A Guide to Buying: The Great Accordion Myth Uncovered
The purpose of this article is to explain in detail the myth about the most frequently asked question when buying an accordion. “What does the accordion weigh?” This article would be completely pointless if accordions were sold by the pound. In reality, all accordions with the same musical features will be similar in weight give or take only a pound or two (with the exception of new advances in upper-level, lightweight instruments, like the Petosa Leggera accordion line). The types of material accordions are made from are an important function of balance and playability. The only way to substantially reduce scale weight is to compromise musical ability or physical size. But there are more important things to consider than weight alone. So let us begin to understand what really makes an accordion lighter or heavier.
First, the accordion can be made smaller (lighter) or larger (heavier) by changing the number of treble notes (41 being standard). The less treble notes, the smaller an accordion can be made. The other alternative to obtain a smaller size accordion while maintaining the same amount of notes is by reducing the width of each individual treble key. This design is for smaller statured adults or more commonly, children. The most prevalent misconception is that less bass buttons means a smaller and lighter accordion. This misconception is not accurate. There are full-size, 41 note accordions with 72 basses identical in size and weight to a 120 bass. Accordions are available with less than 41 notes and maintain 120 basses, resulting in generally a smaller size. So, let’s understand what you should know in order to make an informed and appropriate decision.
Changes on the bass side are unlike the treble side – the size and weight of an accordion is determined solely by the treble side in addition to material components. There is minimal difference between a 48 bass and 120 bass accordion, other than the number of buttons and the spacing. The standard stradella bass system offers a 12 note musical range usually using either 4 or 5 sets (seldom 6) of reeds with a respective 3 or 4 octave musical range. The bass reeds are called: Bass, Tenor, Alto, Contralto and Soprano (the soprano set adds an approx. 4.5 oz of weight). Whether 4 or 5 sets of reeds and 48 or 120 basses, the bass mechanics are nearly identical with twelve bass fulcrum rods and valves along with twelve chord fulcrum rods and valves running the length of the bass box. The difference is the number of additional buttons, which play a duplicate note. The purpose and advantage of more buttons is to ergonomically improve the player’s ability to access different bass buttons, thus making it easier to articulate.
In essence, the more bass buttons, the more accessible and efficient the fingering. The additional weight per chord button is an amazing .009 oz..09 oz The scale weight difference between a 120 and 60 bass accordion, everything else being equal, is a mere 5.5 oz (.155 kg) !
The right hand (treble) note range and the overall keyboard length measurement from key-end to key-end is the determining factor of accordion sizing. This is why we see keyboard measurements described in specifications as 19 ¼”, 18”, 17”, etc. If you divide the keyboard measurement (i.e. 18”) by 24 (the number of white keys on standard 41 key accordion), you will obtain the width measurement of each white key, less the amount of space between the keys. The spacing between keys will vary depending on the quality of the accordion – the least amount of space the better. The bass side is designed to accompany the musical range of the right hand. This is why, generally, the less keyboard note range the less bass buttons necessary. Standard Right and Left combinations most commonly are, but not always, 41 treble and 120 bass, 37 treble and 96 bass, 34 treble and 72 bass, and 26 treble and 48 or 12 bass. Don’t be afraid of having too many bass buttons, they don’t add weight nor do they make the accordion larger.
The second principal to understand is the accordion is something you wear – no different than a dress, suit or pair of shoes. One thing we all do before buying clothing is we try the items on to make sure they fit right and it feels comfortable. Most of us will try on a few different items to see which one fits the best. And of course a tailor made suit fits the best. Additional labor and skill is taken to ensure a proper fit and accordions require the same attention. Like clothing, accordions fit differently and every accordion will fit an individual differently. A correctly-fitted instrument can help improve your learning and performance capability.
The most critical aspects in choosing the right accordion are; Fit, Balance, and Compression. You will soon learn this is more important than the ‘scale weight’ – more importantly, one should consider the ‘playing weight’.
