Button accordions travel under several names—button accordion, diatonic accordion, melodeon. They can play melody and they can play rhythmically compelling accompaniment, making them a notable feature of diverse musical landscapes.
Button Accordions: How They’re Alike
All are bisonoric, meaning that the same button plays a different note on the push and pull of the bellows. All have buttons arranged in a row or rows—one to three on the right end, one to two on the left—with the buttons traveling perpendicular to the direction of travel of the bellows.
What? Think of it like this: when you and the accordion are both in playing position, the buttons face out, so when you play, your fingers press them in towards your body, while your arms move the bellows sideways, to the left and right. This is what distinguishes an accordion from a concertina, less obviously than shape or size but more definitively than either.
Each treble row, on the left side of the accordion, is in a specific key, and each treble button plays a single note in each direction. On the bass side, on the right, some buttons play individual bass notes and some play chords.
Button Accordions: Playing a Scale
In your real musical life, you probably won’t spend a lot of time playing scales, and if you do, you’ll maybe play across the rows, assuming, that is, that you have more than one. Nonetheless, for understanding the note layout, it’s useful to know how the notes of the scale correspond to the buttons under your fingers.
So, to play a scale on a single row: Press down the air button and pull the bellows a bit apart, because the first note is a push note. The tonic (first note) of the scale is often on the 3rd, sometimes the 4th button, counting down from your chin.
Start there (if you try starting on the 3rd and what you get doesn’t sound like a scale, try the 4th) by pushing in on the bellows. If you’re in the key of G, that’s G. Then pull the bellows out, holding down the same button. That’s A.
Go to the next button (heading down towards your lap rather than up towards your chin) and again, push in (B) and pull out (C); go to the next and again push (D) and pull (E). Now for the tricky part: go to the next button and pull again, so two consecutive pulls, for F#, and then finish the scale by pushing in for the G.
The next octave continues that pattern except for a little retrograde motion at the end, so: pull (A)/push (B), then next button, pull (C)/push (D). Next button, pull (E), then go on to the next button for another pull (F#), and finally back to the previous button to end on a push (G).
As is perhaps evident, describing what to do is more cumbersome than actually doing it.
Button Accordions: How They Differ
Cost, quality, materials, and aesthetics aside, diatonic accordions differ in the number of rows on the treble side and the number of buttons in the rows, the number of buttons of the bass side, the keys they play in, the number of reeds per note and whether or not you can turn some reeds on and off, whether the keyboard is flat or stepped, and the amount of tremolo in the tuning.
So, lots of options, but if your head is spinning, fear not. As long as you have an idea of the kind of music you’re interested in playing, your choices are not so daunting.