Advice on buying a harmonium.
The best idea to buy a new harmonium is to go to a shop and play on different instruments, so you can compare and experience. If that is not possible, you should get in touch with the seller. I advise you to ask the seller to set up a video chat, the seller will mostly do this without any problem and this is very important to decide.
I will write everything as if you are buying the instrument online and are having a live video chat with the seller.
The advice in this article is given in order of importance. So the first point being the most important, the last point being the least important. What you should do as well, is take all the 11 points in proportion with each other, and perhaps most importantly to decide: the price.
1) your specific needs
2) the price and
3) the positive vs. negative points.
Here we go…
The first decision you will have to make is: do I need a scale changer?
This is an important question that you need to answer, because harmoniums with scale changer can be double the price of a harmonium without a scale changer. Usually harmoniums with scale changer are more than $1.000, and without scale changer you can find decent harmoniums around 600€.
To know the answer to this question you will have to ask yourself another important question: “How will I use the harmonium? Is my goal in the near future to play in an ensemble with others, or with other musicians?”
If the answer to this question is yes, I’d recommend you to buy a harmonium WITH scale changer. The reason: you want to be able to adapt easily when others ask you to play a certain song a bit higher or lower on the spot.
Say, you are playing a certain song and the other singers cannot reach some higher notes, they might ask you to play the song a bit lower. Another example could be, a guitar player is joining you and knows the song you are playing. But he always plays the song in A, while you always play the song in G. So in order to be able to adapt easily and quickly, you can then use the scale changer: just move the scale changer two semitones higher, and the G chord you play will become an A chord. You can now play together in harmony.
If you wouldn’t have a scale changer, you would need a lot more experience to adapt and transpose (meaning modifying the key & chords of the song).
Now if you just want to play harmonium on your own, or even with other singers, but without any additional musicians joining you, my advice is to buy a harmonium without scale changer. You will end up with a much cheaper harmonium, often a ‘one-piece model’, which has my preference. You can read more about this in point 3.
What about the price of the harmonium?
If all points which I am covering in this article are checked and the price is fine, you can safely buy it. If one or more points are not 100% ok, but you still want to buy the instrument, you could explain your issue(s) to the seller and ask for a discount.
Do a bit of research with a few different shops and you will easily find common prices, if a particular shop is charging a lot more or a lot less, you know that you should be careful.
Don’t forget the extra VAT or additional customs fees when importing the instrument from abroad. You can find out more by searching online on your country specific customs fees. Often the seller has a lot of experience and can advise you, but it’s always a good idea to double check online.
What is very important to find out for a harmonium is the sustain, meaning: how long the harmonium holds the air pressure. A good harmonium keeps the air well and has no air leaks. This will result in a more direct sound when pumping and a longer sustain when you stop pumping, so the harmonium will continue sounding longer. A bad harmonium will lose air and the harmonium will react slower on your pumping. The sound will be produced in a sloppier way and the harmonium will continue the sound much shorter when you stop pumping.
So here’s a test to find out how well the sustain of the harmonium works: ask the seller to play a chord (with three notes) in an average volume. Then ask to stop pumping and immediately start counting until the harmonium stops sounding. A good harmonium should continue for 4 seconds or more. A poor harmonium is less than 4 seconds. Really bad is say 2 seconds.
You should try this a few times with a low chord and a higher chord. Low notes will consume more air, so they will always have a shorter sustain and higher notes consume less air, so they will always sound longer. But you want to check both the minimum and the average reverb. If for example the low notes last almost 4 seconds and the higher notes last for 6 seconds, then the harmonium is excellent. But if the low notes of the harmonium last for 2 seconds and the higher notes barely 3, then the harmonium is not of great quality, meaning it will be much more difficult to play on. The harmonium will sound sloppier, slower and it will be hard to get an even, continuous sound.
If the harmonium holds the air well, it will be easy to play accents and a greater variety of dynamics (soft or loud), but most importantly: when playing you will have a continuous sound, without any obvious pumping noise. So while you are pumping, you shouldn’t be able to hear the pumping in the form of accents or variations in volume. It should sound straight and forward, without volume changes.
This is something I wasn’t aware of when I bought my first harmonium 15 years ago.
The bellows are made of some kind of special cardboard and are reinforced and protected by some protective harder material glued to the sides. Due to the glue, the bellows can sometimes make a crackling sound. My first thought when buying my first harmonium was that this sound might have something to do with the harmonium being new from the factory and that it would disappear after playing for some time. But the reality is that even playing very often for more than 15 years, the crackling didn’t go away.
Now, how to test the bellows for any crackling sounds?
