AskDefine | Define harmonium

Dictionary Definition

harmonium n : a free-reed instrument in which air is forced through the reeds by bellows [syn: organ, reed organ]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A small keyboard instrument consisting of a series of reed pipes which sound when air is allowed to pass through them by means of a valve that opens when a key is depressed.

Usage notes

  • See Wikipedia for differences in usage between US and UK

See also

Extensive Definition

A Harmonium is a free-standing musical keyboard instrument similar to a Reed Organ or Pipe Organ. It consists of free reeds and sound is produced by air being blown through reeds resulting in a sound similar to that of an accordion. The air is supplied by foot-operated (or, as with the type of harmonium used in Indian music, hand-operated) bellows alternately depressed by the player.

Harmonium or Reed Organ?

The British introduced harmoniums to India during the colonial period. 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.
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.


The harmonium was invented in Paris in 1842 by Alexandre Debain, though there was concurrent development of similar instruments. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), Professor of Physiology at Copenhagen, was credited with the first free reed to be made in the western world after winning the annual prize in 1780 from the Imperial Academy of St.Petersburg.
Harmoniums reached the height of their popularity in the West in the late 19th- and early-20th centuries. They were especially popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ would be too large or too expensive. Harmoniums generally weigh less than similarly-sized pianos and are not as easily damaged in transport, thus they were also popular throughout the colonies of the European powers in this period- not only because it was easier to ship the instrument out to where it was needed, but it was also easier to transport overland in areas where good-quality roads and railways may have been non-existent. An added attraction of the harmonium in tropical regions was that the instrument held its tune regardless of heat and humidity, unlike the piano. This 'export' market was sufficiently lucrative for manufacturers to produce harmoniums with cases impregnated with chemicals to prevent woodworm and other damaging organisms found in the tropics.
At the peak of the instruments' popularity around 1900, a wide variety of styles of harmoniums were being produced. These ranged from simple models with plain cases and only 4 or 5 stops (if any at all), up to large instruments with ornate cases, up to a dozen stops and other mechanisms such as couplers. Expensive harmoniums were often built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top of the instrument. Small numbers of harmoniums were built with two manuals (keyboards). Some were even built with pedal keyboards, which required the use of an assistant to run the bellows or, for some of the later models, an electrical pump. These larger instruments were mainly intended for home use, such as allowing organists to practise on an instrument on the scale of a pipe organ, but without the physical size or volume of such an instrument. For missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, travelling evangelists, and the like, reed organs that folded up into a container the size of a very large suitcase or small trunk were made; these had a short keyboard and few stops, but they were more than adequate for keeping hymn-singers more-or-less on pitch.
The invention of the electronic organ in the mid-1930s spelt the end of the harmonium's success (although its popularity as a household instrument declined in the 1920s as musical tastes changed). The Hammond organ could imitate the tonal quality and range of a pipe organ whilst retaining the compact dimensions and cost-effectiveness of the harmonium whilst reducing maintenance needs and allowing a greater number of stops and other features. By this time harmoniums had reached high levels of mechanical complexity- not only through the need to provide instruments with a greater tonal range, but (especially in North America) due to patent laws. It was common for manufacturers to patent the action mechanism used on their instruments, thus requiring any new manufacturer to develop their own version- as the number of manufacturers grew this led to some instruments having hugely complex arrays of levers, cranks, rods and shafts which made replacement with an electronic instrument even more attractive.
The last mass-producer of harmoniums in the West was the Estey company, which ceased manufacture in the mid-1950s. As the existing stock of instruments aged and spare parts became hard to find, more and more were either scrapped or sold. It was not uncommon for harmoniums to be 'modernised' by having electric blowers fitted, often very unsympathetically. The majority of harmoniums today are in the hands of enthusiasts.
A relatively modern example of the use of a harmonium can be found in The Beatles' hits "We Can Work It Out" and "Real Love".


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.
Harmoniums are made with 1, 2, 3 and occasionally 4 sets of reeds. Classical instrumentalists usually use 1-reed harmoniums, while a musician who plays for a qawaali (Islamic devotional singing) usually uses a 3-reed harmonium.

