Human Learning

Education issues, within and outside the education system.

More Subject...

Harmonium in the Western World

The creation of a musical instrument is usually based on the limits of ability, on the presence of response towards a certain technological challenge upon a particular society’s culture and era, or could also be triggered by some technological ‘leap’, such as what is happening in this current digitalization technology era of ours. On the other hand, in certain cases the discovery of a musical instrument related to technology, such as that which has happened in the development of the pipe organ, it turns out that this would need more than 1000 years for others to become inspired, to come to realization, to fulfill its potential. The discoverer of the first pipe organ, Hydraulis, named Ctesibius from Alexandria, Greece (300-230 SM) used hydraulic mechanism to stabilize wind bursts. But it was only at around the 14th century (somewhere around the year 1360) that Europeans further developed and kept modifying up to the 20th century. In other words, musical instruments would only finally get their chance to be created when the instruments’ supporting technologies have become ready, after going through various and long testing processes, and after all the elements needed have become integrated as has happened in the industrial revolution era.

The creation of a musical instrument opens new possibilities for man to more freely imagine using desired sounds which were previously difficult to produce. Even sounds that were previously inexistent or had never been imagined before. But the main motivation for man to create musical instruments is to create sounds based on his experiences and abilities to mimic sounds which he had previously ‘known’ before, either in his physical realm or mental, for the purpose of fulfilling his deepest desires. When observed, the creation of a certain musical instrument, in its truest meaning, really happens quite rarely indeed. What is most often achieved by people (especially in the West) is the mimicry, modification, improvement/perfection of an instrument to complement and build upon their already existing library of musical instruments. In the Western musical culture, the lute came from the oudh (Middle East), harmonium (and her related instruments) are developed from the sheng (or cheng) from China, these are a few examples of the Western people’s exploration of musical instruments from the 13th to the 20th century in continuity.

Within a musical instrument, there are contained particular principles, concepts, and technologies. When it enters into a particular musical realm the concepts within the instruments (either consciously or not) often times give influences to those who would adopt these instruments. When the party adopting realizes its potential, a musical instrument may be able to answer some technological problems that they were facing, and implement solutions as needed. When domestication of a certain musical instrument is done, then the society that receives it carries out various functional adjustments in accordance to the technical, conceptual, and aesthetic needs that they have. Therefore (it would seem strange), why did the Europeans adopt ideas from ‘other’ states, such as the sheng with its soft sound, instead of the bagpipes whose sound-producing principles are the same (based on reeds, and using air controlling bellows) but sound more harsh. This despite the fact that bagpipes are considered quite familiar among the Europeans since the middle of the 13th century, and they also know of these kinds of instruments from other cultures (North Africa, Persian Gulf, and Caucaus). Are the character of ‘soft’ sound, as in the sheng’s sound principles, or is it because of the air-distributing bellow design which creates sounds ‘similar’ to organs? Or does all of the above inspire the Europeans?

There are various methods by which people could adapt to the musical instruments which they adopt, and they do not always modify the construction of said instruments. What most often happens is they form a method or habit of playing the instrument in a way that they feel most comfortable and unencumbered to express themselves using said instruments. The violin playing method at various societies at various geographical locations are not the same as is commonly done by Europeans (who place them above their shoulder, next to the neck, stretching out to the side), but instead is placed in front of the shoulder, pointing down (which is usually classified as the way people play the fiddle). In Papua, Indonesia, they put the contrabass down on the flor, and they play their music by plucking or by using a mallet, and the adjustment of tone is done using the heel (instead of using the fingers of the hands). This music is called tifa and is used to accompany their youth dance, Yosin Pancar. In Java, the musicians of Kroncong play the cello by plucking them with their fingers, to represent the sounds of Kendhang (two sided drum, in accompaniment of two other stringed instruments, the cak and the cuk, who have their roles in rhythmic sub-divisions). In musical instruments which have no fixed division of note boundaries such as violins and cellos, this makes it easier for musicians to apply their own musical instruments upon those instruments.