Ask the seller to hold his phone close to the bellows and to play just one note softly. Also ask them to open the bellows fully, so the entire bellows are being used when playing. (Don’t tell him the reason why you’re asking, as he might try to avoid making it crack.) Listen carefully if you hear any unwanted crackling sounds. If you do not hear obvious crackling when playing softly it’s all fine.
Ask the seller to play all keys separately and not too fast.
All keys should make a normal sound, more or less equal in volume and tone (sharp or round). What you want to avoid here are notes that sound squeaky or buzzing. Sometimes a key may not produce any sound at all.
If so, take this into account. You might want to ask if they can repair this before buying.
Usually it’s not a difficult fix. It could be due to some dust, or the metal particles inside the harmonium might be blocking the metal reeds from sounding normally. So cleaning it, or straightening the reeds inside may fix the issue. The seller could also replace a problematic reed with a new reed, it’s only a matter of two little screws.
Ask the seller to hit the keys with a decent force when playing in a rhythmical way, so you can check if the keys are not sounding too clicky. Often harmoniums have the tendency to sound kind of ‘plastic’ and clicking. The sounds that the keys produce when being hit in a rhythmical, short manner, shouldn’t sound obviously louder than the tunes the harmonium produces. So the sound of the harmonium should mask the clicking of the keys.
Can I transport and carry the harmonium easily? Can it fit in my car? Can I carry it easily? What is the weight and size of the harmonium? You should ask all of these questions.
There are two main differences in harmonium models. A suitcase model or a 1-piece-model.
My preference goes to the 1-piece model, because experience has learned that it more often than not holds the air better than a suitcase model. A suitcase model has a lever which allows the harmonium to collapse inside a protected box, which is of course handier to transport. But on the other hand it will often lose air easier and have a shorter sustain.
So in case you’re planning to travel a lot with the harmonium, I would advise you to buy a suitcase model. If you won’t travel much or just leave the harmonium at one place, I recommend buying a 1-piece model, because they usually have better sustain and air tightness.
1-piece model suitcase model
So, the main question you need to answer here is: “Am I going to carry the harmonium to many different locations, or will my harmonium mostly stay in one place?”
When the seller plays all keys separately, see if some keys are sticky, if they are closing slowly or not at all. So what does this mean? When you stop pressing a key, the sound should stop immediately. Sometimes this is not the case and the key is not closing well.
This is mostly due to the wood of the key creating friction on the sides of the keys, which can easily be repaired by sanding the key a bit with some sand paper. Sometimes it is only a bit of dust underneath the felt part, where the key should close the little opening. So when you release a pressed key the end upper part of the key with the felt underneath should entirely close the little opening where the air escapes. If the key is not closing well because of some dust particles, the sound will not stop entirely when you release the pressed key.
If a harmonium has this issue, ask the seller to fix this. Normally this shouldn’t be a problem, but if it cannot be fixed easily don’t ever buy this harmonium, because it will only become a source of frustration in the long run.
How is the tuning of the harmonium? Ask for a tuning service before sending and buying.
Ask the seller to hold a tuning device next to the harmonium while playing the key of A. Check if the harmonium is tuned at 440hz, which is the standard pitch and preferred when playing with other musicians. If it is not entirely 440hz (it could be 432hz, a frequency that is currently gaining in popularity) this is perfectly alright if you are just playing on your own. In this case, just make sure that all notes are well tuned in relation to each other. You can check this by asking the seller to play octaves, fifths and chords. If everything sounds okay, then all is well. But if it sounds really annoying or strikingly out of tune, you should ask for a tuning service before buying. If the seller doesn’t provide this service, do not buy the harmonium.
See for yourself, what do your feelings say about this harmonium?
Are you enthusiastic? Do you have an attraction towards this harmonium? Does the harmonium make you happy? Or does it not really appeal to you? Are you satisfied with the price, with the sound, with the looks? When buying a harmonium from a distance online, this is a bit harder to experience. Therefore it is ideal to buy a harmonium in a physical shop. This makes it easier to compare different harmoniums by playing on them, and to intuitively feel if this is ‘your instrument’.
For me personally this point isn’t the most important thing, which is why I place it last on the list. For those of you who are looking to buy their first harmonium ever, the color might be very important. I understand that. But know that you can have a very beautiful, nicely decorated harmonium which sounds like crap, or the other way round: a harmonium which sounds and plays beautifully but looks a bit plain, or it doesn’t come in your favorite color.
I tell you, the decision should be easy to make: always prefer playability and sound over color and esthetics. But of course, if the harmonium is highly priced, the appearance and color of the harmonium should match your taste in order to convince you to buy.
1. Get in personal contact with the seller.
2. Ask for a video chat
3. In this video chat you follow these 11 points in order of importance:
Paul & co 1