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Column: Charles Wheatstone and the English concertina

21 April 2020

Why does a 200-year-old musical instrument, invented by a physicist, seem medieval to us in the 21st century?

A trio of concertinas. The left and center instruments date to 1880 and circa 1915, respectively. The concertina at right is modern, made with accordion reeds. Credit: Michael Goldman

I’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones. I could barely tell you the difference between a Stark, a Lannister, and a Targaryen. But I took note several years ago when I heard about an episode in which the Icelandic band Sigur Rós made a cameo appearance as a group of wedding musicians. That’s because the band’s lead singer, Jónsi Birgisson, appeared not with any of his usual instruments but with a small hexagonal wooden squeezebox called a concertina—an instrument I also play.

Starbucks cups notwithstanding, the show’s fictional setting was meant to resemble Europe and Western Asia in the late Middle Ages, which makes Jónsi’s instrument of choice anachronistic by several hundred years. Neither the concertina nor any of its Western musical relatives—accordions, harmonicas, reed organs, harmoniums, and so on, collectively known as free-reed instruments—existed before the 19th century, and the concertina’s heyday wasn’t until the early 20th. A concertina cameo would be far more historically appropriate in Downton Abbey (a show I have watched from beginning to end), though I’m pretty sure there’s never been one.

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One of my quarantine hobbies has been to practice my playing more, and it’s gotten me wondering at how easily the concertina slips from its rightful place in the historical time line to somewhere else entirely. Concertinas have appeared not just in Game of Thrones but also in ostensibly Renaissance-inspired bands, including at least two of the groups that performed at last year’s Maryland Renaissance Festival. When I used to take my concertinas out in public—back when we were allowed to go out in public—people always seemed surprised that they were looking at a Victorian-era invention rather than something much older. I’m not sure why that is, but I have an idea.

Free-reed instruments had existed in Asia for thousands of years before they made their way to Europe. (For more on Eastern and Western free-reed instruments, see the article by Jim Cottingham in Physics Today, March 2011, page 44.) But once they did, they took off like wildfire. The free-reed instruments of the 1820s and 1830s were kind of like the tech startups of the 1990s. Lots of inventors were trying lots of innovative things. Some of their ideas enjoyed such huge and enduring success that it’s hard to imagine the world ever existing without them. Others flopped so spectacularly that it’s hard to imagine how they ever existed at all.

One of those inventors was the English scientist Charles Wheatstone, who’s probably better known to readers of this publication for his work in the field of electricity. He improved and popularized the so-called Wheatstone bridge, a circuit for measuring an unknown electrical resistance (and thereby won the honor of having it named after him, even though he didn’t actually invent it), and he was involved in the early development of the telegraph. But before he did all that, he worked in the family business of making and selling musical instruments, where he dabbled in the science of musical acoustics and designed new free-reed instruments.

The Amazon and Google of the free-reed world were the accordion and the harmonica, both of which have a place to this day in wide-ranging musical genres and traditions around the world. At the other end of the spectrum were the Napsters, the AltaVistas, and the Pets.coms. Among the latter was one of Wheatstone’s early creations, a mouth-blown instrument called a symphonium. Unlike the modern harmonica, which sports a row of holes along its mouthpiece, the symphonium has a single mouth hole and a series of buttons on either end of the instrument to direct the airflow over the tuned reeds. It’s an awkward little gadget, as you can see (although keep in mind that nobody these days is a practiced symphonium player). But it’s made slightly less awkward by the ingenious way Wheatstone arranged the keys. Instead of placing all the low notes on one end of the instrument and all the high notes on the other, which would have left the player scrambling to play many notes in succession with the same one or two fingers on the tiny keyboard, he put successive notes of the scale on alternate sides—C on the left side, D on the right, E on the left, F on the right, and so on, as seen in the note layout from his patents, including one from his 1844 patent shown below. As a result, the fingers get in each other’s way a little bit less.

Note layout.
Diagrams from Charles Wheatstone’s 1844 patent, “Improvements in the Action of the Concertina, &c. by Vibrating Springs,” show the note layouts of the left and right ends of the instrument. The two central columns of each keyboard contain the notes of the C major scale, with successive notes on alternate sides. The outer columns contain the associated sharps and flats. Credit: Adapted from Charles Wheatstone, British Patent No. 10041 of 1844

The symphonium is the concertina’s direct predecessor. In his patent, Wheatstone mentioned the possibility of supplying air to the reeds with a bellows instead of the mouth, and before long he’d put the idea into practice. A bellows-driven instrument could be larger, since the reeds wouldn’t have to be packed in such proximity to the mouthpiece. There’s room to add more notes—a typical concertina has 48 keys, compared with the 16 on the symphonium as it was patented—and more room for the fingers to move around on the larger keyboards.

But Wheatstone kept the alternating-note layout. So unlike on the piano or the accordion, a melody on Wheatstone’s concertina necessarily involves some notes played by each hand. Playing a melody and accompaniment simultaneously is quite the test of coordination, but skilled players can do it. (This is where I’d include a link to my own playing, if I counted myself as a skilled player. I don’t.)

Wheatstone and other manufacturers also built concertinas that melded Wheatstone’s basic instrument design with key arrangements different from the original alternating-note, or “English,” system. By far the most successful of those alterations, most of which restored the intuitive order of high notes on the right hand and low notes on the left, borrowed the keyboard layout of a German instrument that’s also the basis for the modern button accordion. The resulting “Anglo-German” concertina—confusingly abbreviated after World War I to just “Anglo”—is the kind Jónsi is pretending to play in Game of Thrones. Even more confusingly, Anglo concertinas are most popular today among players of traditional Irish music.

Although accordion manufacture was readily adapted to mass production to keep up with the surging demand, concertina making never really was, and the differences in production methods have led to acoustic differences between the instruments. Accordion reeds, for example, are mounted in long rectangular blocks, affixed to the soundboard with wax, whereas concertina reeds are fitted by hand in individual reed chambers, held in place only by friction.

A few skilled craftspeople make concertinas today—C Wheatstone & Co., Concertina Makers is still in business, although it’s no longer run by anyone named Wheatstone—but the production numbers are small and the instruments are extremely expensive. Any newly made concertina selling for less than several thousand dollars almost certainly achieves that economy by borrowing parts from accordions (or worse, harmonicas).

But hundreds of thousands of concertinas were made over the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them still exist and can be restored to playability for much less than the cost of a new instrument made from scratch. As a result, an unusually large fraction of the concertinas in use today, including the two that I own, are antiques, built at least a century ago to Wheatstone’s largely preindustrial design. That design incorporates materials that are rarely seen anymore: keys made of bone, reed chambers kept airtight not with rubber but with chamois leather. So I wonder if the age of the individual instruments and their component materials contributes to the impression that concertina technology is much older than it actually is.

Real medieval artisans, however, would have had a hard time building concertinas, even if they’d had the idea. Screw fasteners were known in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages, but they were extremely expensive to make: All the threads had to be filed by hand. And a concertina contains more than 200 of them.

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