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Wheatstone English Concertina.jpg
Wheatstone English concertina, circa 1920
Other instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 412.132
( Free-reed aerophone)
Inventor(s) Sir Charles Wheatstone, Carl Friedrich Uhlig
Developed 1829, 1834
Related instruments
Accordion, harmonica, melodeon

A concertina is a free-reed musical instrument, like the various accordions and the harmonica. It has a bellows, and buttons typically on both ends of it. When pressed, the buttons travel in the same direction as the bellows, unlike accordion buttons, which travel perpendicularly to the bellows. Also, each button produces one note, while accordions typically produce chords with a single button.

The concertina was developed in England and Germany, most likely independently. The English version was invented in 1829 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, who filed a patent for an improved version in 1844. Carl Friedrich Uhlig announced the German version in 1834.

Types (Systems)

The word concertina refers to a family of hand-held bellows-driven free reed instruments constructed according to various systems. Strictly speaking: Concertinas are six sided, Aeolas are eight sided and Edeophones are twelve sided. The systems differ in the:

  • Notes and ranges available
  • Positioning of the keys (buttons)
  • Sonoricity of the notes:
    • Bisonoric instruments produce different notes on the push and the draw
    • Unisonoric instruments produce the same note on push and draw
  • Ability to produce sound in both bellows directions
    • Single action—sound only in one bellows direction (usually found only on English System bass instruments and some baritone Instruments)
    • Double action—sound in both bellows directions
  • Size and shape of the instrument and the technique required to hold the instrument
  • Types of reeds—steel, brass, or nickel silver tongued, brass or aluminium framed traditional reeds, or accordion plate reed instruments
  • Mechanical action that opens and closes the valves to the reed chambers

Because the concertina was developed nearly contemporaneously in England and Germany, systems can be broadly divided into English, German, and Anglo-German types. To a player proficient in one of these systems, a concertina constructed according to a different system may be quite unfamiliar.

The most common concertina systems are listed below. The list is not exhaustive, as the concertina is not only a venerable and widespread instrument, but also an evolving instrument. Modern experiments in concertina construction include chromatic scales that offer more than 12 steps per octave, and instruments that allow the player to sharp or flat the pitch of individual notes.

English type

English style concertinas traditionally share several features:

  • Unisonoric (push and draw on each button yield the same note)
  • Fully chromatic
  • Reeds individually mounted on a frame, laid flat on a chambered reedpan with a pair of reeds in each chamber
  • Each button has a pivot
  • Hexagon shaped ends (though octagons and other shapes were produced as well))

English concertina

English Concertina disassembled, showing bellows, reedpan and buttons.

The English concertina is a fully chromatic instrument, having buttons in a rectangular arrangement of four staggered rows, with the short side of the rectangle addressing the wrist. The invention of the instrument is credited to Sir Charles Wheatstone; his earliest patent of a like instrument was granted 19 December 1829, No 5803 in Great Britain. The two innermost rows of the layout constitute a diatonic C major scale, distributed alternately between the two sides of the instrument. Thus in a given range, C-E-G-B-d is on one side, D-F-A-c-e on the other. The two outer rows consist of the sharps and flats required to complete the chromatic scale. This distribution of scale notes between sides facilitates rapid melodic play. (Rimsky-Korsakov's " Flight of the Bumblebee" was transcribed for English concertina early in the instrument's history.). But it also renders chords more difficult to learn than scales.

Giulio Regondi was a virtuoso performer and composer on this instrument as well as the guitar, and helped to popularize the instrument during the 19th century. Allan Atlas, in his book The Wheatstone Concertina in Victorian England identifies six known concertos written for this instrument. Many sonatas and other pieces survive.

The English concertina is typically held by placing the thumbs through thumb straps and the little fingers on metal finger rests, leaving three fingers free for playing. Alternatively, both the fourth and little fingers support the metal finger rest, leaving two fingers for playing. In the classical style of Regondi, the little finger is used as well as the other three fingers, and the metal finger rests are used only very occasionally. This allows all eight fingers to simultaneously play the instrument so large chords are possible. In pieces such as the Bernhard Molique Concerto No 1 in G for concertina and orchestra, or Percy Grainger's Shepherd's Hey, four, five, and six note chords are not uncommon, and would be difficult or impossible to play without using all the fingers.

English-system treble and tenor-treble concertinas usually span 3 1/2 or 4 octaves. Baritones are similar but transpose down one octave. Bass concertinas transpose two octaves down, and piccolo concertinas play one octave up. The keyboard stud-arrangement and spacing is the same throughout, so concertina band players can all play from music in treble clef, and it's straightforward to move from smaller to larger instruments.

