Accordion/Reading Accordion Music

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Note: This section assumes that you have a basic knowledge of reading music.

Reading music written specifically for the accordion is, for the most part, no different than reading music for any other instrument. Due to the peculiarities of the accordion, however, there are some special techniques used.

For all serious accordion literature, two staves are used - the upper one is for the right hand, and the left one for the basses. The upper staff requires little explanation, but reading the bass line can be a bit confusing and will be the main subject of this section.


If you see the abbreviation "B.S." (short for bassi soli, or basses only) over a passage in the left hand, it means to play it on the two pedal tone rows only (not chords). Although the passage may run through several octaves, remember that the actual Stradella instrument has effectively only one octave's range, so do not worry about any octave changes when playing.

To indicate that the performer needs to play chords, there are several markings possible: the most common is to have an uppercase "M" over a note for a major chord, lowercase "m" for a minor chord, and lowercase "d" for a diminished chord. So, if you see the note "A" with a "7" written above it, you should play the A seventh chord button, and not the A pedal tone. (Rarely, you will see a "1", "2", "3", and "4" in a circle above the notes instead. They stand for major, minor, seventh, and diminished, respectively.)

If playing both chords and basses (such as for the typical "oom-pah" accompaniment), then the bass note will be unmarked and the chord note will have a letter or number above it. You can tell which one is which because the pedal note will be positioned an octave or two lower than the chord note.

If, in a bass-chord sequence, the same chord note is repeated over and over again, then the chord is not marked for the second, third, etc. time. It is only marked the first time, and a new marking appears only when the chord changes to a different.

When you see two notes together, the lower note should be played as a pedal and the upper note as the chord.


Fingerings work the same way as with any other keyboard music. For both the left and right hands, numbers "1" through "5" indicate fingers thumb through pinkie, respectively. For the basses, if you see a number underlined, that means to play the note on the counterbass row; if there is no line, you should play the note on the main bass row or chord (whatever is applicable).


A lot of professional, serious accordion literature will indicate what combination of reed ranks to use (usually designed for a full-sized, four-reed instrument).


The stops to use are indicated by dots inside a circle with lines (see image at right), with the lowest row indicating the bassoon reed, the middle row indicating the two clarinet reeds, and the uppermost, the piccolo. If there is no dot in a certain section, it means that reed block is to be silent; if a dot is present, it means to use the reed block. So, in the example at right, all four reeds are to be employed. In the one at left, however, the four-foot and sixteen-foot are to be shut off.


Most accordions have these circles and dots inscribed on their switches so you can immediately tell which combination of reeds the switch will produce. Others, however, bear no such markings, so you will have to listen by ear to determine what reeds are sounding.

For your convenience, we have compiled a list of all common registration combinations as well as their standard names here.

A similar system is used for the bass system as well, except the circle is divided into four parts for the five bass reeds in a full-sized instrument. There are generally fewer different combinations in the bass than the treble (usually three to seven).

If you do not have a four-reed accordion, chances are you won't always be able to follow the registrations. In that case, try to select a register that sounds the closest to what is indicated.