John Church and Co. pump organ
A hand-pumped Indian harmonium, of the type used in South Asia, here used at a European jazz festival.

The pump organ or reed organ is a type of free-reed organ that generates sound as air flows past a vibrating piece of thin metal in a frame. The piece of metal is called a reed. Specific types of pump organ include the American reed organ, the Indian harmonium, the physharmonica, and the seraphine.[1] The idea for the free reed was derived from the Chinese sheng through Russia after 1750, and the first Western free-reed instrument was made in 1780 in Denmark.[2][3]

More portable than pipe organs, free-reed organs were widely used in smaller churches and in private homes in the 19th century, but their volume and tonal range were limited. They generally had one or sometimes two manuals, with pedal-boards being rare. The finer pump organs had a wider range of tones, and the cabinets of those intended for churches and affluent homes were often excellent pieces of furniture. Several million reed organs and melodeons were made in the US and Canada between the 1850s and the 1920s, some of which were exported.[4] The Cable Company, Estey Organ, and Mason & Hamlin were popular manufacturers.

Alongside the furniture-sized instruments of the west, smaller designs exist. The portable, hand-pumped Indian harmonium, adapted by Indians from Western designs like the guide-chant in the 19th century, soon became a major instrument on the Indian subcontinent. The Indian harmonium is widely used by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims for devotional genres like qawwali, ghazal, kirtan and bhajan. They are also commonly used in Indian classical music and in the Western yoga and kirtan sub-cultures.


Chinese Sheng mouth organ, used the oriental free reeds.
Chinese Sheng mouth organ.
Free reed tongue
Free reed from an 1860s melodeon.

During the first half of the 18th century, a free-reed mouth organ called a sheng was brought to Russia.[2] That instrument received attention due to its use by Johann Wilde.[2] The instrument's free-reed was unknown in Europe at the time, and the concept quickly spread from Russia across Europe.[2]

Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723–1795), professor of physiology at Copenhagen, was credited with the first free-reed instrument made in the Western world, after winning the annual prize in 1780 from the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg.[3] According to Curt Sachs, Kratzenstein suggested that the instrument be made, but that the first organ with free reeds was made by Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler in Darmstadt.[2] The harmonium's design incorporates free reeds and derives from the earlier regal. A harmonium-like instrument was exhibited by Gabriel-Joseph Grenié (1756–1837) in 1810. He called it an orgue expressif (expressive organ), because his instrument was capable of greater expression, as well as of producing a crescendo and diminuendo.

Alexandre Debain improved Grenié's instrument and gave it the name harmonium when he patented his version in 1840.[5] There was concurrent development of similar instruments.[6] Jacob Alexandre and his son Édouard introduced the orgue mélodium in 1844. Hector Berlioz included it in his Grand traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes, published in Paris by Schoenberger, [1843?] or [1844?], in an «Instruments nouveaux» section on pp. 290–92, and in the 1856 reprint, found on pp. 472–77 in Peter Bloom's critical edition published by Bärenreiter, Vol.24, in Kassel and New York, 2003. Berlioz also wrote about it in several subsequent journals (Bloom, p.472, nn. 1 & 2). He used it in 1 work: L'enfance du Christ, Part 1, scene vi, where it is off stage. When he conducted it in Weimar on 21 February 1855, it was played by Franz Liszt (Bloom, p. 474, n. 3).

A mechanic who had worked in the factory of Alexandre in Paris emigrated to the United States and conceived the idea of a suction bellows, instead of the ordinary bellows that forced the air outward through the reeds. Beginning in 1885, the firm of Mason & Hamlin, of Boston made their instruments with the suction bellows, and this method of construction soon superseded all others in America.[5]

Beatty's Parlor Organ, 1882

The term melodeon was applied to concert saloons in the Victorian American West because of the use of the reed instrument. The word became a common designation of that type of resort that offered entertainment to men.[7]

Harmoniums reached the height of their popularity in the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were especially popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ would be too large or expensive; in the funeral-in-absentia scene from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the protagonist narrates that the church procured a "melodeum" (a conflation, likely intended by Twain for satirical effect[citation needed], of the names "melodeon" and "harmonium") for the occasion.