The harmonium in India

During the mid-19th century missionaries brought French-made hand-pumped harmoniums to India. The instrument quickly became popular there: it was portable, reliable and easy to learn. Its popularity has stayed intact to the present day, and the harmonium remains an important instrument in many genres of Indian music. It is commonly found in Indian homes. Though derived from the designs developed in France, the harmonium was developed further in India in unique ways, such as the addition of drone stops and a scale changing mechanism.
In Kolkata, Dwarkanath Ghose of the renowned Dwarkin was adept in modifying musical instruments as per individual needs of users and is particularly remembered for modifying the imported harmony flute and producing the hand held harmonium, which has subsequently become an integral part of the Indian music scenario. Dwijendranath Tagore is credited with having used the imported instrument in 1860 in his private theatre, but it was probably a pedalled instrument which was cumbersome, or it was possibly some variation of the reed organ. Initially, it aroused curiosity but gradually people started playing it and Ghose took the initiative to modify it. It was in response to the Indian needs that the hand-held harmonium was introduced. All Indian musical instruments are played with the musician sitting on the floor or on a stage, behind the instrument or holding it in his hands. In that era, Indian homes did not use tables and chairs.
The harmonium is essentially an alien instrument to the Indian tradition, as it cannot mimic the voice, which is considered the basis of all Indian music. Meend (glissando), an integral part of any classical recitation is not possible on the harmonium, and as such, one cannot faithfully reproduce the subtle nuances of a raga on this instrument. The harmonium is thus despised by many connoisseurs of Indian music, who prefer the more authentic yet more technical sarangi, in accompanying khyal singing.
A popular usage is by followers of various Hindu and Sikh faiths, who use it in the devotional singing of prayers, called bhajan or kirtan. There will be at least one harmonium in any mandir (Hindu temple) or gurdwara (Sikh temple) around the world. The harmonium is also commonly accompanied by the tabla as well as a dholak. To Sikhs the harmonium is known as the vaja/baja. It is also referred to as a "Peti" ( A loose reference to a "Box") in some parts of North India and Maharashtra.
It also forms an integral part of the Qawwali repertoire, as many Qawwals use a harmonium when performing Qawwalis. It has received international fame as the genre of Qawwali music has been popularized by renowned Pakistani musicians such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Aziz Mian.
The harmonium is also used in Middle Eastern music in certain parts of the Middle East.
There is some discussion of Indian harmonium-makers producing reproductions of Western-style reed organs for the export trade.


right|thumb|200px|Samvadini - a modified version of harmonium to perform solo on the instrument. In Indian music, the harmonium is considered to be one of the least versatile instruments. It is usually used as an accompanying instrument for vocalists. However, some musicians have begun playing the harmonium as a solo instrument. Pandit Bhishmadev Vedi, Pandit Muneshwar Dayal, Pandit Montu Banerjee, and Pamabhusan JnanPrakash Ghosh were among those personalities who popularized the harmonium for solo performance. Later Pt. Manohar Chimote gave a completely new dimension to the harmonium as instrument and unique style of playing solo on the instrument. He added the "Swarmandel" (Harp) on top of the reed board and made some significant changes into the tuning of Harmonium. With all the modification, he renamed the traditional harmonium to "Samvadini". With this beautiful and appropriate name, Samvadini is making its mark in the field of Music. Students of Pt. Manohar Chimote likePt.Rajendra Vaishampayan,Pt.Jitendra Gore of Mumbai, India are making their mark in the musical horizon. Pandit Tulsidas Borkar of Mumbai, Pandit Appa Jalgaonkar, Shri Purushottam Walavalkar, Pt. Rambhau Bijapure of Belgaum, and Pt. Datta Jogdande of Mumbai have created their own names in the field of harmonium playing. More recently, Dr. Arawind Thatte from Pune has sought to create a separate identity for the harmonium as a solo instrument. More and more music students are learning in this fashion.



