History of the Harmonium

harmonium-thumbHarmonium – (French, also Orgue expressif).

A well known popular keyed instrument, the tones of which are produced by thin tongues of brass or steel, set in periodic motion by pressure of air, and called ‘vibrators.’ They are known also as ‘free reeds’; reeds, because their principle is that of the shepherd’s pipe; free, because they do not entirely close the openings in which they vibrate at any period of their movement, while those generally used in the organ, known as ‘beating or striking reeds,’ close the orifice at each pulsation.

It is not, however, the vibration of the tongue itself that we hear as the tone: according to Helmholtz this is due to the escape of the air in puffs near its point, the rapidity of alternation of the puffs determining the pitch.

The timbre of the note is conditioned in the first place by this opening, and then by the size and form of the channel above the tongue and its pallet hole, through which air immediately passes.

The usefulness and convenience of the harmonium went far to establish it, almost as a rival, in a commercial use sense, to the pianoforte. It was a prevalent practice to regard the harmonium as a handy substitute for the organ.

It is true that like the organ the tones of the harmonium could be sustained at one power so long as the keys were kept down, and variety of timbre was obtained by using the stops; but when the expression stop was used, by which the air reservoir was cut off and the pressure made to depend entirely upon the management of the bellows, the harmonium gained the power of increase and decrease of tone under the control of the player, who by the treadles could graduate the condensation of the wind almost as a violin player managed his tone by the bow.

To use that power artistically the harmonium player needed skill; and few took as much initiative with as with the pianoforte and the violin.

History of the Harmonium

The history of the harmonium is intimately connected with that of the different wind harmonicas which, from the musical fruit and baby trumpets of Nuremberg, to accordians and concertinas.

Unlike as the whole tribe of reed organs have been to any notion of music that pertained to ancient Greece, it is not a little surprising that a large vocabulary of Greek names should have been adopted to describe them. The first name, Orgue expressif, was due to a Frenchman, Grenie, who, according to Fetis (Fabrication des Instruments de Musique, Paris, 1855), very early in the 19th century imagined the construction of a keyboard instrument, which, by tongues of metal vibrating under variable pressures of atmosphere, should give nuances, or varying intensities of sound.

His tongues were not ‘beating’ but ‘free’ reeds having an alternative movement, the energy depending upon the density of the air current affecting them.

It was not a novel principle, for the Chinese cheng might have suggested the employment of it; but be this as it may, Fetis was the inventor of it.

The experiments of Sebastian Erard with free reeds, of which Gretry thought su much, were already known.

A few years later than these, about 1814 some say, and quite independently, Eschenbach of Koenigshoven in Bavaria invented a keyboard instrument with vibrators, which he named ‘Organo-violine.’

Then began the Greek era.

In 1816 Schlimbach of Ohrdruff, improving upon Eschenbach, produced the Aeoline.

The next step was an apparatus for continuous wind, by Voit of Schweinfurt, who called his instrument Aeolodicon.

In 1818 Anton Hackel of Vienna constructed a diminutive aeoline as an instrument to be used with a pianoforte, bringing it out as Physharmonica. This bellows harmonica Professor Payer took with him to Paris in 1823, and several imitations were made of it, one of which, the Aerophone of Christian Dietz, was described by him in the sixth volume of the Revue Musicale (Paris, 1829).

Returning to Germany, Reich of Furth, near Nuremberg, produced at Munich in 1820 timbre registers imitating the clarinet and bassoon. The 16 foot or octave deeper register Fetis attributes to Fourneauz pier of Paris, 1836.

The Melophone came out at the Paris Exhibition of 1834, and was probably made by Jacquet, whom the same authority quotes as the only maker of melophones in 1855.

Elsewhere we read of an Aeolophone, an Adelphone, an Adiaphonon, an Harmonikon, an da Harmonine; of Melodiums, Aeloians, and Panorgues; of the poikilorgue of M. Cavaille-Coll, etc.

In England keyboard harmonicas with bellows were known by the name of Seraphine, which was not a harmonium, for it had no channels for the tongues.

The oldest English patent for a seraphine was that of Myers and Storer, dated July 20, 1839.

It must be remembered that nearly all these instruments had but one complete set of vibrators to a keyboard. The Organino, a tentative instrument of Alexandre Debain (born 1809, died 1877), had two notes an octave apart on each key. The this remarkable mechanician was due the gathering up the work of all his predecessors and uniting four stops on one keyboard to produce the Harmonium.

His first patent for this instrument, in Paris, is dated August 9, 1840.

Inventor or improver, Debain had the great merit of opening the path to contrasts in color of free reed tone, by means of various sized channels to the vibrators, submitted in different registers, to one keyboard.

It was, however, unfortunate that in the defense of his rights he was induced to secure to himself the sole privilege of using the name Harmonium in France, thus forcing other makers to use the name Organ, and thus to add another stone to the cairn of confusion in musical instrument nomenclature.

The name reed organ began to be used to express both the harmonium and the American organ, and was, perhaps, the best way out of the difficulty.

The next great invention after Debain – attributed by Fetis to the Alexandres, father and son – was the Expression, already mentioned, the creation of a new and aesthetically more valuable harmonium.

Another major invention was that of Martin, who gave the harmonium, to use a technical term, ‘quicker speech,’ i.e., made the sound more quickly follow the descent of the key. The invention is known as ‘percussion,’ and is an adaptation of the pianoforte escapement, by which a little hammer strikes the tongue at the same moment that it receives the impact of the wind.

Another invention of Martin’s terms ‘prolongment,’ enabled the player to prolong certain notes after the fingers had left the keys. Martin governed this by knee pedals, but it later was effected by a stop, and knocked off at will by a little heel movement.

