It’s been almost a year since I purchased my harmonium. I now chant with the harmonium at the end of every yoga class that I teach across Atlanta. Students are intrigued, and many of them chant with me. I always tell each class what the meaning of the chant is, since we chant in Sanskrit, and that it is optional to join in. I love that chanting slows the breath down and brings a person into a more relaxed state. It is also a great introduction for students to Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion, in which chants can be a way to express devotion to a power greater than oneself.
My harmonium is a portable instrument crafted in India. I describe it as a cross between an organ and an accordion. Mine’s the Bhava Mini, a travel-sized instrument that collapses into its own wooden shell, a compact (though heavy) rectangular box. It fits inside a carry-on-sized bag.
I purchased my harmonium from Old Delhi Music, an Illinois-based company that sources various musical instruments from India and tunes and repairs them in the U.S. After completing my 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2018, I felt drawn to incorporate the harmonium into my yoga practice, despite never having played one before, and despite the relative obscurity of harmoniums in most Western yoga classes. I am truly an amateur; prior to the harmonium, my previous instrumental talents included 3rd-grade recorder performances and 6th-grade violin lessons. I think my lack of musical experience goes to show that anyone can pick up this instrument and have fun experimenting with it!
It took me several months of research to make my purchasing decision. Information was difficult to find. The surprisingly combative and conflicting internet forums between a handful of the relatively few resellers of harmoniums in the U.S., plus a failed attempt to meet in person with one of them in another state, resulted in my decision to just order a harmonium online. Of course, the ideal scenario is that you’ll get to play the instrument prior to purchasing, but it’s not an instrument you’re likely to find in your local music shop. As a note, I’d be wary of ordering a harmonium via Amazon.com, though it will be cheaper than purchasing one from most other resellers. Reviewers often find that the quality is not what they had hoped for.
Though many people believe the harmonium (or “pump organ”) was invented in India, it was actually developed in the West and patented in 1840 by a French fellow named Alexandre Debain. The harmonium made its way across Europe, to the U.S., the Caribbean, and elsewhere. It arrived in India via Western traders in the late 1800s. In Calcutta (now Kolkata), the harmonium began its transformation from the Western design of the instrument to what we see today in India.
Anatomy of a Harmonium
Indian-crafted harmoniums have two sets of bellows, one external and one internal. The Indian harmonium is small and portable, as shown in the photo at the beginning of this post, whereas the Western harmoniums were much larger:
After opening the lid of an Indian-crafted harmonium, you will see a keyboard on top. My harmonium has a range of just 2.5 octaves, so it is quite limited compared to the range of a piano, for example. That’s ok by me; I’m an alto so I stick to the lower octave.
The harmonium has a set of metal reeds, which are shaved to create a certain pitch. These reeds produce sound once you start pumping the external bellows with your hand. Use your dominant hand to play the keyboard, and your other hand to pump the bellows. The reeds, which each correspond to a note, are attached at one end and loose at the other.
To produce sound, you’ll first need to pull out the stops; the stops are knobs found on the front of most harmoniums. Then, when you compress the bellows, and press a key (or use a drone, an additional knob typically found on the front of the instrument), air vibrates the reed and makes a sound. Purchasing your harmonium in the West, you will need to decide whether you’d like it to be “equal-tuned” versus tuned to A-440. Equal-tuning means tuning the instrument to itself. In the West, many people prefer to tune their instrument to A-440 so it does not sound discordant when playing in a group with other Western instruments.
Use of the Harmonium Today
A versatile instrument, you’ll see the harmonium used in kirtan, yoga classes, folk music, and even indie pop music. It provides that deep, church-y, humming sound of an organ. The harmonium is usually played while seated on the floor.