Harmoniums generally weigh less than similar sized pianos and are not easily damaged in transport, thus they were also popular throughout the colonies of the European powers in this period not only because it was easier to ship the instrument out to where it was needed, but it was also easier to transport overland in areas where good-quality roads and railways may have been non-existent. An added attraction of the harmonium in tropical regions was that the instrument held its tune regardless of heat and humidity, unlike the piano. This "export" market was sufficiently lucrative for manufacturers to produce harmoniums with cases impregnated with chemicals to prevent woodworm and other damaging organisms found in the tropics.[citation needed]

Modern Indian harmonium with 9 air stop knobs (stops 2, 4, 6, 8 are drones).

At the peak of the instruments' Western popularity around 1900, a wide variety of styles of harmoniums were being produced. These ranged from simple models with plain cases and only four or five stops (if any at all), up to large instruments with ornate cases, up to a dozen stops and other mechanisms such as couplers. Expensive harmoniums were often built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top of the instrument.[citation needed]

Small numbers of harmoniums were built with two manuals (keyboards). Some were even built with pedal keyboards, which required the use of an assistant to run the bellows or, for some of the later models, an electrical pump. These larger instruments were mainly intended for home use, such as allowing organists to practise on an instrument on the scale of a pipe organ, but without the physical size or volume of such an instrument. For missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, travelling evangelist etc., reed organs that folded up into a container the size of a very large suitcase or small trunk were made; these had a short keyboard and few stops, but they were more than adequate for keeping hymn singers more or less on pitch.[citation needed]

The invention of the electronic organ in the mid-1930s spelled the end of the harmonium's success in the West, although its popularity as a household instrument had already declined in the 1920s as musical tastes changed [citation needed]. The Hammond organ could imitate the tonal quality and range of a pipe organ whilst retaining the compact dimensions and cost-effectiveness of the harmonium as well as reducing maintenance needs and allowing a greater number of stops and other features. By this time, harmoniums had reached high levels of mechanical complexity, not only through the demand for instruments with a greater tonal range, but also due to patent laws (especially in North America). It was common for manufacturers to patent the action mechanism used on their instruments, thus requiring any new manufacturer to develop their own version;[citation needed] as the number of manufacturers grew, this led to some instruments having hugely complex arrays of levers, cranks, rods and shafts, which made replacement with an electronic instrument even more attractive.

The last mass-producer of harmoniums in North America was the Estey company, which ceased manufacture in the mid-1950s; a couple of Italian companies continued into the 1970s. As the existing stock of instruments aged and spare parts became hard to find, more and more were either scrapped or sold. It was not uncommon for harmoniums to be "modernised" by having electric blowers fitted, often very unsympathetically.[citation needed]

The majority of Western style harmoniums today are in the hands of enthusiasts, but the Indian harmonium remains popular in South Asia.[citation needed]

Modern electronic keyboards can emulate the sound of the pump organ.


Two reeds from a Mason & Hamlin reed organ.

The acoustical effects described below are a result of the free-reed mechanism. Therefore, they are essentially identical for the Western and Indian harmoniums and the reed organ. In 1875, Hermann von Helmholtz published his seminal book, On the Sensations of Tone, in which he used the harmonium extensively to test different tuning systems:[8]

"Among musical instruments, the harmonium, on account of its uniformly sustained tone, the piercing character of its quality of tone, and its tolerably distinct combinational tones, is particularly sensitive to inaccuracies of intonation. And as its vibrators also admit of a delicate and durable tuning, it appeared to me peculiarly suitable for experiments on a more perfect system of tones."[9]

Using two manuals and two differently tuned stop sets, he was able to simultaneously compare Pythagorean to just and to equal-tempered tunings and observe the degrees of inharmonicity inherent to the different temperaments. He subdivided the octave to 28 tones, to be able to perform modulations of 12 minor and 17 major keys in just intonation without going into harsh dissonance that is present with the standard octave division in this tuning.[10] This arrangement was difficult to play on.[11] Additional modified or novel instruments were used for experimental and educational purposes; notably, Bosanquet's Generalized keyboard was constructed in 1873 for use with a 53-tone scale. In practice, that harmonium was constructed with 84 keys, for convenience of fingering. Another famous reed organ that was evaluated was built by Poole.[12]