Between man and his instruments there ideally exists a reciprocal back and forth relationship. Not only would the musical instrument give influence upon (inspire, change musical concept, or form) the user, but the user too could transform the musical instrument; either physically, in notation scale, sound character, or in the way the instrument is physically used. Such as how the Europeans respond to the ideas contained within the Sheng musical instrument by carrying out several significant transformations. The sheng, which was supposed to be played by blowing using the mouth, the sheng’s wind needs are modified to use a keyboard so that it would be easier to play. The bellows are replaced by a solid box, and would apply a pump system which would make it more possible to make the instrument sound however the player would want. This modification was done by Europeans unfamiliar with the blowing technique using circular breathing as was commonly used as a technique for playing wind instruments by Eastern nations. Besides the arrangement of notes within keyboard keys are more comfortable for Europeans, enabling them to more easily visualize the music structure being played.

These facts above shows that people tend to respond the musical instruments we adopt in accordance to our limits and needs, and also in alignment with the possibilities given by these musical instruments, in order to express our desires within through music.

Rumors which bring inspiration, and the idea of Harmonium’s creation

In addition to China, similar kinds of mouth organ instruments are also found in several Asian countries, such as among the Laotian people, Thailand (khene); Japan (shō); and the Dayak of Kalimantan, Indonesia (the kledi or kedire) centuries before the European were introduced to them. The adoption of the sheng into the harmonium did not happen instantly within the mind of its makers. The harmonium inspired by the musical instrument sheng (or cheng) from China is often thought to be a pipeless organ or reed organ. There are several versions of the story how sheng, this musical instrument classifyable as a mouth organ came to inspire Europe. It is recorded that since the 13th century we know that Marco Polo had brought this musical instrument to Central Europe, while another version says that this musical instrument was brought by the Tartar through Russia in their migration. These two versions are probably both true, besides contact between Chinese and Europeans related to sheng either in diplomatic or personal connections happen separately at several nations (for example in France). Because of this, the effort to develop a free reed aerophone happened simultaneously at several European nations at related times. Elements within the sheng instruments adoped by the Europeans are the soundmaking instruments of free reed and the mechanism of air distribution which cause vibration. 

New instrument development based on free reed; a technological challenge

Whatever triggered the idea, the significant change in the development of free reed aerophones which then resulted in the harmonium (and several of its cousins) are the holistic constructions of this instrument which encompass the keyboard mechanism for triggering sounds, the air bellows, and the clasps controlling the air holes. But the process of harmonium’s birth travelled through a long journey along with the development processes of its supporting technologies, though at the same period pipe organ technological progress had also developed as it is within a relatively larger physical size, with difficult and expensive maintenance. Elements adopted from the pipe organ implemented in the harmonium among others are the keyboard and the soundbox with the air creation mechanisms (bellows) which developed on from the 14th century. The first keyboards in music was first used in the clavichord famous in the 14th century (which then developed into the spinet harpsichord, pianoforte, and piano). The South Corp pipe organ in Duomo di Milano (which now uses 16,000 pipes), historically began at the same era, which is around the year 1395 (continuously experiencing renovation and modification well into the 1990s)

In the Renaissance era, when the music instrument developed from a mere accompaniment of song and dance, musicians began using the instrument as a solo performance and created specific compositions for specific instruments. Starting at that time the Europeans (and Americans) kept developing their mechanical technologies further. Between the 16th to the middle of the 17 century, there was then developed several new musical instruments such as the violin, saxophone, etc., including several instruments more experimental in nature such as the lituus, serpent, glass armonica and several other instruments famous on their eras.

