 6, where X is affected by the overall number of buttons (72/96/120). (Some accordions have only four rows, with two bass notes and major and minor chords - the missing buttons are key to some of the advanced harmonies capable utilizing the bass side, and therefore it is very difficult to adapt to intricate compositions).
() C Diminished 7th (missing b5)
() C Dominant 7th (in combination with C bass)
(Bellows) () C Minor Triad (Strap)
() C Major Triad
() Root Note/C
Major 3rd above/ E

Ex. The row in C

This doesn’t mean one is ONLY limited to these chord possibilities. But when spelling a chord for the accordion, try to imagine it in the context of (bass note + triad) or (triad+triad) to see how feasible it will be. My achilles heel as a player is a basic Aug5 triad, such a great tool in voice leading and such a common harmonic device to jazz, swing and tango. I have yet to discover a way to voice this chord utilizing the left hand side. I mentioned above that Hans Palm has a great list of resources on his page, one of which includes a chord combining chart for the stradella bass system. ( Basically, if you don’t see a particular chord on that list, don’t count on a player being able to articulate it in the left hand. That being said, it is always possible to fill out missing voices using the keyboard at any given moment - but keep in mind that this reduces the player’s mobility on the keyboard.

please email any specific questions you’d like addressed to and I would be glad to try and address them in the next update.