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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is on the musical instrument; for information on other kinds of harmonia, see harmonium (disambiguation).

A Harmonium or Reed Organ is a free-standing musical keyboard instrument similar to a pipe organ. It consists of free reed pipes and sound is produced by air being pushed or sucked over reeds resulting in a sound similar to that of an accordion. The air is supplied by foot-operated bellows alternately depressed by the player.

Harmonium or Reed Organ?

In North America, the most common pedal-pumped free reed keyboard instrument is known as the American Reed Organ, (or parlor organ, pump organ, cabinet organ, cottage organ, etc.) and along with the earlier melodeon, is operated by a suction bellows where air is sucked across the reeds to produce the sound. In North America, a reed organ with a pressure bellows, that push the air across the reeds, is referred to as a harmonium.

In much of Europe, the term "harmonium" is used to describe all pedal pumped keyboard free reed instruments, making no distinction whether it has a pressure or suction bellows.


The harmonium was invented in Paris, 1842 by Alexandre Debain, though there was concurrent development of similar instruments. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein(1723-1795), Professor of Physiology at Copenhagen, was credited with first free reed to be made in the western world after winning the annual prize in 1780 from the Imperial Academy of St.Petersburg. [1]


Harmoniums consist of banks of brass reeds (metal tongues which vibrate when air flows over them), a pumping apparatus, stops for drones (some models feature a stop which causes a form of vibrato), and a keyboard. The harmonium's timbre, despite its similarity to the accordion's, is actually produced in a critically different way. Instead of the bellows causing a direct flow of air over the reeds, an external feeder bellows inflates an internal reservoir bellows inside the harmonium from which air escapes to vibrate the reeds. This design is similar to bagpipes as it allows the harmonium to create a continuously sustained sound. (Some better-class harmoniums of the 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated an “expression stop” which bypassed the reservoir, allowing a skilled player to regulate the strength of the air-flow directly from the pedal-operated bellows and so to achieve a certain amount of direct control over dynamics.) If a harmonium has two sets of reeds, it's possible that the second set of reeds (either tuned unison or an octave lower) can be activated by a stop, which means each key pressed will play two reeds. Professional harmoniums feature a third set of reeds, either tuned an octave higher or in unison to the middle reed. This overall makes the sound fuller. In addition, many harmoniums feature an octave coupler, a mechanical linkage that opens a valve for a note an octave above or below the note being played, and a scale changing mechanism, which allows one to play in various keys while fingering the keys of one scale.

Harmoniums are made with 1, 2, 3 and occasionally 4 sets of reeds. Classical instrumentalists usually use 1-reed harmoniums, while a musician who plays for a qawaali (Islamic devotional singing) usually uses a 3-reed harmonium.

The harmonium in India

Man playing a harmonium.  He is pumping the bellows of the harmonium with one hand and playing the keys  with the other.
Man playing a harmonium. He is pumping the bellows of the harmonium with one hand and playing the keys with the other.

During the mid-19th century missionaries brought French made hand-pumped harmoniums to India. The instrument quickly became popular there: it was portable, reliable and easy to learn. Its popularity has stayed intact to the present day, and the harmonium remains an important instrument in many genres of Indian music. It is commonly found in Indian homes. Though derived from the designs developed in France, the harmonium was developed further in India in unique ways, such as the addition of drone stops and a scale changing mechanism.

The harmonium is essentially an alien instrument to the Indian tradition, as it cannot mimic the voice, which is considered the basis of all Indian music. Meend (glissando), an integral part of any classical recitation is not possible on the harmonium, and as such, one cannot faithfully reproduce the subtle nuances of a raga on this instrument. The harmonium is thus despised by many connoisseurs of Indian music, who prefer the more authentic yet more technical sarangi, in accompanying khyal singing.