The first sound instrument known with a free reed source was known to be in Europe in 1619 (Michael Preatorius, Sytagma Musicum II, De Organographia). But this invention, perhaps inspired by sheng, was forgotten. Marin MersAnne in 1636, in his letter described the sheng as a free reed instrument. This then shows Europe’s introduction to the principle of free reed music instrument. More or less one century laters, sheng was introduced by Johann Wilde to Russian Court Society at St. Petersbur in 1740. And on 1779, after having often watched Johann Wilde play the sheng, physicist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein from Copenhagen became fascinated by the instrument. Kratzenstein then conducted tests on the sheng sound and successfully created an instrument capable of producing free reed-based sounds, and received award from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Kirsnik, the organ maker who helped Kratzenstein experiment with free reed, made a musical instrument with organ-style keyboard, played with the dominant hand and bellows operated by the other hand, which came to be known as the kirsnik Harmonica. Up to 1810 the free reed instrument had not been really appreciated by European society, until Grenie removed pipes from the organ, replacing them with reeds. This creation of his became the first musical instrument applying free reed with bellows that as a musical instrument looks different. In the year 1816 Johann Bushmann, an organ maker fromn germany, introduced his Terpodion creation, another free reed keyboard which predates the harmonica and harmonium. These are of course but one version of how things are described in how Europeans journeyed their exploration of harmonium, which of course was also done at other European countries at either the same time or later on.

On the one hand we can understand why the process of harmonium’s invention was so long and meandering. They calculated the various possibilities for implementing a playing method (by blowing, various buttons to trigger sounds, etc.), as well as the creation of supporting tools and the construction of the musical instruments. From sheng’s first introduction in Europe from the 13th century up to the 19th they kept studying, and developing technological possibilities, until they were technically able to create supporting tools with consistent quality, until finally mass producing them. Especially in designing a set of reeds of small and thin enough whose size difference one from another measures in the millimeter. But the hardest part in fact is in getting a consistent series of reed sizes with spacing patterns in accordance to the needed tonal scale.

Therefore the musical instrument makers gave their full attention to construction materials and workmanship, so that their creations would become adequate collectible items at private homes and museums. Such expertise highlights their position (the instrument makers) and how integrated their field of study was to the related academic worlds (physics, architecture, and acoustics).

Pipe Organ

Ever since hydraulics was discovered around 2nd century BC, it was not until sometime between the 6th or 7th century AD were bellows used to pump wind into organs. This device was adopted from metalworkers who use them to increase the temperature of fire furnaces in the creation of various metal tools. At the beginning of the 12th century the organ began developing into a much more complex musical instrument with the capability of producing different timbres. And on the 17th century the sounds produced by the more contemporary classical organ had been developed using mechanical movement devices in order to produce a more varied sound from various different pipe types. The large volume (of the pipes) and the wind producing mechanisms made this instrument to become the larges musical instrument in size and range from ever since the 14th century. This instrument was classified as one of Man’s most complex creations before the Industrial Revolution. The size of the pipe organs varied from single short keyboards with limited tonal range all the way to large devices with up to 20,000 pipes, sizing from a cubic meter all the way to five floors large built integrally within churches, synagogues, concert halls, and houses. The smaller organs were called positives (which were more easily transported between locations), or portatives (easier to bring along).

But this device required high maintenance costs and were difficult to maintain, and so it were only large and rich institutions that were able to maintain and use them. And therefore in tin 140s pipe organ makers gravitated towards using pneumatic devices to reduce the use of mechanical operations, and then in the 1860s it was followed by the use of electro-pneumatic operations which made it possible for keys to controll the opening of each clasp on each pipe. Until the 1920s when this electro-pneumatic mechanism began to be abandoned, replaced by electromagnets and relay tools which made the pipe organ easier to control in operation with the use of adjustment buttons. This system is related to organs using diode couplers.