  • 24 Pièces en style libre for organ or harmonium, op. 31 (1913) by Louis Vierne.
  • Antonin Dvorak's Five Bagatelles for 2 violins, Cello and harmonium Op.47(b79)
  • The final collection of pieces by César Franck popularly known as L'Organiste (1889-1890) was actually written for harmonium, some pieces with piano accompaniment.
  • Petite Messe Solonelle by Rossini is scored for two pianos and harmonium.
  • The album Early Music by Kronos Quartet has several songs featuring harmonium.
  • Sospiri, Adagio for String Orchestra, op. 70 - Edward Elgar (scored for Harp or Piano and Harmonium or Organ)


  • Christopher Orczy from New Zealand uses a Mustel harmonium for all his works from 2004 to present. From August 2004 to July 2005, he recorded the Harmonium Diaries series. The series consists of 12 albums, one for each month, of solo harmonium recordings. The harmonium was subtley treated with eq and reverb. In 2006, he recorded Transition, where the harmonium was processed to a greater extent. In 2008 he finished his first religious work, "Annunciation".


  • Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan,The younger brother of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was an accomplished harmonium player. His ability to play in all scales and skill in switching tunes at a moment's notice are considered amongst the best in his profession. While accompanying Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to England, he became widely known as Harmonium Raj Sahib (King of the Harmonium). His talents and accomplishments often went unrecognized due to playing in the shadow of his elder brother.
  • Aphex Twin's experimental Drukqs (2001) record appears to feature a harmonium in the track Penty Harmonium though it is unclear whether the instrument actually playing is real, sampled or programmed.
  • Most of Nico's post-Velvet Underground career is marked by a heavy usage of the harmonium, in avant-garde drone songs.
  • Jeff Buckley plays a harmonium in the song "Lover, You Should've Come Over" on his album Grace.
  • The Penguin Cafe Orchestra's Music for a Found Harmonium (not surprisingly) features a harmonium. They used the instrument on several other tracks as well, including "Cutting Branches For a Temporary Shelter".
  • Ivor Cutler uses a harmonium in many of his recordings and live performances.
  • Tori Amos features harmonium on several songs in 1996's Boys For Pele. She also toured with a harmonium, in addition to a piano and harpsichord, in support of the album.
  • Cornershop features harmonium on tracks such as "Sleep on the Left Side".
  • Xiu Xiu features harmonium on many of their albums, as well as in the live setting; most notably featured in the songs "Dr. Troll", "Nieces Pieces", and "Rose of Sharon".
  • Drekka uses a Pakistani lap harmonium on many recordings since 2000, and as a staple in live sets including the 9hour MEDIUM drone performed in Chicago, IL in 2000, set up by Odum6.
  • Space Mandino plays the harmonium while throat-singing in his song "Magic Thumb"
  • Br'er uses harmonium extensively on their album "of shemales and kissaboos", specifically on "Maven" and "Emily the Bear".
  • Peter Hayes plays the harmonium while throat-singing in his song "Open Invitation"
  • Roger Hodgson used the harmonium as the inspiration for many Supertramp songs. He bought a harmonium for £26 years ago and wrote Logical Song, Two of Us, and many others from this instrument.
  • Beck used the harmonium in several live performances of the song Nobody's Fault (But My Own).
  • Vanessa Carlton 's second album is called Harmonium. This doesn't have anything to do with the instrument though. Carlton explains the album title as being the result of playing with the word 'harmony'.
  • The current Broadway Musical Spring Awakening is one of the only Broadway shows to use a harmonium in the orchestration.


harmonium in Bengali: হারমোনিয়াম
harmonium in Bulgarian: Хармониум
harmonium in Danish: Harmonium
harmonium in German: Harmonium
harmonium in Modern Greek (1453-): Αρμόνιο
harmonium in Spanish: Armonio
harmonium in Esperanto: Harmoniumo
harmonium in French: Harmonium
harmonium in Italian: Harmonium
harmonium in Hebrew: הרמוניום
harmonium in Dutch: Harmonium
harmonium in Norwegian: Tråorgel
harmonium in Polish: Fisharmonia
harmonium in Portuguese: Harmônio
harmonium in Russian: Фисгармония
harmonium in Finnish: Harmoni
harmonium in Swedish: Harmonium
harmonium in Ukrainian: Фісгармонія
harmonium in Vlaams: Harmonium

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Hammond organ, baroque organ, calliope, calliophone, choralcelo, electric organ, electro-pneumatic organ, hydraulic organ, melodeon, melodica, orchestrelle, organ, organophone, pipe organ, reed organ, seraphine, steam organ, symphonion, tracker-action organ, tubular-pneumatic organ, vocalion
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