Diatonic accordions, or button accordions as they are more commonly known, have been popular in traditional Irish music since the early 20th century. They are still widely played today, serving as the perfect instrument to explore the exciting world of Irish folk music.
The world of accordions can be a confusing one however, so if you’re looking to venture into Irish accordion playing, but find yourself overwhelmed by the wealth of information available online, then look no further – you’ve come to the right place.
I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about diatonic button accordions, specifically those used to play tradition Irish music. Let’s get started.
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.
Irish diatonic accordions are typically 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 prevalent within the world of Irish music.
Despite being diatonic instruments however, two row Irish button accordions are actually fully chromatic, just like piano accordions.
What does this mean? Simply put, it means you can play all the notes and accidentals within the accordion’s given range. In other word, you can play in any number of keys. The ability to play in a range of keys is important for any Irish accordion player who wants to play alongside other musicians.
Diatonic Accordion Button Layouts
Diatonic accordions typically feature 1-2 rows of treble buttons on the right keyboard, with 8-12 bass keys on the left.
A diatonic button accordion with just one row of treble buttons is known as a melodeon and is considered a separate instrument to the Irish button accordion.
Irish Diatonic Button Accordion Tuning
The two row Irish diatonic accordion features an outer row of buttons in one key, with the inner row tuned in another key, just a semitone higher. As you already know, this configuration makes all the notes of the chromatic scale available. For Irish folk music, diatonic accordions are most commonly tuned with the inner row tuned to C and the outer row tuned to B.
While the C#/D press and draw style of Irish button accordion playing is seeing a resurgence in popularity, the B/C playing style is the more popular and accessible option. You’ll also find a much larger range of affordable accordions tuned to B/C.
Don’t worry though, both B/C and C#/D button accordion tunings are suitable for traditional Irish music. The difference lies in the physical playing of the instrument. Therefore, choice of tuning is ultimately a personal preference.
Both diatonic tuning systems are fully chromatic (meaning you can play in any key) and either will give you that authentic Irish sound. So neither is the wrong choice!
What’s The Difference Between Diatonic Button Accordions and Chromatic Accordions?
It’s important to note that the term chromatic accordion refers to a specific type of accordion typically used to play jazz, classical or Eastern European and Balkan folk music. Unlike the diatonic button accordion, chromatic accordions typically feature 3 – 5 rows of treble buttons, and Stradella bass similar to that of a piano accordion.
The chromatic accordion is a unisonoric instrument, meaning each button or key plays the same note regardless of whether you push or pull the bellows. Diatonic accordions are bisonoric instruments meaning that each button plays two separate notes, depending on whether you press or draw the bellows.
Multivoice Diatonic Accordions: Accordion Voices Explained
Accordions can have more than one ‘voice’. This refers to the number of metal reeds fitted to the treble side (or right hand side) of the instrument. As you already know, these reeds produce the accordion sounds.
When a single key is pressed on the treble end of an accordion, one or more reeds are sounded to produce the note. The number of voices which sound for each note refers to the number of reeds which are sounding at the same time.
Thus, a two voice accordion will have two reeds sounding for each single key press. A three voice accordion will have three reeds sounding for each key press, and so on.
One Voice: Single voice accordions are usually light and compact. They produce a bright, clear sound, akin to a concertina.
Two Voice: Two voice accordions are the most commonly played. Both reeds for each note are typically tuned to be very nearly, but not quite, at the same pitch. Usually one reed is tuned to concert pitch and the other is tuned slightly sharp. This slight difference in pitch causes the tremolo effect characteristic of the traditional accordion sound.
Three Voice: The setup on a three voice accordion is usually referred to as LMM (low/middle). The low or L reed, tuned an octave lower than the M reed, adds a deeper, richer sound to each note.
Four Voice: The setup on a four voice accordion is typically LMMH. The H voice is tuned an octave higher than the M reeds and adds a bright, crisp tone to the overall sound. With all four voices in use, these accordions produce a rich, powerful sound.
These voices are controlled using switches (also known as couplers, registers or stops) which, when pressed (or pulled), causes a different set of reeds or ‘voice’ to be activated. Using these stops, an accordion player can mix and match different reed blocks producing different sounds and timbres in varying octaves and registers.
Tremolo: Dry Tuning vs Wet Tuning
You already know that diatonic accordions can be tuned to different keys or tonalities, such as B/C or C#/D. The ‘tuning’ of an accordion however can also refer to the type of sound produced.
Dry tuned accordions have a crisp, clean sound. Wet tuning results in a richer, heavier sound. Dry tuning, while producing a more precise sound, will typically be quieter. Wet tuning usually makes the accordion sound louder.
Choosing between wet and dry tuning really comes down to personal preference. You should try to listen to as many recordings as possible and see which sound you like best. Here are two examples to get you started.
Accordions can be set to varying degrees of dry or wet tuning using the following scale:
- Demi Swing
- Light Swing/American
Legendary Irish accordion player Tony MacMahon played a Paolo Soprani Jubilee accordion with wet tuning. You can hear him in action in the video below:
Benny McCarthy from Danú plays an accordion with dry tuning however. Have a listen to the difference in the sound:
Swing tuning lies somewhere in between wet and dry and is ideal for traditional Irish music.
You should note that it’s possible to modify the amount of tremolo on any accordion with two or more voices by bringing it to an experienced maker/tuner. Some accordions are better suited to either dry or wet however. Listen to examples of each to see which you prefer.
Paolo Soprani accordions, and those inspired by them, usually have the most tremolo. Castagnaris usually have either dry or swing (half and half) tunings. Musette tuning, a heavy wet sound, is popular in Scotland and France, but going out of style in Ireland.
If the diatonic accordion is the instrument for you then why not browse the McNeela Accordion Store and explore our exciting range of Irish button accordions? You never know what might catch your eye.