A popular usage is by followers of the Hindu and Sikh faith, who use it in the devotional singing of prayers, called bhajan or kirtan. There will be at least one harmonium in any mandir(Hindu temple) or gurdwara (Sikh temple) around the world. The harmonium is also commonly accompanied by the tabla. To Sikhs the harmonium is known as the vaja/baja. It is also referred to as a " Peti " ( A loose reference to a " Box ") in some parts of North India and Maharashtra.

Samvadini - a Modified version of Harmonium to perform solo on the instrument.
Samvadini - a Modified version of Harmonium to perform solo on the instrument.

In Indian music, the harmonium is considered to be one of the most versatile instruments. It is usually used as an accompanying instrument for vocalists. However, some musicians have begun playing the harmonium as a solo instrument. Pandit Bhishmadev Vedi, Pandit Muneshwar Dayal, Pandit Montu Banerjee, and Pamabhusan JnanPrakash Ghosh were among those personalities who popularized the harmonium for solo performance. Later Pt. Manohar Chimote [2] gave a completely new dimension to the harmonium as instrument and unique style of playing solo on the instrument. He added the "Swaramandal" (Harp) on top of the reed board and made some significant changes into the tuning of Harmonium. With all the modification, he renamed the traditional harmonium to "Samvadini". With this beautiful and appropriate name, Samvadini is making its mark in the field of Music. Students of Pt. Manohar Chimote like Rajendra Vaishampayan are making their mark in the musical horizon. Pandit Tulsidas Borkar of Mumbai, Pandit Appa Jalgaonkar, Shri Purushottam Walavalkar have created their own names in the field of harmonium playing. More recently, Dr. Arawind Thatte from Pune has sought to create a separate identity for the harmonium as a solo instrument. More and more music students are learning in this fashion.



  • Antonin Dvorak's Five Bagatelles for 2 violins, Cello and harmonium Op.47(b79)
  • The final collection of pieces by César Franck popularly known as L'Organiste (1889-1890) was actually written for harmonium, some pieces with piano accompaniment.
  • Petite Messe Solonelle by Rossini is scored for two pianos and harmonium.
  • Ages Ago, an early work by W. S. Gilbert with Frederic Clay features a harmonium part.
  • The Album Early Music by Kronos Quartet has several songs featuring harmonium.


  • Current 93's Sleep Has His House album features a harmonium for its length, a rare instrumental contribution from frontman David Tibet.
  • Sufjan Stevens uses a harmonium at his live performances.
  • Most of Nico's post-Velvet Underground career is marked by a heavy usage of the harmonium, in avant-garde drone songs.
  • Brian May of Queen played a harmonium in the song Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together) on Queen's album A Day at the Races.
  • Jeff Buckley plays a harmonium in the song "Lover, You Should've Come Over" on his album Grace.
  • Julie Feeney plays harmonium on her album 13 songs.
  • Ric Veda plays harmonium in modern indie rock music. [3]
  • The Beatles used a harmonium on several songs, including We Can Work It Out, Cry Baby Cry and The Word.
  • The Penguin Cafe Orchestra's Music for a Found Harmonium (not surprisingly) features a harmonium.
  • The movie Punch Drunk Love features a harmonium as a major plot device.
  • Ed Harcourt plays a harmonium on many of his songs including All Of Your Days Will Be Blessed from From Every Sphere and Something To Live For from Strangers.
  • Ivor Cutler uses a harmonium in many of his recordings and live performances.
  • Tori Amos features harmonium on several songs in 1996's Boys For Pele. She also toured with a harmonium, in addition to a piano and harpsichord, in support of the album.
  • Xiu Xiu features harmonium on many of their albums, as well as in the live setting; most notably featured in the songs "Dr. Troll," "Nieces Pieces," and "Rose of Sharon."
  • Diane Cluck has used the harmonium on her albums, "Macy's Day Bird" and "Monarcana."

External links

  • The Classical Harmonium
  • Indian Harmonium Page
  • Harmonium FAQ
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