That’s right, it’s time for the most commonly asked questions about the button accordion.

This fascinating instrument features in a number of musical cultures throughout the world and is even used to play both jazz and classical music. Naturally, there’s plenty of misinformation and confusion surrounding this popular free reed instrument, so as always I’m here to help and teach you everything you need to know. 

Let’s get started…

1. What Are the Different Styles of Button Accordions Called?

Button accordions fall into two main categories – diatonic accordions and chromatic accordions.

2. What is a Diatonic Accordion?

A diatonic instrument is one that contains all the relevant notes contained in the major scale of the key to which it has been tuned.

Diatonic accordions are bisonoric instruments which means that each button plays two separate notes, depending on whether you push or pull (expand or contract) the bellows.

3. What Is a Chromatic Button Accordion?

The chromatic button accordion is a type of accordion typically used to play jazz, classical or eastern European and Balkan folk music. Chromatic accordions can have anywhere from 3 to 5 rows of treble buttons, and feature Stradella bass of up to 120 buttons, similar to that found on a piano accordion.

The chromatic button accordion is a unisonoric instrument, which means that each button plays the same note when you push or pull the bellows.

Hear one in action in the video below, in the hands of Ireland’s finest chromatic button accordion player, Dermot Dunne:

4. What is an Irish Button Accordion?

The Irish button accordion is a two row, diatonic accordion. The most popular button accordion played in Irish traditional music typically features 21 or 23 buttons with a two row layout on the keyboard, and 8 bass buttons on the opposite side.

Irish button accordions are most commonly tuned to a combination of two keys – either B major and C major (B/C tuning) or C# major and D major (C#/D tuning). Other tuning systems are available but these are the most popular within the world of Irish music.

To learn more about the difference between these two tuning systems check out my handy blog post: Which Accordion Tuning Is Best For Irish Music?

McNeela Wooden Button Accordion - best C#/D players

5. What’s the Difference Between Irish Button Accordions and Piano Accordions?

The main difference between these two reed instruments lies in the style of the keyboard or fingerboard. 

  • Fingerboard Layout
    Piano accordions feature piano-like keys, aligned in one row to form a side keyboard. Similar to the piano, each key plays just one note. Button accordions however feature small round keys that can play two different notes depending on whether you push or pull the bellows.
  • Bass Layout
    Button accordions typically feature 8 to 12 bass buttons, while piano accordions are designed to use Stradella bass which can have up to 120+ bass buttons. Due to the number of reeds required for these extra bass notes, piano accordions are typically much larger and heavier than Irish button accordions.

To learn more about the Irish piano accordion check out this blog post on Three Trailblazing Piano Accordion Players You Should Know

Tadhg O Meachair Irish Piano Accordion player with trio One for the Foxes

6. What’s the Difference Between a Button accordion and a Melodeon?

In Irish music, melodeons are small, single row accordions that can typically only play in the key to which they have been tuned. While some melodeons feature an additional inner row of just three buttons to provide the accidentals or extra notes needed to play in an additional key, most are limited in the repertoire they can play.

Irish button accordions are two row accordions, with the inner row tuned to one key, and the outer row tuned to another. This means the player has ability to play in a range of keys which is important for any accordion player who wants to play alongside other musicians.

So if it has just one row of buttons, it’s a melodeon. If it has two, it’s an Irish button accordion. Listen to the legendary Bobby Gardiner in action in the video below, showing off the full potential of this small but mighty instrument:

7. What’s the Difference between a Button Accordion and a Concertina?

The most obvious differences between a concertina and an accordion relate to size, shape, sound and button position.

  • Size & Shape
    Concertinas are small hexagonal shaped instruments while accordions are larger and somewhat rectangular shaped.

  • Sound
    The concertina produces a quieter, brighter tone than the accordion.

  • Button Layout
    A 30 button Anglo concertina for example will feature three rows of treble buttons on both the left and right, directly on the ends of the instrument. These buttons are all used to play the melody. There are no bass keys. The button accordion as we know features a right hand fingerboard with two rows of buttons, and a left hand bass.

McNeela Phoenix Concertinas

8. Is the Button Accordion Hard to Learn?

The button accordion is quite a simple instrument to learn. Like any musical instrument, it can take time and effort to master, but it’s relatively easy to get started. Once you wrap your head, and your fingers around the rows of buttons, you’ll be playing tunes in no time at all!

While beginner musicians may have struggled with the weight of the accordion in the past, today Irish button accordions are much more lightweight and compact, making them accessible for musicians of all ages.

Check out my blog post Learn To Play The Irish Button Accordion In 3 Easy Steps to see just how simple it really is.

9. Which Type of Accordion is Easier to Play?

I’m not sure which is easiest to play, but the chromatic button accordion is without a doubt the most difficult type of accordion to play. As for the easiest? It’s a tie between the Irish button accordion and the piano accordion.

  • Pros & Cons of Piano Accordions:
    Piano accordions are much larger in size than button accordions, making them heavier and therefore more difficult to hold and play. The layout of the fingerboard however, being so similar in style to the piano, makes it particularly accessible for those who already know how to play the piano. The Stradella bass can seem daunting at first due to the large number of buttons, but it operates in a circle of fifths which makes logical and musical sense – making it easier to locate the right notes.

  • Pros & Cons of Irish Button Accordions:
    Modern Irish button accordions are far more lightweight and compact than piano accordions. With just two rows of buttons on the right side of the instrument, and 8 to 12 bass buttons on the left, they are also far less intimidating than the chromatic accordion. While the button layout may not be as visibly intuitive as the piano accordion, once you’ve learned the note sequence, the limited button travel (in other words, the fact that you don’t have to move your fingers very far) allows for speedy playing with minimal effort.

button accordion

10. Why is the Button Accordion so Popular?

One of the main reasons accordions became popular in Irish music is simply because in the early decades of the 20th century accordions were readily available and in plentiful supply. Relatives visiting or returning home from the US and the UK – two locations to which Irish people emigrated in huge numbers – would frequently arrive home with an accordion in tow.

The accordion is a versatile instrument that offers the option of playing either a solo melody or adding bass accompaniment. It also produces plenty of volume, making it perfect for playing for dancers, which is a very important feature of Irish folk music. It became incredibly popular as part of céilí band lineups as a result. 

In the hands of legendary players such as Paddy O’Brien, Joe Burke, Finbarr Dwyer, Joe Cooley, Jackie Daley, Máirtín O’Connor, Tony MacMahon, Bobby Gardiner, Benny McCarthy and Seán Óg Graham, the instrument has gained status as a virtuosic solo instrument, thus cementing its place in traditional Irish music:

McNeela Accordion Store

If you’re looking to get your hands on an Irish button accordion then check out our exciting range of in-house accordions alongside some of the very best brands, including Paolo Soprani.


McNeela Button Accordion

Learn More About Irish Button Accordions:

If you have a question that’s gone unanswered why not explore my Irish Music Blog? It’s packed full of handy information including buyers guides:

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