Instruments in the free reed family are powered by reeds, each constructed to produce a single pitch. These days, most are made of a steel shoe with a steel tongue bolted or riveted atop. When air passes through the gap between reed and shoe, sound vibrations are produced (here‘s a more lengthy explanation). Because each reed produces only one pitch, many are needed to make a useful instrument. It’s commonly said that a full-size accordion has as many reeds as a piano has strings (about 230 for a mid-sized piano).
There are many free reed instruments played in the world today, and as near as I can tell all of them are based on the sheng, from China.
Oral tradition holds that the sheng was invented as long ago as 3,000 BC. The oldest extant one I’ve found mention of is dated at 430 BC. The instrument is thought to have reached Europe in the late 1700s. It spawned considerable innovation there, which resulted in the harmonica. Here’s Philip Achille performing a composition by Michael Spivakovsky on a fully chromatic harmonica.
The concertina was born around the same time, and as a result of the same influences. In fact, if you took two harmonicas connected them to one another with a set of bellows, you’d end up with a type of concertina known as the Anglo-German. (The following is a video of me, and I apologize for the self-promotion, but when you play the concertina you take your opportunities where you can.)
The concertina was one of the first mass-produced instruments in the world, and traveled far and wide, including to Argentina, where it transformed eventually into the bandoneon, used now around the world for playing tangos. Here’s Florecia Amengual busking in Barcelona. The composition, “Adios Nonino,” is by Astor Piazzola. (Sidenote: Another well-regarded contemporary player, Bertram Levy, spends half the year in our own Port Townsend when he’s not studying in Buenos Aires.)
Of all free reed instruments, however, the accordion seems to be king. Countless permutations of it exist, the most common with buttons on one side and keys on the other. Some, however, have no keys—only buttons. Innumerable buttons.
Steven Arntson is a writer and composer who performs as a concertina soloist and with the quartet The Toy Boats. Upcoming appearances are posted on his facebook page, and recordings, scores, and articles reside at his website.