An Introduction To Playing Chromatic (Button) Accordion


The Chromatic Accordion can play in any key, just like a piano accordion, theoretically with the same fingering and sequence of buttons whatever key you are in.

 

 

This is however over simplification and you will probably find some keys easier to play in than others. Probably because of the effort of thinking about them rather than any particular comparative finger difficulty.

 

Chromatic accordions are not to be confused with diatonic accordions, such as melodeons and more types which are designed to play inside particular specified keys rather than cover any possible key modulations.

 

Unlike the folk style button accordions on chromatic you have enough buttons for every note and do not have to worry about them varying with bellows direction.


How can you see what the notes are?

To identify the actual notes it is customary to colour the buttons for the piano key they would represent. In this way you can tell whether it is set up in C system (C included on the outside row) or B system (B on the outside) by looking at it.

 

A C system instrument will have equal numbers of black and white buttons on the outside, alternately 2 white and 2 black whereas a B system will have the row with 3 white and then 1 black there.

 

The C chromatic keyboard

 

If you choose to look at a note from the outside row and select notes out from it in a V formation, the beginning of the V will be tones moving back down in a C system and the other stroke of the V will give you semitones going upwards.

 

Hence choose a C and the left hand part of the V will be C Bb Ab Gb/F# E

The Remaining right hand upward stroke of the V will be C C# D Eb E

 

SUPERTIP: Watch this happen by following the sequence of white and black buttons in the two diagonals from the fourth white button, approximately centre of lowest row shown above.

 

   E      E   
Gb/F# D#/Eb
Ab/G#         D  
Bb/A# C#/Db
   C    

 

Notice how this keeps the principle of the same direction of travel for up and down as up being a right hand move for your hand and down is moving to the left as on a piano style keyboard

 

You cannot always look of course, nor should you, so it is customary to mark for touch all the Cs  and all the Fs on the chromatic accordion.

 

USEFUL TO KNOW THIS FOR FREE BASS

 

NB The C system Free Bass works exactly the same across 4 rows on a convertor system, but in order that the fingering is the same the notes are in the opposite direction. You may notice that your left and right hand are mirror images of each other!


A couple of general pointers

The Hand position

Although the system may be best understood from the top down looking down the keyboard you will need to play with your wrist level, and not pointing up, except in special circumstances.

This gives you a better feel for what is going on and makes most movements, especially chord and arpeggio based moves, easier. You can feel the chord shapes in the grasp of your fingers in this way.

 

It also makes it easy to prepare where you are going in advance better, having your fingers covering the notes you are playing before you actually need to use them. This is vital to agile and smooth playing in either chromatic accordion or piano accordion. If you watch expert musicians you will notice their hands appear to hardly move, because they are already where they will need to be.

 

Fingering - Do you use the thumb?

You will notice many chromatic players appear not to use the thumb and often deliberately hold it tight against the edge of the keyboard so they cannot use it. I really do not know why they do that.

 

You will get smoother moves using only the fingers it is true, because the thumb works in a different way than the fingers, waving around instead of coming straight down.

 

It is difficult to use the thumb on inner rows also because it will tend to catch on the row(s) closer to the outside. It can make very easy thumb crossing multi octave arpeggios on the outside row, but you need to choose your keys wisely or choose a different system altogether.

 

As a side benefit of playing chromatic I have found that the stepping style movement can also be used particularly on upward chromatic runs on piano style keyboard, avoiding the need to use thumb movement. On the way down I play conventionally since the thumb is already there!

 


 

A Full C Chromatic system Keyboard Layout

I know there are some people who have to see it all at once, so here it is, but laid out so you do not have to look at it all at once.

 

On the right and left hand sides of the diagram there may be more buttons working exactly the same way depending on the size of the accordion.

Just look at the bright yellow buttons with bold note names on them. Lighter print means a continuation of the basic principles and the lighter coloured buttons are the optional 4th and 5th rows which duplicate the 1st and 2nd rows. 

It is easy to remember what is in each row  because each row is a diminished 7th chord or arpeggio. There are only three actually different diminished 4-note 7th chords so that gives you absolutely all 12 chromatic notes.

 

That is to say you have basically

  • C Eb F# A
  • C# E G Bb
  • D F Ab B

 

The only bugbear in my view is having to remember all the spellings of the notes, whether they are written as flats or sharps. Probably best to start with the version here as that gives a clear version of a chromatic scale.

 

 

 

Further info on the diagram, white outlined buttons are a sample of how you can move in full tones, while turquoise outlined buttons show the chromatic (semitone) movement.

 

Notice that the feeling of playing in tones is more open and feels more like playing from above the notes. The semitone system is more tight and tucked in under the notes.

 

That is how I feel it anyway and if you can identify this feeling you will know. B sytem works in the opposite direction with the note containing B in the outside first row. And also the tones an semitone rows swopping places.

