Harmonium

hahr-moh-nee-uhm
The harmonium is a free reed instrument of the keyboard family. The player uses foot-operated pedals to send air through bellows and metal reeds that create an organ-like, mellow sound. The pitch is determined by the chambers housing these reeds as there are no pipes. The harmonium usually ranges from four to five octaves.
History of the Harmonium
The history of the harmonium begins with its earliest ancestor, the sheng. Thought to be one of the first free-reed instruments, the Chinese sheng was brought to Europe during the 1700s by the likes of Marco Polo. Musicians were fascinated by its ability to produce sound through simple ascending pipes, using a mouthpiece to blow air. By the late 18th century, instrument makers had begun experimenting with existing keyboard designs and the use of bellows to create continuous sound. Early examples of which include Anton Haeckl’s Physharmonica and French inventor Gabriel Joseph Grenié’s orgue expressif. The latter became the basis for Parisian Alexandre-Francois Debain who patented his design for the first harmonium in 1842 using bellows and two foot pedals. This design proved to be extremely popular and a factory with over 600 workers was soon mass producing these instruments that could cover both a treble and bass range. Composers such as Gustav Mahler began to incorporate the harmonium into their compositions at the start of the 20th century and the harmonium’s popularity continued to flourish worldwide. At a similar time, it became adopted by Scandinavian folk music and would also find its way to India, where its heat resistance made it a suitable choice for British musical exports to the country. Added drone sounds made it popular for Indian classical music where it is still commonly found today.
Inventor: Alexandre-Francois Debain

Where to Buy

$500 - $2,500

Hear the Harmonium

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How to Play

A keyboard instrument that produces sound by blowing air through reeds, similar to an accordion or concertina. Played using a keyboard and a foot-operated bellows.

In Popular Music

The harmonium is a popular keyboard instrument with rock and pop music artists. It can be heard prominently on ‘We Can Work It Out’ by The Beatles in which John Lennon plays the instrument. It can also be heard in the background of songs by Adele and Simon & Garfunkel.

Famous Players

V. Balsara, Anup Jalota, Kishore Kumar

Close Relations

Pump Organ, Melodeon
Video Credit: Dhanunjaya vanarasa
Understanding the Harmonium
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1840s

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