A pipe organ uses keyboards (called manuals) played with the hand, and pedalboards played with the foot, each having their own group of stops which link them to pipe holes. The large modern organ usually uses three or four keyboards each with a range of five octaves (61 notes), and a two-and-a-half octave (32 note) pedalboard. The sounds produced not only originated from pipes, but also from the resulting resonances with its surrounding environmental acoustics (the space where the pipe organ spreads its sounds), in contrast to the electric organ whose sound is produced from loudspeakers. The environmental architecture where this musical instrument resides is usually designed in accordance to the size, shape and room acoustic considerations, and the capacity of the musical instrument in question. Over the next periods (after the birth of the harmonium) the organ experienced a hybridized development, where pipes became complementary together with the addition of electronic devices which continue to shrink the size and cost of making organs (when pipes have been replaced.)


The term and the musical instrument Harmonium was born in Paris on August 9th, 1840, created by Alexandre Debain. Debain’s creation was a new approach, which transformed the reed organ industry which grew over several following decades due to sound quality and to how it was able to be mass-produced.

The Harmonium, invented in Europe, is a musical instrument shaped like a box somewhat similar to organs who use keyboards with sound-producing principles based on free reeds vibrated using wind (by blowing). Therefore this device is classified as a free reed-aerophone. Other similar instruments, such as the melodeon, and the reed organ (parlor organ, pump organ, cabinet organ, cottage organ, etc.), they produce their airflow by way of suction, as invented and used in America. While on other musical instruments related to the harmonium such as the harmonica, concertina, bandoneón, accordion, and the Russian bayan (a type of accordion), airflow is produced using both blowing and suction. Where the harmonium is more often used at homes and churches (particularly poorer ones) or at chapels to accompany religious activities, the accordion (and similar) are more used by categories of commoner/popular musics in the local socio-cultural activities, especially in Europe and America. The harmonium (and related) were created by a spirit of experimentation, and due to the growing need for the creation of church organs but with a price range more affordable to the wider population.

The reed harmonium (and its relatives) were made of metals (brass or steel) shaped as flat plates whose one of its ends were permanently affixed (rigid frame) so that their other ends would freely vibrate when blown over by wind. The pitch (how high each note) from each reed was fixed in accordance to their particular length and width, where the bigger the reed the lower the note produced and vice versa. One set of reeds were arranged in semitonal note scale and consisted of several octaves. The fixed reed sets were affixed onto frame holes without any gaps. When the wind blows on (or sucks), a ree will move in the direction of the wind and then bounce back to the opposite direction, and so on moving back and forth for so long as the wind is puped. This situation in real situations is when the reed vibrates, and the air pressure produced by the reed’s swinging back and forth upon the frame holes created a tone in accordance to the reed in question.

The keyboard keys each is connected to each note. When a key is pressed, airflow modifying mechanisms would open up, and when bellows pump wind would be produced and would cause related reeds to vibrate and produce sound. The wind produced by the mechanism and the air pump mechanisms (bellows) were operated by hand or feet. On harmoniums with hand bellows (which are located at the back), one hand pumps while the other hand (generally the dominant hand) plays the keyboard keys; the musical instrument would either be placed on a table while the instrumentalist sits on a chair, or the musical instrument is placed on the floor and the musician sits cross-legged on the floor (as is common in Eastern cultures). Meanwhile with the harmonium whose bellows are foot-operated, both hands are free to play the keyboard, with the musician sitting on a chair.

The shared trait of the harmonium and the pipe organ (whose system is much more complex) are they both operate on wind. Where the harmonium uses multi-sized reeds, the pipe organ uses multi-sized pipes to create a desired tonal scale. Similar with the harmonium, an organ needs a series of pipes arranged in semitonal note scales, but it has a much wider tonal range in comparison to the harmonium, both in its lowest and highest notes. The pipe organ uses the sound-making principle from a whistle and reed constructed from equipment mechanisms considerably the most complex for its era. Not as complex as the pipe organ, the harmonium basically uses the same system in the manner of its airflow management system from the keys to the holes manipulating the sound at each reed. The continuation of the sound is also the same as with the pipe organ which is it continues to sound so long as the bellows are pumped and the keys are pressed.