 

Apparently one of the justifications for this is to make semitone runs easier, but in my view in any tune (except possibly some Eastern European ones where some use B system) there are more tones than semitones.

 

If you find this totally baffling, don't worry, proceed with the helpful more individual examples given further on here.

 

It is worth looking at the bright yellow buttons even if nothing else but you can come back to this full diagram later when you are ready, with no detriment.

 


 

Some individual easy intervals on C Chromatic

Part 1 - Tones and Semitone moves

 

THE STORY SO FAR

Chromatic accordion has vertical rows of buttons each representing a different diminished 7th chord. The three different rows give you all 12 different notes of the scale therefore as below

      D  F G#  B
   C# E G   Bb
C  Eb  F#  A

Even a cursory examination of the list above should show you the beginnings of two diagonal rows which necessarily appear.

One gives you "scales" of just tones and the other diagonal gives you a run of only semitones.

 

F


Part  2 - Intervals on adjoining diagonal Rows

 

These are the diagonal rows which supply the semitone shifts.

 

This is an easy way to find your new location on major and minor 3rds and on perfect 4ths. Hopefully these diagrams will help you remember them.

 

Notice that from minor 3rd upwards each is a movement one further away along the semitone axis.

 

SPECIAL THOUGHT

We are concentrating on the semitone diagonal row here, but bear in mind these are not the only possibilities.

 

You can for example also find a Major 3rd on alternate buttons of the opposing diagonal row, containing the full tone distances. And of course various types of movements are forced when you run out of rows to go into at the outside and inside edges of the accordion button keyboard.

 


Part 3 - The intervals on ALTERNATE diagonal rows

 

SPECIAL REMINDER IF YOU RUN OUT OF ROWS - APPLIES TO ALL THESE EXAMPLES

 

THIS WILL HAPPEN SOMETIMES BUT ALWAYS TO THREE ROW PLAYERS STARTING FROM 2ND OR 3RD ROW

 

To GO UP TO an imaginary 6th row that is not there GO BACK TWO ROWS towards the outside of the accordion to find the note you want

To GO UP TO an imaginary 7th row GO BACK JUST ONE ROW

 

SIMILARLY FOR FINDING AN INTERVAL THAT YOU KNOW GOING FURTHER TO OUTSIDE WHEN YOU ARE ALREADY ON THE FIRST ROW

For one row back (row minus 1) go two rows forward

For two rows back (row minus 2) go one row forward.

 

SOUNDS COMPLICATED BUT IT CAN BE SUMMED UP BY JUST SAYING SUBSTITUTE TWO FOR THREE OR THREE FOR TWO

 

What do they sound like?

Start note to Augmented 4th on to perfect 5th opening notes of Maria West Side Story

 

 


 

Part 4- The intervals on Wider Spaced diagonal Rows

(Four Apart or missing two rows between)

 

 

 


WAYS OF PLAYING CHROMATIC C SYSTEM UPWARD RUNS ON THE TREBLE

Including the Secret Way, Hidden in Plain Sight

 

The most obvious way of course is just using the chromatic diagonal row only and you will never go off course with a fully chromatic run.

 

But on closer examination you can, with planning, use the hidden system inside to play just as comfortably.

 

At any point you can exit to the normal system also or return to this system as long as you have sufficient rows available to do so.

 

Please enjoy this easy to understand diagram below

 

 


FINDING MORE INTERVALS ON C SYSTEM ACCORDION

 

OR most of them.

 

Bear in mind you can also find the same intervals by jumping to a different row, i.e. when you run out of higher rows from the 5th row or lower rows from the 1st row!

 

 

EXAMPLES OF INTERVALS

 

  • Semitones apart. C - C#, C# to D, D to Db, Db to D, D to Eb, Eb to E, E to F, F to F#, etc
  • Full tones apart C to D, D to E. E to F#, F# to G#, Ab to Bb, Bb to C
  • Minor 3rds. The notes of the diminished 7th chords so you can memorise them at the same time as learning what each row contains
  • C to Eb to F# to A
  • E to G to Bb to C# (Db)
  • B to D to F to G#(Ab)
  • Major 3rds C to E to G# Ab to C - OR - D to #F to A#(Bb) to Db to F or the notes of the other augmented chord which of course is made up of all major 3rds.
  • Perfect 4ths - You can see those spelt out in the circle of keys going down one button at a time on your Stradella bass system D to G to C to F to Bb to Eb etc
  • Diminished 5ths (grey mislabelled as perfect in diagram) C to Gb/F#, C# to G, D to Ab, etc found in the sme row
  • Perfect 5ths you can identify as going UP one button at a time on Stradella Bass. Eb to Bb to F to C to G to D to A to E to B etc
  • Minor 6ths I think I overlooked or could not find room for, they are of course major thirds in the opposite order (eg E to C instead of C to E)
  • Major 6ths you will quite unexpectedly find in the same row example D up to B
  • Normal 7ths are a major 2nd upside down, widely spaced in adjoining rows

PLAYING EXAMPLE ON C SYSTEM

The following short video shows a tune which includes mostly first inversion major arpeggio shapes at the beginning of most of the lines of music. Despite the markings on the keyboard this instrument was set to C system.

