Buying a Harmonium: Where, How, and What to Look Out For!

harmonium Oct 20, 2020

Almost no two harmoniums are alike! Your harmonium might become your new best friend for your chanting practice, but they can also be tricky to buy.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking to buy a harmonium.

Method of Purchase: Online or In Person?

  1. It's always best to play the instrument first to be sure you enjoy it's "voice." Without getting into too much technical detail, let's just say there are many different construction factors that can change the harmonium's sound. Look and ask around in your local area to see if someone has a harmonium for sale. Hindu temples and yoga studios are great places to start asking.
  2. If you can't physically play it yourself, perhaps your seller can play a few different ones for you over a virtual "test drive."
  3. If you're flying blind and buying one online, don't buy from just anyone. Harmoniums can be tricky instruments, and there is a huge range of quality out there. Chances are quite high that you'll end up with an instrument that's not ideal.

Keep reading below for features to consider, lists of places to be careful of when buying a harmonium, things to look/listen for when buying a harmonium, and a list of recommended online harmonium sellers!

Places and people to be careful of when buying a harmonium:

  1. Directly from the Indian manufacturer (Quality coming out of the same workshop varies widely, even from the best and most reputable sellers like Paloma/Haribhau, Delhi Musical Store, Bina, etc.)
  2. Off ebay or some random person on Craigslist, FB Marketplace, or other online harmonium store. Unless they'll take time to play it for you in real time online (via Zoom or Facetime, for example) and answer your questions, you don't know what you're getting.
  3. Buying direct from someone who is not a musician and doesn't play it.
  4. Buying direct from someone who has had an old instrument sitting in their attic for a decade. Chances are, it'll need some professional tuning and repair before it sounds lovely.

Some of the things to look out for are when buying new & used harmoniums:

  • TUNING!
    Is the harmonium tuned to A=440? If not, you might have difficulty playing with other fixed-pitch instruments in the future.

    If you prefer a harmonium tuned to A=432 to vibe with solfeggio frequencies popular among sound healers, enjoy your own practice but expect to have some compatibility issues with other players. (In our Heart of Sound trainings in person & online, we use A=440 because they're much more common and versatile.)

    Is each key tuned in the proper interval to the other keys? Are some keys quite sharp or flat? (Use a tuner, or ask a musician friend to check the tuning for you.)

    Are at least your most often played notes/chords/drone keys in tune with each other? (A lot of harmoniums have at least a few keys that are "off," but if they're not keys you often play, it's not a dealbreaker.)

    Is the instrument sharp or flat overall? (Very old instruments are often sharp, if they've been tuned many times.)

  • Sticky keys (keys that don't bounce back up after you play them)
  • Clacking, noisy keys
  • Rust
  • Dust on the interior
    (Get your seller to open it up for you to look "under the hood" - dust inside the instrument can cause annoying buzzing sounds and can accelerate rust. Use compressed air and/or a vacuum cleaner extension carefully to get the dust out.)
  • Do the knobs work?
  • Do the bellows work? Not leaking air?
    When you pump air through the instrument (while making a musical noise, of course!) are you able to build a satisfactory amount of pressure to sustain the sound evenly? This takes a bit of practice for any new player, and is a bit different on each harmonium you play, but a good harmonium has a good "sustain." You should not have to sweat from overpumping to get a steady sound.

HOT TIP:
Feel free to print out this list and keep it with you when you buy a harmonium or talk to a seller. It covers the most common troubleshooting issues for buying a harmonium!

What type of harmonium should I buy?
Full sized harmonium? Travel/ collapsible harmonium? Dulcetina? Shruti Box?

There are several different types and sizes. Here are some questions to guide you.

  • Will you be traveling with it by bus, train, or airplane? If so, you might want to get a smaller model or collapsible model built for travel, so it can fit in a wheelie suitcase and/or in the overhead bin of an airplane.
  • If you don't expect to need to cart it around much (if it's for a studio space, or your home), a full sized harmonium will offer the richest, fullest sound and is probably less expensive. A full sized harmonium can be moved easily by car, but not on public transportation without a heavy hassle.
  • Do you need it mostly for the drone sound, mostly for melody only, or do you need to play the drone + a melody at the same time?
    Drone only you can get away with an inexpensive Śruti box (no keys, only knobs for a sustained sound)
    Melody only (or if you're an advanced one-handed player who can play chords and melody at the same time) you can look into a dulcetina or "Calcutta style" instrument that you can't set a drone manually on by moving the wires.
    Drone + a melody at the same time you'll want the type that has wires "under the hood" so you can set 1-2 keys as a continuous drone, and play a melody as well. (Some harmoniums have knobs for drones, as well, but most only have 2-4 options and don't sound very good anyway.)
    For the most versatile style of playing we teach at the Heart of Sound, we recommend buying an instrument you can play a drone + a melody at the same time.

Features to consider when buying a harmonium:

Range: Harmoniums come in several ranges, from 2 1/2 octaves and up; the average being around 3. Most players starting out should be able to work within 2 1/2 octaves.

Starting Note: Harmoniums may have their lowest note starting on any variety of notes. This is important to you if you're playing Indian classical music and your Sa-Pa drone is always set on F - Bflat; you might not want your drone stuck in the middle of your instrument. Play different harmoniums to see which sounds good to you, and/or ask your seller or music teacher to help you decide which configuration is best for you.

Reeds: Most harmoniums come with two reeds: a high (female) set and a low (male) set. They blend to create a rich, full sound. Some are automatically set to play both at all times. Many harmoniums will have knobs on the front that you can pull in and out to blend the reed mix according to your liking. It's nice to be able to play with the dynamics by adding in or fading out one of the reeds when you want.

Fancy Features: Additional bells and whistles may include stops, scale changers, and octave couplers. Stops and scale changers are not required unless you're playing songs with random new musicians a lot and need to change keys (without having to mentally transpose yourself on the keyboard).

An octave coupler can be a helpful feature. It  adds an octave to the note you’re pressing down. It can add a level of dynamic increase at the right moment when you're leading a chant. It's absolutely not necessary though.


And now, the part you've all been waiting for...
Where we recommend to buy harmoniums online or in India!

In no particular order.

  • If you're registering for a Heart of Sound teacher training course in India, each year Anandra's Gurubhai Sudhanshu Sharma helps our students with a bulk order of harmoniums and tanpuras. He checks them all personally, too. Register for the Free Preparatory Course to get ready to come to India, and put your order in.

  • Our friend and Heart of Sound graduate David Estes produces one of the best harmoniums! Several technological advances developed by him make it the most reliable, durable, practical instrument on the market. David personally checks each one he sells. http://www.ragamalapeti.com

  • Also recommended for overall quality and customer service of harmoniums is Old Delhi Music in the US. They ship internationally, and the key factor is this:
    The owner oversees the quality of construction, tweaks every harmonium after it is imported from India to make sure there aren’t any problems with it, packs it very well, and offers amazing customer service and troubleshooting.
    Contacting the owner, Nic, or one of his staff to discuss your needs.
    You can reach him at: 312-869-9092 or [email protected]

Happy harmonium shopping!

 

PS. If you found this level of detail helpful, just imagine our teacher training level online courses!
They include dozens of hours of harmonium how-to, harmonium 101 playing tips, harmonium care, and scores of videos of mantras & kīrtan for the harmonium. Check them out in the store!

We're certain that the value of the Heart of Sound courses greatly overdelivers compared any other harmonium kīrtan or bhajan online course available today. If you're also shopping around for online courses, feel free to contact us for more information!

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