Accordion/Reading Accordion Music
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. If there is no chord tyoe given, major is the default. So, if you see the note "A" with a "7" written above it, you should play the A seventh chord button, along with the A pedal tone. Note that if an oom-pah sequence stays on a chord for an entire bar or multiple bars, the chord symbol may only be given once.
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. In some 1920s and 1930s music, the symbols for "M", "m", "7" and "d" are changed for the last two to "S" for seventh chord and "-" for diminished.
If playing alternating 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. A stricter convention in some accordion music is that from low C (two leger lines below the bass clef staff) to the C (second space from the bottom) are bass notes, whereas the notes from D (middle line) and up indicate chords.
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.
At a jam session, you may have to improvise accomoaniment from a lead sheet or chord chart, which use a chord root, a chord quality, and numbers or symbols. An example is "A+7": the A means an A root; the "+" means play an augmented fifth (the "quality"); the "7" means play a flatted seventh. An additional convention is that an uppercase letter with no other information means a major chord (thus C means C major).
C = C major
C min or c-= c minor
C7= C dominant 7
C+7= C augmented fifth, add flat seventh (cannot be played with buttons; use right-hand keys)
c dim= c diminished
c dim7= c diminished seventh
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). The thumb is almost never indicated in fingering charts, so in practice, only fingers 2 through 5 are seen in music with fingerings written in. Some accordionists use a thumb for the occasional diminished chord, though purists frown on this. For the popular "oom-pah" pattern, accordionists use different approaches, two being the two-finger method and the three-finger method.
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.