The harmonium, also known as the pump organ, generates sound as air flows past a vibrating piece of thin metal in a frame. The metal part is known as a reed. The idea of a free reed in instruments was imported in 1750, from China to Russia.

As the pump organs were easy to carry, they were predominantly used in smaller churches and private homes in the nineteenth century; however, their volume and tone range was limited. The finer pump organs consisted of a wider range of tones and cabinets on those which were intended for big churches and affluent homes, making them seem like household furniture.

Along with this furniture-style structure of the pump organ, smaller styles were also available. Like the West, the Indian Subcontinent too had its version of the instrument, known as the harmonium. The instrument was created to cater to the needs of the Indian people and was designed such that a single person could carry it.

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The Acoustics

In terms of the tone, a reed organ is similar to an accordion, but not in the way the instruments are assembled. An accordion is held by both hands while playing, whereas a reed organ is positioned on the floor with a wooden casing incorporated. Reed organs function either with pressure or suction bellows. Pressure bellows help in achieving a wider range of volume, depending on the speed of the repetitive pressure put on the bellows. In North America and the United Kingdom, the reed organs with the pressure bellows are known as the harmonium, whereas, in Europe, every reed organ is called a harmonium regardless of whether the reed organ consists of pressure bellows or not.

Reed organ frequency mainly depends on the blowing pressure: the fundamental frequency decreases with medium pressure as compared to the low pressure, but increases for the high notes and the bass. American reed organ measurements show a sinusoidal oscillation with sharp pressure transitions when the reed bends above and below the frame. The reed vibration phenomenon has a direct bearing on the quality of sound produced by the harmonium.

The free reed of the harmonium is riveted from the metal frame and is subject to the airflow, which is pumped by the bellows, pushing the reed and resulting in various tones and volumes.

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Harmonium and the West

The harmonium, in the West, was considered one of the most important musical instruments of the Romantic (1800-1850) period. It is said to vibrate between the two poles or expression and fully encompass the emotion and effort put into wind-based instruments. Harmonium compositions are available in North America and Europe, created by classical composers. The harmonium is also used as a form of folk music in the Appalachians and the south of the United States.

Harmonium also plays an important role in the folk music of the Nordic region, especially in Finland. Until the late 1970s, a harmonium could be found in almost all the schools, and it was considered completely natural for bands to include a harmonium in their set. Some key folk music artists in the Nordic countries are Timo Alakotila and Milla Vijamaa.

In the Netherlands, the introduction of the harmoniums led to the extreme popularity of religious house music. The singing of hymns and psalms by the families was made possible because of the instrument’s organ-like sound. Several popular hymns were also composed on the instrument because of its increasing popularity in the country.

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Arrival in the Subcontinent

The harmonium came into the Subcontinent in the nineteenth century through various trade routes and other travellers who connected the Subcontinent to the rest of the world. The instrument quickly gained high acclaim among the music critics as it was portable, reliable, and easy to learn.

The early popularity of the instrument led to the harmonium becoming an essential part of various instrument ensembles and was also included in orchestras. Even now, the harmonium is considered an essential part of many Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ensembles. It has become a staple of North Indian classical music and Sufi Muslim Qawwali concerts as well. Though the design is derived from its French counterpart, the harmonium was developed further in India in unique ways, such as the addition of the scale changing mechanism.

Even though the harmonium was a widely accepted instrument in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century, its popularity started to decline as India sought to completely separate itself from the West and all its influences and started to view the harmonium as an outsider.

There were also some technical concerns regarding the instrument, like prevention of articulation of the subtle notes and also the fact that only a fixed number of notes can be played on the instrument: it didn’t allow for several pitches to be played. This prevented the instrument from distinguishing between different swars and the subtle changes in the ragas. For these reasons, the harmonium was banned from All India Radio from 1940 to 1971. There is still a ban on harmonium solos.

Even after such a dynamic life story, the harmonium remains one of the most popular instruments in Indian households and there’s hardly a school where you wouldn’t find a harmonium in the music rooms.

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