Lord Rayleigh also used the harmonium to devise a method for indirectly measuring frequency accurately, using approximated known equal temperament intervals and their overtone beats.[13] The harmonium had the advantage of providing clear overtones that enabled the reliable counting of beats by two listeners, one per note. However, Rayleigh acknowledged that maintaining constant pressure in the bellows is difficult and fluctuation of the pitch often occurs as a result.

Portable 19th-century reed organ with one rank of reeds

In the generation of its tones, a reed organ is similar to an accordion or concertina, but not in its installation, as an accordion is held in both hands whereas a reed organ is usually positioned on the floor in a wooden casing (which might make it mistakable for a piano at the very first glimpse). Reed organs are operated either with pressure or with suction bellows. Pressure bellows permit a wider range to modify the volume, depending on whether the pedaling of the bellows is faster or slower. In North America and the United Kingdom, a reed organ with pressure bellows is referred to as a harmonium, whereas in continental Europe, any reed organ is called a harmonium regardless of whether it has pressure or suction bellows. As reed organs with pressure bellows were more difficult to produce and therefore more expensive, North American and British reed organs and melodeons generally use suction bellows and operate on vacuum.

Reed organ frequencies depend on the blowing pressure; the fundamental frequency decreases with medium pressure compared to low pressure, but it increases again at high pressures by several hertz for the bass notes measured.[14] American reed organ measurements showed a sinusoidal oscillation with sharp pressure transitions when the reed bends above and below its frame.[15] The fundamental itself is nearly the mechanical resonance frequency of the reed.[16] The overtones of the instrument are harmonics of the fundamental, rather than inharmonic,[17] although a weak inharmonic overtone (6.27f) was reported too.[18] The fundamental frequency comes from a transverse mode, whereas weaker higher transverse and torsional modes were measured too.[19] Any torsional modes are excited because of a slight asymmetry in the reed's construction. During attack, it was shown that the reed produces most strongly the fundamental, along with a second transverse or torsional mode, which are transient.[19]

Radiation patterns and coupling effects between the sound box and the reeds on the timbre appear not to have been studied to date.

The unusual reed-vibration physics have a direct effect on harmonium playing, as the control of its dynamics in playing is restricted and subtle. The free reed of the harmonium is riveted from a metal frame and is subjected to airflow, which is pumped from the bellows through the reservoir, pushing the reed and bringing it to self-exciting oscillation and to sound production in the direction of airflow.[15] This particular aerodynamics is nonlinear in that the maximum displacement amplitude in which the reed can vibrate is limited by fluctuations in damping forces, so that the resultant sound pressure is rather constant.[17] Additionally, there is a threshold pumping pressure, below which the reed vibration is minimal.[18] Within those two thresholds, there is an exponential growth and decay in time of reed amplitudes .[20]


A Victorian-era pump organ
A smaller variety of pump organ
A Mason & Hamlin pump organ
A pump organ

The harmonium was considered by Curt Sachs to be an important instrument for music of Romanticism (1750s–1900), which "vibrated between two poles of expression" and "required the overwhelming power and strong accents of wind instruments".[2]

Harmonium compositions are available by European and American composers of classical music. It was also used often in the folk music of the Appalachians and South of the United States.[citation needed]

Harmoniums played a significant part in the new rise of Nordic folk music, especially in Finland. In the late 1970s, a harmonium could be found in most schools where the bands met, and it became natural for the bands to include a harmonium in their setup. A typical folk band then—particularly in Western Finland—consisted of violin(s), double bass and harmonium. There was a practical limitation that prevented playing harmonium and accordion in the same band: harmoniums were tuned to 438 Hz, while accordions were tuned to 442 Hz.[21] Some key harmonium players in the new rise of Nordic folk have been Timo Alakotila and Milla Viljamaa.