Fit is the first step. In order to have complete control of your accordion, it must properly fit your stature. The top of the keyboard should begin just below your collarbone, and end slightly resting on the inside of your right thigh (41 key instruments). Second, the accordion must remain stationary. It is important that your accordion be secure and not move while playing. With the correct fit, the accordion is locked in place with your shoulder straps and wedged with 60% of the weight on your lap and 40% on the shoulders when sitting. We know what it feels like to have a large accordion on…it is overwhelming. But too small can be just as difficult to play. If it is too short, then the accordion is not able to rest on your lap; therefore, 100% of the weight is pressed on the shoulders making it feel heavier. This also allows for too much movement and constant re-adjusting of the position of the accordion. If, over a period of playing time, the accordion starts to feel heavier, then all the extra effort takes away from conserving your physical energy in playing.
Try a back strap as well. The most important purpose of the back strap is to hold the shoulder straps together allowing no movement of the accordion. When the straps stay in place, your accordion will stay in place. New back straps are available, like the MurlStrap, that can distribute the weight of the accordion from your shoulder to your back/hips (the same way a hiking pack uses supporting hip straps). Once you find the proper size accordion that ‘fits’, we can move on to understanding the next elements that are also important in obtaining the perfect accordion for you.
Balance is a crucial and intricate part of an accordion. For example; using an object weighing 10-pounds, hold the object in your hand against your chest. You’re holding 10 lbs. Now, fully extend your arm in front of you. Does the weight feel the same or heavier? Even though the scale told us it is 10lbs, it feels much heavier when the weight is distributed differently. Did the scale lie? Of course not. The further weight gets away for the center point, being you, the heavier weight feels. Where the weight is located becomes more important than the weight itself. Having bellows, the accordion is an instrument which is in constant motion. The more the weight is evenly balanced, the more control you have. The more control you have, the less weight you feel.
If you are not able to physically pick the accordion up off the floor, then you need to actually find an accordion that you can pick up. You would need to deal with the musical limitation based on your physical limitation. If you take your playing seriously, then consider that all athletes, amateur and professional work out to help physically support their activity and to avoid injury. The accordion is an instrument that requires physicality and you should consider physical exercise in order to maintain your playing ability and help avoid some long-term injuries. Let’s assume you can pick your accordion up onto your lap without difficulty. Most complaints of weight come from playing after an extended period of time. This proves the point that it’s not the physical weight (you can pick it up, right?) but it’s the playable weight that you should be concerned with.
An accordion’s compression refers to the control of airflow utilized by the bellows (air efficiency). The most common thought is that if your accordion leaks then there is a problem with the bellows. 90% of air leaks come from the keyboard and/or bass valves not properly seated on their fundamental plate. This article concerns new instruments without any initial problems and/or used accordions in need of repair. The main facet of compression is to show how much air is required to make the reeds respond. What is the ‘expression’ range of the accordion? Play a simple musical phrase with a single reed selected. How little bellow movement is required to make each note play equally and in pitch. Play the same phrase softly and then with power ‘forte’ to see how much expression can be obtained. Think of a rating scale between 1 – 10 with 1 being the least amount of air and 10 being the hardest playing of the bellows prior to the reeds choking (stopping the reed from playing due too to much air pressure from the bellows). Do you sense a lot of expression or very little? An accordion with better expression is easier to play because it has more control. Try the same musical phrase on a few accordions using the identical register and consistent volume. Does one take less bellow movement in and out to accomplish the same phrase? Remember, the accordion is a live breathing instrument, an extension of your own heart and lungs. Vocalists learn how to control their airflow in order to be efficient so don’t run out of breath when holding a phrase. Learning proper bellow technique is a must, but the accordion should also assist you. The more air the accordion requires to play or ‘follow your expression’, the more physical energy used. The more physical energy employed, the more you will experience muscle fatigue and then the accordion becomes (feels) heavier. The weight hasn’t changed, but it sure feels like it has. So, it’s not the weight of the accordion – it is the fit, balance, and compression which will play a much more important role in how much an accordion weighs. In your quest you should consider a balanced, energy-efficient accordion that you can manage comfortably, play for hours, feels like an extension of your body and allows you to express your musical ideas freely.