 


The Main Concept

In either the C System or the B System  each vertical row gives you a diminished 7th chords which in three rows from covers all possible notes.

 

The rows are made up the same on either C system or B system, after all they are simply going through a continuous scale of diminsihed 7ths. The only difference is exactly where they are placed and the direction of the diagonals.

 

With C system from the outside first row through to the inside 5th row you have in this order

  1. C - Eb/D# - F#/Gb - A
  2. C#/Db - E - G - Bb/A#
  3. D - F - G#/Ab - B
  4. C - Eb/D# - F#/Gb - A
  5. C#/Db - E - G Bb/A#

It is difficult to remember both forms of the "spelling" of the black notes of course. I usually try to remember the most commonly used version, but which is most common, G# or Ab?

 

When you are looking for D# it takes a moment or two to realise that it is the same as the  Eb right in front of you on the first row!

 

B System starts with D F G#/Ab which is the only row which has three out of the four different notes as white notes and only one black note, the row including C is obviously next, then C# then D (which is the B row again) and so on.

 

In the C system there is only one B row and in the B system only one C row.


Direction of travel 

As on a piano accordion as you go down away from your shoulders towards your toes the pitch goes up.

 

This system also means that diagonal movements in one direction take you in semitone steps and in the other diagonal full tone steps. With C system the probably more comfortable diagonal with the wrist higher than the fingers is full tones the other slightly twisted or more tucked in angle is semitones. 


Advantages of Chromatics

More treble notes

The buttons being to some extent alongside one another means more notes can be fitted into a smaller accordion. A 72 bass or a 96 bass can have the same number of right hand notes as a 120 bass piano accordion. A 120 bass chromatic can have many more than the comparable piano accordion.

Better stretches

This also makes extraordinary stretches available and different arrangements and note spacing possible even for average size hands.

Same Stradella  Bass system

 

Chromatic accordions still have the stradella bass system that you are used to.

 

I think it may be a healthier use of the finger than the piano keyboard and one of the reasons I took it up was as insurance against finger deterioration. The movements are very nice to do once you get really into it.


You are almost a Free Bass player already

If you have ever fancied going over to free bass playing however you are already more than halfway there if you play chromatic. The free bass is usually specified as C chromatic for the bottom three or four rows of the bass system and the same tune can be played with the left hand as on the equivalent chromatic right hand.

 

This is compared with the right hand playing without using the thumb of course. Thumb use is slightly discouraged on chromatic treble, some of the fastest most free flowing passages are played on 2, 3, 4, and 5 only.

 

The thumb is sometimes necessary but more difficult to use on the inner rows as it comes in at a flat angle, not punching from above as with the other fingers

 

Obviously Free Bass feels more natural if you are already using the same systemon the right hand with a chromatic accordion.

 

By the way if you have a C system chromatic, the free bass will normally be also C system and B free bass with B system chromatic. When added to a piano keyboard it could be either, or even an extension of the single notes of stradellabass known as quint free bass.  It will be likely to be C system free bass, but this is far from being a hard and fast ule.


 

Easy Chord Examples


 

The Major Chord and 7th chord and Arpeggio

The diagram should be self explanatory, viewing the keyboard from the right hand's position alongside the keyboard.

 

You can find this chord by playing this anywhere on the treble chromatic keyboard, anywhere on any row. Just so long as you do not run out of notes for it.

 

To practice it start withg the root position, then work upwartds to 1st inversion, 2nd inversion. Also 3rd inversion if including the 7th.

 

If you DID start right against the inside of the keyboard on the 5th row you would need to track backwards to the 3rd row to complete the pattern.


 

The Minor and Minor 7th Chords and Arpeggios

 

This is very easy to remember particularly for the minor 7th since you have two buttons in each adjoining row.

 

In the minor chord root position remember a minor chord consists of a minor 3rd with a big fat major 3rd sitting incosiderately on top of it!

 

So it is only natural that the minor 3rd will be found on the same row as the root, as part of the continuous diminished 7ths. The next part of the minor chord is found as the larger movement towards the next row.

 

Again try practising the different inversions to get used to finding the chord anywhere.

 

And again remember you can make a perfect minor 7th starting absolutely anywhere on the keyboard.

 

It is advisable however to remember which chord it is. On the chromatic it is very easy to play perfectly in two different keys treble and bass if you forget what note you started your tune on!