In the Netherlands, the introduction of the harmonium triggered a boom in religious house music. Its organ-like sound quality allowed Reformed families to sing psalms and hymns at home. A lot of new hymns were composed expressly for voice and harmonium, notably those by Johannes de Heer.[22]

Western classical

The harmonium repertoire includes many pieces written originally for the church organ, which may be played on a harmonium as well, because they have a small enough range and use fewer stops. For example, Bach's Fantasia in C major for organ BWV 570 [23] is suitable for a four-octave harmonium.

Other examples include:


Singer Mariana Sadovska using a hand-pumped organ, Cologne, Germany

Western popular music

Krishna Das playing a harmonium at Bhaktifest West, 2015

Harmoniums have been used in western popular music since at least the 1960s. John Lennon played a Mannborg harmonium[25] on the Beatles' hit single "We Can Work It Out", released in December 1965, and the band used the instrument on other songs recorded during the sessions for their Rubber Soul album.[26] They also used the instrument on the famous "final chord" of "A Day in the Life", and on the song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", both released on the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.[27] The group's hit single "Hello, Goodbye" and the track "Your Mother Should Know" were both written using a harmonium.[28][29]

Many other artists soon employed the instrument in their music, including; Pink Floyd on the title song "Chapter 24" of their first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967[citation needed], Elton John on his 1973 album Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, 1976's Blue Moves, the 1978 album A Single Man, and 1995's Made in England[citation needed]. German singer Nico was closely associated with the harmonium, using it as her main instrument, during the late 60s and 70s, on albums such as The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End....[30]

Donovan employed the harmonium on his 1968 album The Hurdy Gurdy Man where he played it in droning accompaniment on the song "Peregrine", and where it was also played on his song "Poor Cow" by John Cameron.[31]

Robert Fripp of King Crimson played a pedal harmonium borrowed from lyricist Peter Sinfield on the title track of the progressive rock band's 1971 album Islands.

More recently Roger Hodgson from Supertramp used his harmonium on many of the group's songs including "Two of Us" from Crisis? What Crisis?, "Fool's Overture" from Even in the Quietest Moments..., the title track to their 1979 album Breakfast in America and "Lord Is It Mine". Hodgson also used a harmonium on "The Garden" from his 2000 solo album Open the Door.[citation needed] Greg Weeks and Tori Amos have both used the instrument on their recordings and live performances.[citation needed]

The Damned singer Dave Vanian bought a harmonium for £49 and used it to compose "Curtain Call", the 17-minute closing track from their 1980 double LP The Black Album[citation needed]. In 1990, Depeche Mode used a harmonium on a version of their song "Enjoy the Silence".[citation needed] The Divine Comedy used a harmonium on "Neptune's Daughter" from their 1994 album Promenade[citation needed]. Sara Bareilles used the harmonium on her 2012 song "Once Upon Another Time".[32]

During the 1990s the Hindu and Sikh-based devotional music known as kirtan, a 7th-8th century Indian music, popularly emerged in the West.[33][34] The harmonium is often played as the lead instrument by kirtan artists; notably Jai Uttal who was nominated for a Grammy award for new-age music in 2004,[33] Snatam Kaur, and Krishna Das who was nominated for a Grammy award for new age music in 2012.[35]

In the Indian subcontinent

Further information: Indian harmonium

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Musician Ustad Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan Saheb with a harmonium
Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, a well-known harmonium player.
tabla and harmonium together
Musicians in Kathmandu, Nepal, playing the tabla and harmonium.

The Indian harmonium, also known as the hand harmonium or vaja, is a small and portable hand-pumped reed organ that gained popularity in the Indian subcontinent. It arrived in India during the mid-19th century, potentially introduced by missionaries or traders. Adapted by Indian craftsmen, the harmonium was modified to be played on the floor, in alignment with the traditional Indian music style, and to be more compact and portable.[36]

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Indian harmonium became integral to Indian music, widely used in devotional genres such as qawwali, ghazal, kirtan, and bhajan. Its lightweight design, portability, and ease of learning contributed to its widespread adoption among Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims for devotional purposes. Notably, it also found popularity in the Western yoga subculture, thanks to figures like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal.

