A harmonium is a free-standing keyboard instrument similar to a reed organ. Sound is produced by air, supplied by foot-operated or hand-operated bellows, being blown through sets of free reeds, resulting in a sound similar to that of an accordion. 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 through the reeds to produce the sound. A reed organ with a pressure bellows, that pushes the air through the reeds, is referred to as a harmonium. A traditional wooden portable 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. In India, the term generally refers to a hand-pumped instrument.
The harmonium was widely accepted in Indian music, particularly Parsi and Marathi stage music, in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, however, in the context of nationalist movements that sought to depict India as utterly separate from the West, the harmonium came to be portrayed as an unwanted foreigner. Technical concerns with the harmonium included its inability to produce meend (slides between notes) and the fact that, once tuned, it cannot be adjusted in the course of performance. The former prevents it from articulating the subtle inflections (such as andolan, gentle oscillation) so crucial to many ragas; the latter prevents it from articulating the subtle differences in intonational color between a given svara in two different ragas. For these reasons, it was banned from All-India Radio from 1940 to 1971. (Indeed, a ban still stands on harmonium solos.) On the other hand many of the harmonium’s qualities suited it very well for the newly-reformed classical music of the early 20th century: it is easy for amateurs to learn; it supports group singing and large voice classes; it provides a template for standardized raga grammar; it is loud enough to provide a drone in a concert hall. For these reasons, it has become the instrument of choice for accompanying most North Indian classical vocal genres, though it is still despised as a foreigner by many connoisseurs of Indian music, who prefer the sarangi as an accompanying instrument for khyal singing.
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.
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