A Closer Look at the Harmonium


One of my favorite post-concert questions is, “Can you tell me what that squeeze box instrument is called?”  

I’m tempted to say,  “It’s a Squeeze Box, ” but that name is already taken by those juice boxes that some of us had the privilege of partaking in during lunch. I loved stomping on them when they were still 1/4 full of juice.

A close look at the metal reeds that are each tuned to a note in the scale

The squeeze box on the Future of Forestry stage is called a Harmonium, which, in my book is one of the coolest names an instrument could have. The prefix “harm” comes from the word harmony which is one of my favorite things about the instrument. Wind instruments are not typically polyphonic, so being able to get multiple notes out of one squeeze is a treat.

The closest instrument to a harmonium would be an accordion, which operates under the same general principle. An accordion is like a harmonium but strapped to your chest so you can walk around with it. The type of harmonium I have was made so it could be played while sitting on the floor; apparently they didn’t feel like marching with it. A hand-pumped harmonium, like mine, is usually from Asia.  However, there are European harmoniums out there that are foot pumped. The bigger they get, the closer they are to a pump organ. These organs are more like a mini pipe organ, bench and all.

To use the harmonium, you use one hand to pump air into it while the other hand plays the keys. Air gets pushed through metal reeds on each key, and many harmoniums (mine included) have a second or third set of reeds to add more tones. The limitation of only being able to play the keys with one hand makes it interesting. When recording, I often cheat by recording one track at a lower octave, then recording another track with a higher octave. The only alternative is to find a partner who is willing to play the significant role of “pumper” while I play with two hands.


Here’s a look at the inside of the instrument showing the levers that determine the flow path of air into the sets of reeds

Another challenge in playing the harmonium is that the keys are small; it feels like you’re playing a toy piano, squeezing large fingers into the chord formations. In addition to this, there is no such thing as a sustain pedal, so moving from chord to chord is rough because as soon as you let go of one key to get to another, it drops out and makes you sound like an amateur.  I’ve had to learn how to get my fingers to do a spider crawl from key to key, often switching fingers while holding down other keys to make a smoother transition to the next notes.


Interested in getting one? Read this first.

Here are some things to think about before you buy a harmonium: The Indian ones tend to be CRAZY out of tune.  Sometimes they are out of tune with themselves, in other words, the notes relative to each other are not in tune.  However, even if you find one that’s in tune with itself, the Indian harmoniums are not typically tuned to a standard A440.  So this is a huge problem for us Westerners who are playing all of our keyboards, guitars, basses, and every other instrument at A440.  So why not just tune it?  They are a huge pain to tune (that is a major understatement). Tuning a harmonium entails grinding the metal reeds down to tune each note sharper, and to top it off, you can only tune the notes sharper, never more flat!

Harmonium | Reeds
Harmonium | Bird's Eye
Harmonium | Inside 2

I bought mine off Craigslist in San Diego from a yoga teacher who got it in India but probably never really used it.

I think it was only $400. The key to the purchase was bringing a digital tuner to try it out before buying it. It's ‘A’ note registered around A455.  For those of you who don’t know what that means, an instrument playing 15 cents sharp can be noticeably offensive even to the non-musician. I have had to work around this in two ways:

For live shows, I make the band tune to A447.  It’s a happy medium so that at least the bass and guitars are closer (although I can’t tune the glockenspiel, vibraphone, or even typically the keyboards.

For studio recordings, the harmonium gets recorded, then pitched down a few cents.  Sometimes I pitch correct it a lot to get it close the other instruments while at other times, I just move it a few cents to retain its out-of-tune-ness.


Why it's so cool

I think the quirky, slightly out of tune sound is what makes the harmonium so cool. It is not your straight-up Hammond organ that is a rock solid substructure in the song. Its role is to provide some additional texture to the track. A harmonium brings life to a song because it literally needs to breathe. If you try to sample a harmonium, it will sound stale because the air pump, the lungs of the instrument, have been removed from its voice. The real magic of the harmonium is that you get to push harder or softer on the pump; the dynamics of it’s sound can ebb and flow, much like a human voice. When it is recorded, you also get the nice little clicking sounds from the pump. It is loads of fun to play.


Capturing the sound live or in the studio

The reeds can have a harsh tone when the instrument is pumped too hard. This is great for a song that needs to have a bite to it. However, if I’m trying to capture a full and bassy sound, I have to compensate for the harsh tones. One way I do this is by using a pair of Royer 121 microphones in the studio. They have a rich low end to them.  In concert, I use a Sennheiser 421 which also captures that low end. Keep in mind the Sennheiser can sound a bit too bitey or honkey (in the 2k region), so cutting a bit of EQ is often necessary.


Well, that’s all for today! Got more questions?  Please post them, and I will try to address it in a future blog!  See you next time.

Eric Owyoung9 Comments