Shifts 101 & How and When to Change

WOW – I had no idea I could right this much ABOUT ACCORDION SHIFTS!!!! – but – I had totally forgotten about all my hours of practicing shifting correctly and timely.

LET’S FIRST – LEARN YOUR REEDS – Your accordion creates its sound – from reeds. There are usually 2 or more reed banks in an accordion. And the more reed banks – the more shifts that are available.

  • A student model usually has 2 reeds – one low and one middle reed or two middle reeds (musette tuned – one reed off-pitched to create a small vibrato sound).
  • An intermediate model has 3 reeds – one low-middle-high or one low & 2 middle reeds.
  • Professional models can have 4 reeds – one low-2middles-1 high or one low-3middles. (3 middle reeds – is the tuning closest to true Musette)
  • There are 5 reed accordions – that have 3 middle plus the high reed OR 2 lows with 3 middles OR low-3middles-high.

TUNINGDry – means perfect A440 on all reeds. Musette – means 1 or more of the middle reeds have been deliberately tuned high or low to create a vibrato sound. The distance the reed is tuned away from A440 – the more vibrato. This is where you get the differences between – Scottish Musette, French Musette, Continental Musette, etc.

WHICH SHIFT – A few tips and tricks:

  1. If you get your hands on an OLD ACCORDION MANUSCRIPT – you will see the shifts marked – with only two options – * and R – The * – means a middle reed and the R means Master or all Registers ON.
  2. The names of the shifts – WHEW what a PROBLEM – there are so many accordion manufacturers – different countries – and they all label them differently!!! Here is the best way to translate:
    1. Bassoon is ALWAYS the lowest reed
    2. Master is ALWAYS – ALL THE REEDS
    3. Piccolo is ALWAYS the highest reed
    4. ORGAN is USUALLY the Highest Reed plus the Lowest Reed
    5. Bandoneon is USUALLY the Lowest Reed with one middle dry reed
    6. Clarinet is USUALLY the 1 Dry Middle Reed
  3. General RULE – FORGET THE NAMES – read the DOTS. The shifts are denoted with a circle divided into thirds.
    1. dot in the bottom section is the low reed
    2. dot in the top section is the high reed.
    3. The middle – could have one-two-or-three dots – depending on the number of reeds.
      1. Dot in the middle is the DRY reed
      2. Dot in the left is tuned DOWN to create a musette vibrato sound
      3. Dot in the right is tuned UP to create a musette vibrato sound
      4. 2 Dots evenly spaced – can mean Dry or Musette tuned


The beauty that defines the accordion is the options to create beautiful music – using various sounding reeds in combination and singly. NEVER play a solo on the same SHIFT all the way to the end. Start on one shift choice, change to another when you hit the Trio or Chorus, then end with your most BRILLIANT SHIFT. Minimum – change shifts for the 2nd trip through the song.

How To Time Your Change

Treat the shift change just like it is a note on the page. Give it a note value. Hit it – just like it is a note. Practice it like it is a note. Practice WHICH SHIFT TO HIT – so you can do it without looking. Give it at least 1 or 1/2 count – at the end of the phrase prior to the new section. This goes for both right and left hand shift changes.

Written accordion manuscripts – particularly the level 3 and above – use multiple shift changes and in both hands too. For your ad-lib work – try changing your left hand shift TOO – from the lowest reeds – back to your master – you will be amazed at the rich tonal quality this will add!

I love telling the story about the Palmer and Hughes Accordion Symphony – and how we had to practice a SILENT SHIFT CHANGE. Can you fathom the LOUD CLICK that is produced when 75 accordion players hit their shifts simultaneously!! We had to “TWO-FINGER” shift. Thumb on the bottom of the shift and index on the top – and QUIETLY PIVOT the shift!

ONE FINAL NOTE – PLEASE CHECK both your right hand and left hand shifts BEFORE you start to play! There is nothing more embarrassing than starting to play and your tenor shift in the left hand is on and your right hand is half way between shifts and is gasping for air!