The ‘melody attachment’ of William Dawes, patented in London, 1864, had the effect of making the melody note, or air, when in the highest part, predominate, by a contrivance that shut off all notes below the highest in certain registers of a combination.

In the ‘pedal substitute’ of Dawes and Ramsden that was reversed, and the lowest notes could be made to predominate over the other notes of a left hand chord.

An important invention, and curious as bringing the pianoforte touch to a certain extent upon the harmonium keyboard, is the ‘double touch,’ invented by an English musician, Augustus L. Tamplin, before 1855, and introduced systematically in the famous harmoniums of Mustel of Paris, and producing emphasized or strengthened tones by a greater depression of the key.

Another important invention of the greatest delicacy is Mustel’s ‘pneumatic balance’ (French double expression) – valves of delicate construction acting in the wind reservoir, and keeping the pressure of air in it practically equal, so that it could not possible be overblown.

Structure of the Harmonium

Proceeding now to the structure of the harmonium it is sufficient to notice externally the keyboard and treadles as prominent features.


The latter (a), moved by the feet of the player, feed the bellows (b); the air is by them forced up the wind trunk (g) into the wind chest (i), and from there, while the expression stop is not drawn, into the reservoir (f), in a continuous and equal stream, excess in which is obviated by a discharge pallet (e) acting as a safety valve.

But when the expression stop is drawn and the expression hole (h) to the reservoir is consequently closed, the air acts directly upon the vibrators or tongues (m), from the feeders (c).

The entire apparatus for the wind was covered by the bellows board (k), containing the valves (j) that admit the wind to the different rows of vibrators or reed compartments, as the stops (t) may be drawn.

Above the bellows board is the ‘pan’ (l), sometimes erroneously called the sound bard, a board of graduated thickness in which are the channels (n) – separate chambers of air to each vibrator, determining, as said before, the different timbres.

The proportions of the channels and size of the pallet holes are found empirically. The air within the channels, set in vibration by the tongues, is highly compressed. Sometimes, to gain a space and a different quality, the channels with their tongues were placed upright.

A stop (t) being drawn and a key (q) depressed, wind was admitted by the action to the tongue or vibrator, and escaped by the pallet hole (o) – at a comparatively even pressure if it comes from the reservoir, or at a varying pressure if, as already explained, the expression stop was drawn and the wind came from the feeders direct.

Below is a cut of the percussion action. Here q is the key, which on being depressed sends down a ‘plunger’ (a), which acted upon a little escapement action, with lever (b), hammer (c), and set off (d)



The harmonium had a keyboard of five octaves at 8 foot pitch. The bass stops ranged up to and included the e on the first line of the treble stave; and the treble stops ranged from the f upwards – twenty nine and thirty two notes respectively.

In an ordinary harmonium the registers or rows of vibratos were four in number, divided into bass and treble, and again into front and back organs as they were technically called.

The front organ had the foundation and the fuller tones stops, the back organ the imitation and more reedy stops. Thus, adding the French names as they were frequently met with:


  • 1 – Diapason bass and Diapason treble – Cor Anglais and Flute, 8-ft pitch
  • 2 – Bourdon bass and Double Diapason treble – Bourdon an dClarinette, 16-ft pitch


  • 3 – Clarion bass and Principal treble – Clarion and Fifre, 4-ft pitch
  • 4 – Bassoon bass and Oboe treble – Bassoon and hautbois – 8ft pitch
  1. Mustel retained this arrangement of the foundation stops in all harmoniums.

In the large Mustel instruments other stops of great beauty were added, the indisputable introduction of their ingenious maker.

  • Harpe Eolienne, Bass 2-ft pitch – two ranks of vibrators, out of tune, the one beat sharp, the other a beat flat, producing a tremulous effect.
  • Musette, Treble, 16-ft pitch. Nasal quality.
  • Voix Celeste – Treble, 16-ft pitch. Two ranks with soft quality.
  • Baryton – Treble, 32-ft pitch. Nasal quality like the Musette, but broader.

The ‘full organ’ (grand jeu) was a drawstop giving instantly the full power of the harmonium without the out of tune ranks. The ‘percussion’ had to do with the diapason only, and not with all four rows, as originally applied by Martin.

Two mechanical stops – the tremolo, which set the wind in motion before it reached the vibrators, and the Sourdine, which shut off a portion of the wind that would have reached them, was discarded in all harmoniums of good manufacture.

The Swell (recit) is like the Venetian swell in the organ. It was usually placed over the back organ, and was controlled by the ‘Pneumatic Vortes,’ set in motion by knee pedals, which opened the louvres by extra pressure of wind setting upon pnematic levers.

The front organ in foreign harmoniums was usually subdued by a thin board the under surface of which was covered with swans down or other soft material; that was replace din England by a covering of brown sheepskin or basil, also lined with swans down.

The tongues were not made of ordinary sheet rolled brass; but of a metal prepared expressly, and with some secrecy. The best was believed to be from hammered wire reduced by continued hammering to the thickness required.

A broader tongue was found to give a bolder tone, but sacrificed quickness of speech; a narrower tongue was shriller.

The tongues were bent in various ways, longitudinally and laterally, to gain sweetness, but the speech suffered.

Tuned was effected by scraping near the shoulder to flatten the tongue, or near the point to sharpen it. The air pressure somewhat affected the tuning of the larger vibrators, but it was a merit in the harmonium that it altered little in comparison with pianoforte or flue-work of an organ.

Double touch was produced by causing the back organ to speak first, and was divided technically into the ‘upper’ and ‘deep’ touches.

The harmonium was combined in construction with the pianoforte by Debain and other makers.

The timbres and nature of the two instruments were so dissimilar, not to say antagonistic, that now real benefit was to be gained by yoking them together.