Duet concertina

Instruments built according to various duet systems are the last development step in the history of the instrument and less common than other concertinas. Duet concertina systems aim to simplify playing a melody with an accompaniment. To this end the various duet systems feature single note button layouts that provide the lower ( bass) notes in the left hand and the higher ( treble) notes in the right, usually with some overlap (like a two-manual organ). Far and away the most common duet system for concertina is the Maccann system followed by the Crane system (also adopted by the Salvation Army under the name Triumph). Even rarer are Jeffries system instruments— and other, scarcer systems exist. Among these, Hayden receives much publicity but in fact the layout was created in the 1960s, and few have been made, apart from runs of beginner instruments of very limited range.

Duet concertinas are held by placing the hands through a leather strap, with thumbs outside the strap and palms resting on wooden bars. The largest duets play bass notes down to C below the stave, and a competent performer can play solo piano music with little compromise.

German type

German style concertinas traditionally share several features:

  • Bisonoric (each button produces a different note on the push and the draw of the bellows)
  • Diatonic or semi-chromatic
  • Reeds mounted on a long plate, with separate chambers for each set of reeds
  • Buttons in each row pivot on a shared pivot arm
  • Square ends

Frequently, German concertinas also use more than one reed for each note to produce a fuller sound. Depending on the manufacturer, each note may have up to five reeds spread across three octaves. Sometimes these reeds are slightly out of tune with each other in order to produce a vibrato effect—called wet, musette, or Chicago tuning. With dry or Minnesota tuning, the reeds are in tune with each other and do not produce this effect. There is also the traditional tuning of an octave spread as established by Herr Lange in the nineteenth century.

Chemnitzer concertina

Hengel Chemnitzer Concertina
Chemnitzer concertina made by Star Mfg., Cicero, Illinois, USA in 2000

Various German concertina systems share common construction features and core button layout. In the United States, particularly in the Midwest, the term concertina often refers to the Chemnitzer concertina. Chemnitzer concertinas are bisonoric (see above) and are closely related to the bandoneón, but with a somewhat different keyboard layout and decorative style, with some mechanical innovations pioneered by German-American instrument builder and inventor Otto Schlicht.

Bandonion or bandoneón

Of special note is the bandonion or (Spanish) bandoneón. This is a German concertina system with an original bisonoric layout devised by Heinrich Band. This type of concertina is traditionally featured in Tango music, due to the instrument's popularity in Argentina in the late 19th century when Tango developed from various dance styles in Argentina and Uruguay. When Tango spread as a fashionable dance to Paris in the early 20th century, the Bandonion was adapted with a new unisonoric fingering option known as the French or Piguri system. The bisonoric layout is often preferred as the more 'traditional' option. Bandonions with more than one reed for each note are typically dry-tuned. Ástor Piazzolla was one of the most famous exponents of this instrument.

Anglo concertina

A 36 button Anglo concertina by AC Norman of Shropshire.

The Anglo or Anglo-German concertina is, historically, a hybrid between the English and German concertinas. The button layouts are generally the same as the original 20-button German concertinas designed by Uhlig in 1834. Within a few years of that date, the German concertina was a popular import in England, Ireland, and North America, due to its ease of use and relatively low price. English manufacturers responded to this popularity by offering their own versions using traditional English methods: concertina reeds instead of long-plate reeds, independent pivots for each button, and hexagon-shaped ends. Initially the term Anglo-German only applied to concertinas of this type built in England—but as German manufacturers adopted some of these techniques, the term came to apply to all concertinas that used Uhlig's 20-button system. Use of the "German" part of the title Anglo-German ceased in the UK during World War I.

The heart of the Anglo system consists of two 10-button rows, each of which produces a diatonic major scale in a pattern devised around 1826 by a Bohemian called Richter for use in a harmonica ( Richter tuning). Five buttons of each row are on each side. The two rows are musically a fifth apart. For example, if the row closest to the player's wrist is in the key of G, the next outer row is in the key of C below. An advantage of the Richter scale is that pressing three adjacent notes in one row produces a major triad. Also, because the travel direction inverts as you progress up the scale, at the point where the scale crosses from one side of the concertina to the other octaves can be played in the home keys.

A third row of extra notes was eventually added, loosely derived from the C scale. These added accidentals and notes that already existed in the diatonic rows, but in opposite bisonoric orientation, to make additional chords possible and certain melodic passages easier. At this point the instrument was chromatic over two octaves, but not every chord or other note combination was available in either push or draw. There is little variation between makers and models in the layout of the notes in the core diatonic rows, but somewhat more variation in the number and layout of the 'helper' notes. The two most common layouts of this 30-button variety are the Jeffries and Lachenal systems. Layouts with 36, 38 and 40 buttons are not uncommon, and a few anglos have as many as 55 keys (such as the one John Spiers plays). Instruments in the key of C/G are most typical. Other key combinations are also available—G/D and B/F being the most common alternatives. B/F and A/E were popular with the Salvation Army.