 

The Major Scale in 5 rows

The easiest way to show the basic principle though you will more often use a 3 or 4 row version explained later.

Here you can see how most of the moves are along the full tone axis, twisting momentarily.

 

It is unlikely in this example that you would use the thumb

 

Most people tend to play only 3 rows at a time, the outer ones which I will explain later. This will require 3 diagrams, one for starting in each of the three different rows.

 

It would also be advisable by realising the interval you are travelling in to be able to "leak" onto extra notes in other rows to smooth out the fingering and thus the playing. If you are continuing to the next tone or semitone for example.


                                                

The Major Scale in 3 Rows for C System Chromatic

For people who only have 3 row chromatic C systems or have a phobia about moving onto the 4th and 5th rows here are major scale note patterns for using the first 3 rows only.

 

This is not for three row diatonic accordions, sorry!

 

You will only need three note patterns, one for starting in each row, and this will work as you start from different buttons in that row.

 

And some of the moves are a little awkward which might make using at least one additional row a good idea.

 

NOTICE THAT NO SPECIFIC SCALES ARE QUOTED

This is not necessary as you can start on any button for getting different scales. Adjustments become necessary only when you run out of button rows to go on to.


 

Major Scale Starting in Row 1

Keys C Eb F# A - you should know that by now, the notes of the first row.

 

 

 

 

The modification of starting from the fourth row seems worthwhile (marked in green) if you have a four or five row instrument


 

Major Scale Starting in Row 2

Keys C# E G and Bb

The modification in green of using the fourth row here again is another good start to using that elusive row

 


Major Scale Starting in Row 3

Keys D F Ab and B

 

 

 

 

Probably the most civilised version!

 


 USING THE EXTRA ROWS

 

It is a good idea to know what the other two rows do so that you can use the same fingering in different rows to play the tunes in different keys, or so that you can continue on to a more comfortable fingering using the extra rows.

 

Here to help you visualise the keyboard in a different way here is a diagram focussing on the middle 3 rows.

 

 

I think you will be able to work out how it would feel using the top three rows by adjusting your field of view on this diagram! It would be insulting of me to assume otherwise!

 

Unless of course you are just using a four row, often used by French players, and still a useful very playable concept, and not so many notes to identify. So you would only have the duplicated C row to remember as an extra.

 


 

 

HOWEVER - WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF ROWS, EITHER ON THE ACCORDION OR WITHIN YOUR AREA OF COMFORT

 

If you wish there were an extra row above for your next row you will find an alternative version TWO ROWS BELOW

 

IF you are after a note that would be two rows above your substitute will be ONE ROW BELOW

 

If you wish you had a note in a row ONE NOTE BELOW there is another TWO NOTES ABOVE

 

And of course if you wanted a note in a row two rows below that was not there it will be very handily placed in the next row above.


 

 

SPECIAL NOTE - NOT A B SYSTEM

 

When you are playing from the third row you might think "Oh wow! I am playing a B system now". YOU ARE NOT!

 

The B system although it has the same notes in the various rows and even in the same order as the C system works differently as to how they are aligned with each other. (Geologists might think in terms of movement of tectonic plates) So the diagonal direction for semitone movement on B system is like the tone diagonal on the C system, and vice versa.

 

This results to my mind in some rather uncomfortable movements to shape your major and minor keys on B system, going against the natural radiating shape of the fingers on the hands.

 

But maybe that is just me.


 

FOR THE SAKE OF COMPLETENESS - A PEEK AT B SYSTEM

 

 

Notice that not only is the row containing B D G Ab/G# on the outside and there is room to repeat it but there is no room for an extra C Eb F# A row within the 5 rows.

 

Also most importantly that if you try to do a chromatic run in the C system way you will get a run of full tones, and vice versa.

 

If you look at any major chord shape for example if you start on the bottom row with D you will have to skip a row to find F# and A to make up your D major chord while a D minor chord of D F and A involves a rather uncomfortable hand shape. From the second row to find Bb major you either skip upwards or add D an F in a rather uncomfortable twisting fingers shape.

 

But that is just my opinion of course. But there are a lot more C players to help you in the original European countries, though B system in Eastern Europe and Russia.

 


DESCRIPTIVE TERMINOLOGY OF SYSTEMS - WHICH IS WHICH?

 

The C System is called so because the note C is found in the outside row. Your C system will only have one row with B in it.

 

The B system is so called because the note B is in the outside row. That B system will only have one row with C in it!

 

I have come across adverts for chromatic accordions (so far as I can tell) describing them as C C# D or B C C# which probably better describes the effect of reading the notes across the keyboard. And makes sense from the position of diatonic accordion players.

 

This is my own merely logical assumption however, so always double-check.

 

There are also some rarer national variations with the C row in a C system starting in the third row but this is fairly rare.

 

Always double-check the system when buying a chromatic accordion.