The Language of the Button Box

This was originally published in February 2011, in a slightly different form. Reading the front pages of today’s “fake news” rags, I can still see that our world’s understanding of accordion lingo could fairly be described as a dearth. I hope this piece serves as a still-potent paliative


(for the inimitable, and inexplicably quiet, Tom B.)

A friend made a comment a few weeks ago indicating that those who are not Of the Bellows may have difficulty grasping the lingo of the box. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “thus is the fate of squeeze-muggles.” Then I read a sentence in another friend’s accordion blog, and it shocked me into sympathy. Describing a sort of uber-box, Andy, at Melodeon Minutes wrote, “It was a Gaillard, 4-voice — yes, 4-voice — in D/G, tuned LM-MM+, with two switches behind the keyboard.”

“Good Lord,” I thought, envious, “That’s quite a thing!” Then I imagined the uninitiated perusing that line (maybe the boys at Homeland Security) wondering, “What kind of thing?”

Then, in my own paean to the Hohner Corso, I found that I’d described the red, pearloid wonder as, “A wet tuned French-sounding box.” Holy Cow! Is that even legal in New England?

So, what does it mean? With apologies to Andy, I’ve decided to use his exemplar sentence to explain some of the naming conventions of accordions.

  • Gaillard: That’s the name of the maker, Bertrand Gaillard, of France.  Highly esteemed. Other makers are CastagnariSalterelle, and Loffet, to name just a few.
  • 4-voice: Button accordions — aka, melodeons — generally have more than one reed for each note. Each reed is a “voice.” Two or three voices are normal.  Four is extraordinary in a multi-row box because of the weight.  Each voice requires an entirely separate bank of reeds.
  • In D/G: Button accordions are diatonic, meaning they are designed to play in specific keys, rather than all keys (like a piano). In this case, the outside row plays in the key of D, while the inside row (the one nearest the bellows) plays in the key of G. Different types of music have differently keyed accordions that are most common. English music tends to favor the D/G melodeon. French music the G/C. In Irish music, B/C and C#/D accordions are all the rage. There are fantastic exceptions to all of these generalizations.
  • Tuned LM-MM+: This means Low Medium-minus Medium Medium-plus. Is that clear? Back to the four voices. Each reed for a particular note is not tuned to the exact same pitch. Say that the note being tuned is A. The main reed will be tuned dead on pitch. This is the Medium reed. The Low reed will be tuned a full octave below, filling out the sound. The Medium-minus and Medium-plus will be tuned slightly above and slightly below the Medium reed, creating a sort of tension that is generally pleasing to the ear — similar in function to vibrato for other musicians.
  • Two switches behind the keyboard: These allow you to turn on and off entire banks of reeds. So you can play all four reeds, or just the M reeds, or just the low reed. That it’s a switch behind the keyboard makes it simple to, for example, throw open the flood gates and engage all the reeds the last time going through a tune, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Not that you’d actually do that, though. It would be vulgar.*
  • A wet tuned French-sounding box: So, back to the LM-MM+ thing.  When tuning the reeds, the further apart the tuning, the “wetter” they are said to be. Some types of music call for a “dry” tuning, with the reeds tuned relatively close together — Irish music, for example. Other types of music call for “wetter” tuning, French and other continental musics, for example. A demonstration (on a piano accordion) of dry to wet tuning is demonstrated in under two minutes in the below video.

So there you go. Suddenly it all makes sense, hey? Additional resources for this can be found at Melodeon.net, and Steve Dumpleton’s excellent Voices and Tunings FAQ.


Further questions, comments, or corrections are welcome.


*This is sarcasm.  I love vulgar.

Neil Postman and Accordion Technopoly

Neil Postman:  Not an Accordionist

Over on the Music and Melodeons blog, Owen is crafting a series of posts on the perennial query, “What is Folk Music?” At Melodeon Minutes, home of friend Andy from Vermont, the new Castagnari on-line catalogue is being gone over with the loving eye of a critical friend. Meanwhile, another friend’s blog, God and the Machine, has a piece on the late Neil Postman, not an accordion player, but a hero of mine.

Postman, in his books Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, argued that technologies have ideologies.  In other words, a new technology encourages some possibilities (values) and discourages others (devalues).  The automobile, for example, values mobility and individualism, while devaluing stasis and communitarianism — to paint with criminally bold strokes.

It struck me that this applies to accordions, as well.

Discussing the Castagnari family of boxes over on melodeon.net, one member recommended the evolving 18-bass system, in general, as “amazingly liberating,” and pointed to its prevalence in the current wave of tradFrench players who rarely “play it straight.” And he’s right, of course. A three-row, 18-bass instrument can play in any key, and can produce the extended harmonies required for “jazzing up” the old tunes. It allows for an enormous amount of freedom.

Bruno LeTron, 3-rows, 18-basses,
and the Truth

Postman would say that the existence of such technology does more than allow for the possibility of, say, extended harmonies on the accordion. Rather, the existence of the technology is an ideological argument for such extended play.  We know this, he would say, because of the value judgements we make. Diatonic accordion playing that moves through a variety of keys or introduces chromaticism is seen as more virtuosic. It tends to be more valued. Players who can perform in such a way — players of the Mustradem collective, for example — are the stars of the genre and shape what defines “good” tradFrench playing.

(Before getting to the next paragraph, I want to make it absolutely clear that I love the music of Bruno LeTron, Didier Laloy, Norbert Pignol, Stéphane Milleret, et al. I am merely making an observation about how available technology impacts values. I understand that I am over-egging the esoteric pudding. It’s a good time for me. Are we clear?)

The Handry 18: Maybe this is
the last accordion I will
ever buy?

When I bought my Castagnari Nik (the last accordion I’ll ever buy?) I made the conscious decision to eschew the expansive ideology, opting instead for the two-row, eight bass ideology that does play the old tunes relatively straight. Perhaps it’s a recognition of my own limitations, but an over-abundance of choice is, to me, the definition of chaos. Is this luddite-ism? Is it cranky-old-fart-ism? Is it a deep, abiding, jealousy? Or is it just me making a choice about what boundaries I’ll choose for my music-making life. Ideologies are boundaries, after all. There’s still so much to learn from Jean Blanchard! The technology I’ve chosen has an ideology that allows me to focus on some things while setting aside others. It ties me in to a tradition and repertoire I love, and in its particulars greatly improves my quality of life. Color me content — at least until I can get my hands on a three-row, 18 bass ideologue.