The Anglo concertina is typically held by placing the hands through a leather strap, with the thumbs outside the strap and the palms resting on wooden bars. This arrangement leaves four fingers of each hand free for playing, and the thumbs free to operate an air valve (for expanding or contracting the bellows without sounding a note) or a drone. Anglo concertinas are often associated with the music of Ireland—though they are also used in other musical contexts, particularly in music for the English Morris dance and Boeremusiek. Famous English players of the Anglo include Scan Tester, John Spiers, William Kimber, and John Kirkpatrick.

George Jones is often credited as the first English chromatic Anglo concertina maker. British firms active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries include those founded by Charles Wheatstone, Charles Jeffries (who built primarily Anglo-style concertinas), Louis Lachenal (who built concertinas in both English and Anglo styles and was the most prolific manufacturer of the period), and John Crabb.


The Franglo system concertina was developed by the widely respected luthiers C & R Dipper, in co-operation with Emmanuel Pariselle, renowned for his expertise as a professional player of the two and a half row diatonic melodeon. The system has the construction and reedwork of a concertina but with the button layout of a melodeon. The name Franglo is derived from the words French and Anglo.


German concertina, mid 19th century

In the mid-1830s concertinas were manufactured and sold in Germany and England, in two types specific to the country. Both systems continued to evolve into the current forms as the popularity of the instrument increased. The difference in prices and the common uses of the English and German systems led to something of a class distinction between the two. German or Anglo-German concertinas were regarded as a lower-class instrument, and English concertina had an air of bourgeois respectability. English concertinas were most popular as parlour instruments for classical music, while German concertinas were more associated with popular dance music of the day.

In the 1850s, the Anglo-German concertina's ability to play both melody and accompaniment led English manufacturers to start developing the various Duet systems. The popular Maccann system were developed towards the end of the century. Meanwhile, German manufacturers were producing concertinas with more than 20 buttons for local sale. Three keyboard systems for German concertinas eventually became popular: Uhlig's Chemnitzer system, Carl Zimmerman's Carlsfeld system, and the Bandonion's Reinische system. Various German manufacturers tried to develop a single unified keyboard system for all German concertinas—but this was only partially accomplished at the end of the 19th century, when the Chemnitzer and Carlsfelder systems merged into the unified concertina system, and a unified bandonion system was created. Despite the new standards, the older systems remained popular into the 20th century.

The concertina was popular throughout the 19th century. The Salvation Army in England, America, Australia, and New Zealand commonly used concertinas in their bands, and other concertina bands and musicians performed in all parts of the English speaking world. German emigrants carried their Chemnizters and bandonions with them to the United States and Argentina where they were regionally popular. In England, America, and Australia the concertina became nearly ubiquitous.

In the early 20th century, this popularity rapidly began to decline. Reasons included growing relative popularity of the accordion, mass production of other instruments such as the piano, increasingly chromatic and less tonal forms of music such as blues and jazz, and the overall decline of amateur musical performance due to radio and the phonograph. By the middle of the century, few concertina makers remained, and most of those used accordion reeds and inexpensive, unreliable button mechanisms. Yet, the various forms of concertina survived in some areas: Anglo concertinas in Irish traditional music, the English and the Anglo in English Morris dancing, the Anglo in Africa, among Afrikaners (see Boer music) and Zulus (who call it a "squashbox"), the Chemnitzer in the United States as a polka instrument, and the "bandoneón" in Argentina as a prominent part of the Tango tradition. Between World War I and World War II, there were many concertina and bandonion bands in Germany, but with the rise of the Nazi regime these musical clubs disappeared.

The folk revival movements of the 1960s led to a modest resurgence in the popularity of the concertina, particularly the Anglo. More recently, concertina popularity again seems on the rise, particularly the Anglo in the traditional music of Ireland. Renewed interest in tango since the 1980s has also seen interest in the bandoneón increase.

Traditional music playing continues in many parts of the UK in the 21st century, often using English and Anglo-system concertinas. The Concertina Band Revival is stimulated by regular weekends and meetings for players to make music together and get tuition, folk festival workshops, and enthusiastic groups meeting monthly.

Currently, there are at least eleven makers of traditional hand-made concertinas in Europe, South Africa, Australia and North America. They use mainly traditional construction techniques and hand-made reeds, and generally offer many options for the type of concertina, materials, decoration, button layouts, tuning, and other customizations. Quality traditional concertinas require labour and high skill to produce, so prices can be high and waiting lists long. Cheap mass-produced accordion-reeded instruments are less reliable. Since the mid-1970s, hand-made accordion-reeded concertinas have become a high-quality cheaper alternative. They are mainly made using traditional building techniques, and some are built customized to order, but the traditional design is adapted to use mass-produced accordion reeds to significantly reduce production cost and time. They are commonly called hybrids, though some manufacturers object to the term.

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