Play Button Accordion

Tips on learning to play the Irish button accordion.

by Eric Armstrong

The nice thing about a diatonic musical instrument (one that plays in a set scale), is that it's fairly easy to play (considering the alternatives). It can also help you learn to read music, with the right teaching aid. That's what this page is all about.

The accordion I play is one custom-designed by Yutaka Usui at It has a sound and action I fell in love with a workshop he ran. The only other instruments that sounded as good, to my ear, were the boxes that cost $2500 or more. At less than a fifth the cost, it was too enticing a bargain to pass up.

Below is a diagram for the C#/D accordion that shows the buttons on the keyboard and the notes they make when you push (->) or pull (<-) on the bellows. The diagram is in 8-1/2 x 11 size so you can print it out and tape it to the wall. As well as the buttons, it shows where the notes appear on the musical (treble) staff to make it easier to read sheet music. (It should therefore help in learning to read sheet music as much as in picking out a tune.)

The notes on the buttons come from Han Speek's Differences of the Irish Squeezebox page. I'm indebted to that page for finding out what the notes are on the box! I've added the notes on the musical staff to make it easier to pick out tunes.

Keep in mind, however, that sheet music is best used as temporary learning aid when you are first learning a tune. It's particularly helpful when you are working out the fingering, so you can find the best place to position your hand on the keyboard. But it's no substitute for learning a tune by ear.

If you can, listen to a recording of the tune a dozen times or to get the feel of it in your head. Then spend some time trying to pick it out by ear. Use the sheet music to get the starting note and for clues to the tricky bits. (When you're first starting, that's most of the tune. But do what you can to play by ear.) And after you've first learned it, try to only play it from memory, using your ear to assist the recall process. Reserve the sheet music when for those times when you've totally forgotten what comes next.

The reason for learning to play by ear is that it eventually gives you the ability to improvise. That's important when you're playing traditiional music, because the simple melodies need to be varied as you play them, to keep them from getting boring. In time, the idea is to be able to hear a variation in your head and have it come out your fingers. For more on that topic, see Learning to Play By Ear.

Of course, if you're going to follow along and play by ear, it helps to have a slow recording to play with. There are a couple of good ways to get them. One way is record a slow session where people are learning the tunes -- preferably with a teacher who is going over the music, phrase by phrase. That's the best way I've found to learn to play by ear, because the repetition and slow speed make it possible for you to develop your ability without slowing down the music (which typically distorts it so it's harder to hear) and without constantly stopping and rewinding the music to catch every phrase.

In time, you'll find that the very best recording device is your own brain because, once it is in your head, you can play it any speed you want. That's why some folks who play by ear will listen to the tune non-stop for a day or two -- to drive it into their brain so they can play it at any speed they want when they're learning it. Personally, I think that approach takes a lot of fun out of a tune. But it might work for you.

Another way to learn tunes is with pre-recorded melodies that are played reasonably slowly. One great book in that regard is The Box, by David C. Hanrahan (available at Ossian). That book is written for the B/C accordion, but it contains a good introduction to the instrument and a great selection of tunes in music notation.

On the accompanying CD, Hanrahan plays the tunes at a pretty decent pace for learning. They're played twice, which is enough for practice, but that's not enough time when you're first learning to play by ear, so you'll definitely want to use the sheet music to help you figure out the tunes. That's where the diagram below comes in handy. Reproduce it freely for non-profit use and to make handouts for a music class (preserving the appropriate credit, of course).

Here is the C#/D diagram.


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