Differences between the Irish system and other 2-row boxes.

by Han Speek.
(Copyright © 1995/1996)

First version: September 24, 1996

The "normal" or "continental" system:

These are the instruments with a distance of 5 semi-tones between the rows: C/F is most common in Holland, G/C in France and Italy, D/G in England, and others such as Bb/Eb or A/D are also not uncommon. The keyboard for a G/C would look like this:

Buttons are notated (press|draw)
G/C Keybord Layout

Most older Hohner instruments, and some Italians as well have extra chromatic notes (notes that do not fit in either of the two keys) in the middle octave range instead of what is given here for the first button on the up-side of each row, thus giving the player some (limited, unless you have long fingers) chromatic capabilities. You will notice that most notes from the outside row are doubled on the inside row, except for the F#, which becomes an F on the C row. A closer look will reveal that these doubled notes are mostly go in the exact opposite direction of the bellows. Alas, this doesn't work for the G and A notes, which are doubled, but in the same direction of the bellows. This is why a lot of players flip over the reed-plates for the notes on the fifth button on the inside row, thus swapping the notes on press and draw. This makes the whole middle octave available in both directions. (Notable exception is England, where I have yet to meet the first player to modify his instrument in this way). But even without this modification, on this system it is possible to play phrases without having to change the direction of the bellows a lot, which allows for very smooth, fluent playing. And also it is still possible to play it like a one-row, giving for instance dance music all the punch and rhythm you might want. But it only works well in the keys for which you have the notes, which are the keys of the rows (G and C) and their parallel-minor key (Em and Am). Usually on the left hand you will have suitable chords for these keys as well. But anything else is pretty much impossible. [Notable exception is Cajun music, where the key of G is played on a C row. This gives you a G scale with an F instead of an F#, which is actually a modal scale. So they could play in G on a box in C/F, or E on a box in A/D]. These boxes are used in the folk music from a wide range of countries: Germany, Holland & Flanders, Brittany (French musette music is played on this system as well, although it really needs a more chromatic instrument), Italy, England, Canada(Quebec area).

The "half-step" or "British-chromatic" system:

These are the instruments with a semi-tone between the rows: the most likely to find are B/C, C/C#, C#/D and D/D#, but I also have seen boxes in E/F and G/G#. The right-hand side of these boxes has all 12 tones in our music-system, and therefor these instruments qualify as chromatic. This implies they can be used in any key you could possibly imagine. The only limiting factor are the chords available on the left-hand side, unless of course you choose not to play any chords, and use the box for melody-playing only (the left hand has plenty of work with the bellows if you try to play at session-speed, and chords tend to use up a lot of air, too). The keyboard for a B/C (the most popular box at sessions, so I was told) would look like this:

Buttons are notated (press|draw)
B/C Keybord Layout

Many of the Paolo Soprani's and other Italian-made boxes will have two extra buttons, extending the range of the keyboard. Usually these are used to add lower notes. Now what you will notice after the discussion of the previous keyboard is that only two notes (per octave) are available in both directions. These are what my box-playing teacher used to call the "magic notes", marked with a *. Compared to what we just discussed, in this system the notes that were doubled are traded in for notes we didn't have. And we now have all notes we could possibly want, but we have to work the bellows a lot more. Theoretically, this instrument type should be suitable for any type of music. Traditionally however it is only used for Irish (and sometimes Scottish, so I've been told - most Scottish bands I saw, however, use a piano-accordion) dance music. For the traditional keys for Irish dance music (D, G and A) the B/C system is easier than the C#/D system, for by playing across the rows you can often play more than one note in the same direction of the bellows. On the C#/D this is only occasionally so. But this "advantage" of the B/C can also be a drawback: since notes are generally only available in one direction of the bellows you will sometimes find that you have to accentuate a note while there is no change in the bellows direction. Of course you will sometimes have this on the C#/D as well, but not often in the common keys. As a result of this, many B/C players tend not to use much bellows dynamics, and use ornamentations to make up for this.

C/C# and D/D# boxes are a totally different chapter. Originally, these were used with the outside row as the main row, and the inside row for chromatics and ornamentations, similar to the white and black keys on the piano-accordion. (Many Hohner boxes will have chords that fit the outside row, not the inside, making them virtually useless - another reason why you will find a lot of half-step boxplayers that do not use the left-hand buttons). This playing style seems to have gone completely out of fashion, and now these boxes are used for playing in B/C or C#/D style, but in keys a half-tone up from what is common (Eb for D, G# for G, Bb for A). A popular band that uses this a lot is De Danann. Famous box players like Jackie Daly, Mairtin O'Connor and Seamus Begley have also made several recordings in these half-step-off keys. And, having mentioned Mairtin O'Connor, he has shown on his last two albums ("Perpetual Motion" and "Chatterbox") that you can tackle any style of music with this system (if you're good enough, that is).

Now, trying to compare the two systems is an almost impossible task, since they would normally be used in different styles of music. To play in an Irish session with the "normal" system would mean that you would have to bring at least two boxes, since a box having the keys of A and D will not let you play in G (or a box in D and G won't play in A, etc.). Now you could bring along a three-row in A/D/G, but these don't seem to be as popular as a two-row, and it would take this discussion off the intended track anyway. So I won't discuss this possibility. And what about a nice set of tunes starting in Am, going to D, third tune in G, to end in A ??? Anyone got a box for that ? The B/C (or C#/D) works quite well in these three keys, and even in some others, so that's probably why the Irish prefer this system. And it's lots smaller and lighter than a piano-accordion, which would give you the same musical freedom, but is much more impractical to carry around. On the other hand, the music that is normally played on the "normal" system usually doesn't call for more than two keys on a box, and doesn't require any chromatic capabilities. So why not take the box for this that's easiest to play. And music like Morris dance or Dutch traditional (clog-)dancing calls for a slow (well, compared to Irish session tunes) but strong rhythm, so you would want to use chords a lot. And the "normal" box will have chords matching the keys of the rows, so you'll be just fine there. So the music you play will direct you to the type of box that's most suitable.

To conclude, here are 2 more keyboard layouts to compare, the A/D versus C#/D systems. You may also consider comparing the B/C shown above with the C#/D.

A/D Keybord Layout

C#/D Keybord Layout


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(Modified: Thu Apr 02 12:38pm by han / H.Speek@hccnet.nl).