A Harmonium–like instrument was developed in Europe but a more popular type with bellows was created in America. The invention of Harmonium is credited to the Frenchman Alexandre Debain in 1842. The instrument became popular in the 19th and early 20th century but inventions of new instruments soon replaced the Harmonium. Though it is very popular in India, Pakistan and Nepal, the Harmonium is not a native instrument of India or other Asian countries. It was imported from Europe in the 19th century and continues to be a popular instrument of South Asia. The earlier type of Harmonium was big in size and was foot–operated. Low pricing and portability has made the Harmonium a popular instrument.
A Harmonium works like an accordion with the use of bellows and keyboard. The pushing of the bellows and the touching of the keys simultaneously produces sound on the Harmonium. A Harmonium has a number of reeds. When the keys are touched and bellows are inflated at the same time, volume of air passes through the reeds and musical notes are produced. The unique sound of the Harmonium improves with time and usage.
Components of a Harmonium include the handle, bellows, reeds, keys and stops which are all attached to a wooden body.
Harmonium is the most commonly used musical instrument in Indian music. Bhajans, ghazals, kirtans, qawwalis and all types of devotional songs are played to the accompaniment of the Harmonium. Due to its inability to produce certain refined elements of classical Indian music, it is not looked upon by elite composers, but is quite popular with a certain genre. Beginners find it easy to play due to its simple mechanism. Nomadic groups of people carry this instrument along with them and sing songs of folklore.
Harmoniums are available in the following variants:
- Standard or fold up: These models of Harmonium can be folded and be easily transported.
- Reeds: Harmonium usually has 1, 2, 3 or 4 bank of reeds. Male, female, tenor and bass are the names of the reeds, each one of which make a unique sound. More number of reeds makes the instrument heavy and creates a complex sound.
- Coupler buttons: Coupler is a device or a knob that connects one key with a high or low corresponding key. This model requires less number of reeds but demands more pumping of air through the bellows.
- With Stops: Stops are big knobs in a Harmonium model that allow passage of air in the air chamber and control the amount of air or volume of the reeds.
- Drone models are Harmoniums fitted with smaller knobs.
- Bellow position: Bellows are folds that help to pump air into the body of Harmonium to make a sound. Some models have bellows fitted in the front, in the inside and sometimes to the sides.
- Scale changer: A scale changer or a key changer is a complex mechanism fitted to a Harmonium. It enables to shift the keyboard left or right. Also, it helps to play a song in different keys.
- A number of Octaves: Harmoniums come in various sizes. Number of octaves depends upon the size of keyboard. Bigger the keyboard, the more is the number of octaves.
Top Indian vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi used the Harmonium as an accompaniment in an orchestra. Well known qawwali exponent Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan always played the Harmonium in his compositions. Ustad Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan was known as the King of Harmonium and played along with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The Harmonium is the one of the easiest instruments to play amongst the musical instruments. The beginner’s Harmonium is available for the beginners to get basic lessons in learning. Also, there are music classes and teachers to teach particularly in India.