India Instruments EN » Instruments » Harmonium » Harmonium Info » History & Construction

Construction & History


The sounds of the harmonium are generated by freely vibrating metal platelets - the so-called reeds - the same mechanism of sound generation as in the accordion. There is at least one reed for each note. Small air holes are positioned above all reeds, which are closed on top by leather seals like valves. By pressing down a key on the keyboard, the valve above the respective reed opens; the air accumulated inside escapes, blows at the reed and creates a sound. By releasing the key, it will be pressed back into its original position by means of a spring, the valve closes, the air stream stops, and the sound ceases.

The air for blowing the reeds is created by bellows, which in most harmonium models are fitted into the bottom of the instrument, invisible from outside. Visible are however the outer bellows at the back of the harmonium, blowing up the inner bellows using pumping movements and thus building up the required air pressure. Even if there is only little air inside the inner bellows, inbuilt springs see to it that the air escapes with a reasonably even pressure for playing.  

Most harmoniums have two or three separate reed sets placed inside in air chambers sealed off from one another. In most cases, the corresponding notes of the reed sets lie in octave's range to each other.  A distinction is made between three pitches: the deep bass octave, the middle male octave and the high female octave. An adjustment of the register at the front of the harmonium allows the selection of a respective air chamber from which the air of the inner bellows should escape. In this way, one or a free combination of the existing reed sets can be used for playing.

The outer frame, inner air chambers and key mechanisms are made from wood. The quality of the wood as well as the precision of manufacturing plays a major role. Bad wood quality or sloppy processing may result in parts jamming, ripping or distorting. Thus unplayable or permanently resonating notes or air loss creates malfunctions.

folds.  Leather is also used for the valve seals. Metal is used for screws, key springs, bellows springs, and reeds. The key surfaces are layered with plastic coatings. Visible wooden surfaces are polished with varnish, partly with added pigments, and either polished to high-gloss or semi mat or they are waxed.


The harmonium was invented in the middle of the 19th century in Europe. Originally, the instrument was standing on feet, was played while sitting on a chair and the air was not fed via manual bellows on the back of the instrument but by using foot pedals. During the second half of the 19th century, the European harmonium settled initially as an imported instrument into British colonial circles and with the Bengal elite in Calcutta, before it found its way into the Marathi theatre.

In the 1880s, national Indian harmonium manufacturing started. Approximately at the same time, the manual bellows at the back of the corpus substituted the foot pedals so that the harmonium, like all other Indian instruments, could be played whilst sitting on the floor. This also made its use as an accompanying instrument for singing classical Indian music, religious music and folk music possible. The vibrating reeds for producing its sound were however still imported, mainly from Germany or France. Only from the 1940s onwards, high quality Indian reeds were produced in Palitana in the Indian State of Gujarat, so that their import became redundant.

Although the harmonium had established itself in the first half of the 20th century throughout North India - thanks to its flexibility, reliability and simple handling - as an accompanying instrument in nearly all singing styles, it was disapproved of by classical purists for a long time and regarded unsuited for the refinements of Indian ragas. From 1940 to 1970, the use of the harmonium was therefore prohibited in classical Indian music at the official radio station All India Radio. Its triumphal march however could no longer be stopped.

Today the harmonium is a given, essential part of many Indian vocal ensembles. Main centres of harmonium manufacturing in India are Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi. Also in the West, the harmonium becomes ever more popular, mainly due to the success of Western mantra singers and the upsurge of yoga.