As the musical and technological developments progressed from the 18th century up to the time of World War 1, music based on this free reed had an opportunity for development into becoming a compact, durable, and easily maintainable instrument. The European people themselves would only come to accept the harmonium around the middle of the 1800s. The Europeans required a long process of understanding, situations and triggers which opened the possibilities so that this instrument would come to be created, mass produced, and appreciated by its society.

Twelfth semitone equal tempered

In the 1600s various opinions and speculations developed regarding the arrangement of the tonal relationship system of the octave range, to receive the ideal cyclical (fifth or fourth) range between notes. The source of musical science authority in development up to the 16th century is De Muisica written by Boethius (6th century AD) who promoted Pythagoras’ harmonic doctrines (550 BC) that audible music is the physical form of mathematical principles (harmonia) which governs the relationship between all important elements in nature. He divides the length of a certain length of string into several fractional proportions in order to receive frequency ratios from two notes such as the following 1:1 (unison or prime), 2:1 (octave), 3:2 (perfect fifth), 4:3 (perfect fourth), etc. This system was used to explain intervals within Western and other music. This method was also often used in just intonation and in the theoretical explanation of equal tempered interval as used in European tonal music.

But then at the beginning of the 16th century several musicians declared the harmonic tradition to be no longer relevant. The composers have encountered a practical problem in the tuning of the keyboard (particularly concerning the difference within the octave notes), modulation between keys, and in the confirmation of its compositional system. Musicians playing musical instruments with a fixed pitch such as the keyboard and lute realize that in a polyphonic music composition created for two or more parts with notes in the Pythagorean scale, they become inconsistent in small numeric ratios. These conflicts between musical practice and theory then played an important role in pushing the reemergence of experimental science. From the Enlightenment era music was classified within the fine and performing arts. Up to around the 1700s when music (as is art) is considered a science, in the meaning of that they are a systematic constellation of theories wich include practical and speculative aspects. An the experimentalists executed various experiments to find the codified relationship between the physical realm and music. One of these is their attempt to create divisions of scale based on 19, 24, 48, 53 and other larger numbers of notes, which at the end failed to produce anything. And then the twelfth semitone equal temperament was finally found as the solution for the basis of notational scale on musical instruments and compositional structure of western music. Because the division based on 12 notes whose (half-)note range are divided equally within an octave, this is what was considered most optimal, though it would mean the sacrifice of certain notes at certain scales.

Harmonium Usage.

At the very least ever since the 6th century the organ began entering the Western people’s daily lives. In general we can trace it to ever since music was introduced into Church service by Pope Vitalianus at the 7th century AD. But other sources also mention the presence of organs owned by the convent at Grado before the year 580 AD. And at 766 AD an organ was sent from Constantine as a gift to Pepin, King of France. At around the 8th century the use of organ in relation to gladiator combat as an attraction, and following that slowly it gained a place within the Roman Catholic Church Liturgy. In the next phase, development and construction was dedicated to Pope Sylvester, who died on 1003. This tradition continued on because the Church held an important role in the power of monarchies in Europe right when the keyboard-based instruments were created (at around the 14th century). Up to the middle of the 20th century keyboard musical instruments such as the pipe organ, had become official musical instrument of Christian Liturgy in Europe, North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and also at several of their conquered colonies in the form of religious Christian and Reform Jewish, with their instruments called the Church Organ.