In the 20th century, the harmonium faced controversy in Indian classical music due to technical limitations such as the inability to produce slurs, gamaka, and meend.[37] Despite this, it became the instrument of choice for North Indian classical vocal genres, supported by its ease of learning and suitability for group singing. The harmonium's fixed pitches and limitations led to its ban from All India Radio from 1940 to 1971. However, it continued to be favored in the reformed classical music of the early 20th century. The harmonium is popular to the present day, an important instrument in many genres of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi music. For example, it is a staple of vocal North Indian classical music and Sufi Muslim Qawwali concerts.[38]


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (February 2015)

In the view points of preservation of cultural properties, maintenance and restoration, the pump organs are often categorized into several types.[39][40][41]

Historical instruments

Early instruments

See also: Physharmonica, fr:Poïkilorgue, Seraphine (instrument), fr:Harmoniflûte, de:Aeoline (Musikinstrument), and fr:Piano-melodium

Note: the term "melodium" seems to be interchangeable with the terms "melodion" and "melodeon".[42][43]


See also: List of Harmonium players

Harmoniums are pressure system free-reed organs.

Suction reed organs

Suction reed organs are vacuum system free-reed organs.

Melodeons and Seraphines

Note: The term "melodeon" seems to be interchangeable with the terms "melodion" and "melodium".[42][43]

For the type of accordion, see Diatonic button accordion § Nomenclature.

Reed organs

Later instruments (electric-blower driven / electronic organs)

Related instruments


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    "melodeon [me-lō'di-on] s. ♪ Ziehharmonica f. Melodion n (=melodium).
     melodium [me-lō'di-um] s. Melodion n (=melodeon).
  43. ^ a b The Century Dictionary. An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language. Vol. 13. Century Company. 1890. p. 3700.
    "melodeon (me-ˈlō'di-on). n. [Also melodium; < L. melodia, < Gr. μελωδία, a singing: see melody. Cf. melodion.] A reed-organ or harmonium.
     melodium (me-lō'di-um). n. See
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  49. ^ Prescott, Abraham (1825), Rocking Melodeon, MET Accession Number: 89.4.1194, Maker: Abraham Prescott (American, Deerfield, New Hampshire 1789–1858 Concord, New Hampshire)
  50. ^ Laurence Libin (Summer 1989). "Keyboard Instruments" (PDF). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. 47 (1): 52. (available as PDF)
  51. ^ "New Haven Melodeon (1865)". 26 August 2017. This is a beautiful melodeon built by The New Haven Melodeon Company circa about 1865. These instruments are small reed organs that are operated by pumping the large iron right pedal…the left pedal is volume control and operates a swell shutter. During the mid 19th Century, these little melodeons were often the only form of musical entertainment in Rural America. This style of melodeon is known as a "Portable Melodeon" and its legs are designed to fold up under the instrument for easy transport. ...
    See images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
  52. ^ "New Haven Melodeon Company". September 2017. The New Haven Melodeon Company was organized on April 10th, 1867 in New Haven, CT. John L. Treat of Treat & Linsley was listed as superintendent of the firm. The firm built several models of organs and melodeons and enjoyed a great deal of success. By 1872 the firm is listed as having operating capital in the amount of $40,000. By the late 1870s, the popularity of the melodeon began to wain in favor of the parlor organ. The firm reorganized as "The New Haven Organ Company" from 1881–1883, and there is no mention of the firm after about 1883.
    See also: Treat & Linsley.
  53. ^ "The Olthof Collection - Exhibited in 1981". 17. Flat top reed organ by George Woods & Co. This firms is known for its high quality Melodeons (early type of reed organ, in fact the suction variety of the physharmonica)
  54. ^ Autophone (1878), "Autophone" Organette, Henry Bishop Horton (inventor), MET Accession Number: 07.195a, b, Manufacturer: Autophone / Inventor: Henry Bishop Horton (American, Winchester, Connecticut 1819–1885)