- Harmonium FAQ
1) Are your Harmoniums tuned to A440?
Some are, some aren’t. Traditionally in India harmoniums tended to be quite sharp of A440. This was partly due to the European standard of A444-A445. Many Indian harmoniums are even sharper that A445. In ensembles of Indian Music, all the instruments will tune to the harmonium, so the only thing that really matters is that the harmonium be in tune with itself. Lately, with the popularity of this instrument in America, there is more of an emphasis on A440 tuning. Now a much higher percentage of harmoniums come from India tuned at, or close to, A440. Keep in mind that the reeds change with the climate (they go sharp in cooler conditions) so a harmonium that is nicely tuned at A440 in hot, humid, India, might not be the same when it reaches cold, frigid, Michigan.
For more info on this topic please read A440 Tuning Demystified.
2) Does it matter if a harmonium is tuned to A440?
The most important thing is that the harmonium be in tune to itself – that the octaves and different banks of reeds match. In Indian Music most instruments (drums, tanpuras, other stringed instruments) will tune to the harmonium. Thus A440 tuning matters only if you are playing with fixed pitch instruments like a piano of flute. We check and tune all the harmoniums that we sell.
3) How do you tune a harmonium, and how often should it be tuned?
You tune the harmonium reeds by filing (scraping, sanding) a little metal off of one side of the vibrating tongue of the reed. One side makes it sharp, one side makes it flat. For a detailed explanation see our Harmonium Maintenance page. How often a harmonium should be tuned depends on a lot of things. Mostly it depends on your ear. To a highly trained musican with a good ear, harmoniums sound chronically out of tune. For the average user, a tune up every few years is all you need.
4) Is a harmonium tempered? If so, how can it be used in Indian Music?
For the most part, yes, harmoniums are tempered instruments. This is why they are a bane to purists, and have been banned on All India Radio. Since they are designed to play in different keys, and some people like to play simple chords, they must be tempered. A lot of serious Indian vocalists prefer the harmonium to the sarangi, which is the traditional vocal accompaniment instrument, because of its full rich sound.
5) Can a harmonium be tuned differently, i.e. non-tempered?
Yes. In India, some vocalists (who always use the same SA or tonic) have their harmoniums tuned to match the pure intervals of Indian Music. These instruments can only play in one key. We have tuned harmoniums to different kinds of Just Intonation, and find them to sound very sweet. The downside is that you are limited to one or two keys, and some chords sound awful.
6) What is the difference between student, professional and concert harmoniums?
This is not a distinction we make. Some “professionals” use the simplest of harmoniums. Many of the finest made (and most expensive) harmoniums never make it out of their owners’ music rooms. All the instruments we sell are of a standard that they can used by any type of musician with satisfaction.
7) I was told not to get a scale-change harmonium because they break easily? Is that so?
We do not find that to be the case. A well made scale change instrument will last as long as any other. Shipping scale change harmoniums can be a problem, though. Sometimes the mechanism will get jarred out of place. Fixing this is not hard, but requires a certain degree of tool skill. We try to ship all scale change harmoniums by air to reduce the risk of this happening.
8) What sort of prep work do you do before you sell an instrument.?
Instruments rarely come from India in perfect working order. We check the tuning, check for buzzes and leaks.
First we should note that all Bina harmoniums say "Deluxe" on them.
Regarding the ever popular 23bs, our description is a way to differentiate two slightly different instruments. These harmoniums are equal in quality, sound and $20 different in price. Basically, the Deluxe is slightly larger. It is 2 inches longer, with 3 extra notes (it goes to high F, whereas the Regular goes to high D) It is slightly heavier, and has a 6 fold side bellows. The Regular has a 3 fold bellows that attaches on the bottom. The Deluxe has 4 drone notes (usually C#, D#, G#, A#). The Regular has 2 drone notes (usually C# and G#).
The advantage of the Regular is that it is smaller and lighter and thus more portable. It easily fits in the overhead of an airplane (by some standards the Deluxe is too big). This is the instrument that Jai Uttal plays.
Most people don't use the drones, but if you do, and the extra choice appeals to you, then the Deluxe might be your preference. Likewise, if you are used to, or prefer, the side pump bellows, then this would be your choice.
If you did a "blindfold test" on these two instruments, you would not be able to tell the difference by sound.
The short answer is no. Harmoniums come from India tuned at A440 or above. To tune a reed down to A432 would involve scraping a lot of metal off, and chances are not good that that reed would be stable. Smaller, higher reeds, would probably break.
It is true that there are many fake Pauls being sold in India and being shipped here. If you know what a real Paul and Co. harmonoium looks like, there are usually tell-tale signs of the fakery. Otherwise, buy from a dealer with impeccable credentials, who you know is dealing directly with Paul. We are one such dealer. We have been dealer with Paul for decades.
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