Regardless of the experimental aspect of the making of this king of musical instrument, on the other hand, within society at the time there was also a growing need to own a musical instrument more suited to a more limited environment (homes, chapel) and their limited economic capacities. Development of mechanical technologies on the keyboard instruments lead to the development of types of pipe organs sized smaller and more portable. The harmonium became renowned particularly among small churches and chapels of whom it was impossible to own a pipe organ because it would be to large or to expensive for their places of worship. And because of its more affordable price the presence of harmonium became more widely accessible by the people of Europe and America who couldn’t own a pipe organ. Up to the 1900s it was quite popular among people; it had even became quite a profitable export commodity. India was one of Harmonium’s destinations, in addition to several Middle-Eastern nations, and a few locations in Indonesia. In its religious role it further widens the role of the church organ in carrying out its religious service roles at remote areas, because it was easier to carry around in more mobile activities. So to for the European missionaries stationed at remote areas to serve Christian liturgy, while at the same time as a supporting medium for the spread of Christian mission (for example in India and other British areas of conquest). At locations like that the road transportation facilities are often quite unmaintained, with unadvantageous environmental conditions (high humidity, and extreme temperature difference between day and night), but the harmonium would function well here. Unlike the piano whose tunings would change when transported, or the organ which was relatively heavy.

Harmonium became popular and was also played by people of Western culture within the realm of their classical music especially in Europe and America. It was used by many classical composers in their musical works, including by Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Antonin Dvorak, Cesar Auguste Franck and Gioachino Rossini. Harry Partch adopted the reed organ to play musical scales whose nature is microtonal and named it the chromelodeon. In popular music he appears within the recordings of the Beatles, among others.

Changing Tastes

Between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, a fundamental change happened within the life of European and American people as the next stage of the revolutionary implications of the Enlightenment ideology, which echoed into the market economy, manufacture and agriculture methods, transport between continents, and population distribution. The Industrial Revolution caused the development of new technologies and the modernization of production processes which enlargened and heightened the music industry, the ‘globalization’ of the music market and the distribution of music into the atmosphere of public and private life. And it was within this atmosphere that secularization occurred within the Western people, which gave them the flexibility to determine their musical tastes within activities secular in nature, which had impact upon the context of religious activities. Because the use of harmonium was more among religious activities, and due to the development of newer and cheaper products with more attractiveness in the choice of musical tastes, this all indirectly had impact on the popularity of the harmonium.

It no longer became an alternative for an inexpensive musical instrument for its community of users. Harmonium’s popularity reached its zenith sometime around the early 1900s, and began to fade away from the end of the 1920s up to the beginning of the 1930s due to the change of musical tastes and the introduction of new technologies such as the player piano¸ phonograph and electric organ which are easier to play, has wider sound options and are sensational. At this time the harmonium was no longer fabricated, but would only pass along among enthusiasts who trade with each other old products, sometimes modernizing them with electric pumps for certain needs. The Estey Company was the last of the harmonium makers, who last produced them in the 1950s.

From the 1930s electric music instruments without pipes had been able of producing sounds similar to and has taken the same roles as the pipe organ. The musical instrument has been welcomed by houses of worship and other potential users of pipe organs, as well as many musicians (both professional and amateur) for whom it was impossible to own a pipe organ. Its smaller size, cheaper price, and portability in comparison to the pipe organ made it possible for them to use it at household events, at dance shows as accompaniment, and at new environmental settings. The presence of this tool almost replaced the reed organ, and now it only became one of many choices among the new keyboard instruments, increasingly more numerous in number.

New musical instruments will continue to be discovered, adopted and sometimes forgotten for various reasons. The Lituus (used in one of Bach’s works), the Glass Armonica (used in Mozart’s compositions), and the Serpent are but a few examples of musical instruments quite popular at their times which have been abandoned due to changes in taste, and use function of the related instruments. And so too with the harmonium, which had for a time been quite popular, and now no longer commonly used in the West.

From this short study of the harmonium we can examine a sample of the explorative nature of the Western people towards the development of their life and civilization, traced from the beginning of the Enlightenment era and continues to bear fruit to this day. The harmonium is but one example of a Western product no longer ‘important’ (only valued by its minority of appreciators), but its role as one stepping stone towards the development of western musical instrument repertoire, and its role in kindling the spirit of innovation, cannot be denied.

Agung Waskito (1957-2012)

Author: Agung Waskito (1957-2012)

An Ethno-musicologist and a former Program Head of Sacred Bridge Foundation in which he was active for 13 years, and contributed to various of its action research program.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments