Writing for bandoneon

I decided to create this resource because writing for bandoneon is quite tricky if you don’t play the instrument. It isn’t covered in the standard orchestration treatises and example scores are hard to find. Because the keyboard systems are very strange, easy-looking things can be very difficult (and vice-versa).

I’ll focus on typical issues that I have come across in scores that I have been asked to play. (This article relates to the tango bandoneon).

Tip #1   Range of the bandoneon

    • The left hand is low, the right hand is high, like on a piano. There the similarity ends…
    • The left hand and right hand ranges overlap by about an octave (depends if you’re opening or closing)
    • The highest left-hand note is A above the bass stave. (There is a B, but it can’t be used in a legato phrase with the A, and there’s no Bb).
    • The lowest right-hand note is A below the treble stave.
    • The full range of the instrument is just under 5 octaves from C2 to B6; the fully chromatic range opening the bellows is slightly smaller, D2 – A6, and closing E2 – A6  (numbering octaves based on middle C = C4)
    • The notes on the diagram below in black can only be played in one direction or the other; the white notes are good either way. You can’t play legato between notes that are in different directions; fortunately this only effects the top and bottom of each keyboard’s range.

The bandoneon has two separate keyboards (button boards) and their ranges look like this:


Right hand and left hand are notated on two staves with treble and bass clef respectively. Each stave should be limited to the range of the respective keyboard as shown above.

A common problem that I encounter is a melody that has to cross from one side of the instrument to the other – in other words a single melodic phrase that contains notes higher than A above middle C (A=440) AND lower than A below middle C (A=220). The octave A below middle C to A above middle C is the overlap between the two hands: the left hand range extends below that, and the right hand above it. (There is a top note B in the left hand closing, but beware: this isn’t joined chromatically to the range below it – the next note closing is G#: no Bb or A).

Crossing hands doesn’t work in a melody because the timbre of the two sides is completely different. Although they use the same reed configuration, the left hand (low side) has an additional resonating chamber so its sound is much more mellow and lacks the sharp accents of the right hand high side.

On the bandoneon we don’t have register stops or switches to change sound. Instead we use the contrasting timbres of the left and right hands, opening and closing bellows directions, and the very wide range of timbres that are produced at different volumes or pressures.

There are instruments being built now with a slightly larger range. I have one of these as well as standard instruments. If you are writing for bandoneonists in general, stick to the ranges shown here; if you are writing for a specific player you might ask them if they have an instrument with a wider range.

Tip #2   Know what register you’re hearing

If you are transcribing bandoneon, it is easy to mistake the octave that notes are in as they can sound in a higher octave than they actually are. The timbre of the bandoneon right hand (high side) is very bright; each note has both an 8′ (pitch) and 4′ (octave) reed, and when played with accents the reeds can actually overblow to produce the octave above, like a recorder or flute. So there is a lot of the higher octave in the sound. For example, this famous passage from Libertango:

Is actually at this pitch:

Different registers on the bandoneon have their own distinctive character. The top octave in the left hand is a wonderful mellow “sweet spot” ideal for soulful melodies: Troilo and Piazzolla often put a solo here: for instance Troilo’s solos in “Danzarin” by Julian Plaza and “Quejas de Bandoneon” by Juan de Dios Filiberto, or the slow section of Primavera Porteña by Piazzolla.

The bottom fifth of the right hand range has a fruity, plangent quality. From about E above middle C to C above the stave is the range in which most melodies are written. Above that the instrument is quite shrill and this range is mostly used for a specific sort of bandoneon ornamentation: decorating a melody with grace notes an octave above.

Tip #3    Avoid piano or accordion chord voicings

On the piano, chords have to fit in to the hand, so they have a span of no more than about an octave per hand. On standardbass accordion the convention is for chords, if written out, to be in a close voicing. On bandoneon, however, each hand can span a range of several octaves, and especially in the left hand, the most effective chord voicings are often widely spaced, like this left hand passage from Piazzolla’s arrangement of the traditional tango “La Casita de mis Viejos” by Cobian:

Close voiced chords are more common in the right hand, and create the chan-chan sound of traditional tango. The best register for these is up to about A above the stave.

Remember that bandoneonists don’t use thumbs – or at least not for playing notes! So with four fingers at our disposal, playing a series of four note chords can be impractical and certainly won’t be legato. If chords are mostly of three notes per hand the part will be much more playable. Generally avoid close 4 note chords low in either hand; they don’t work well on the bandoneon and can be very difficult to play.

If in doubt, just notate chord symbols and rhythm. The player can voice the chords in the most suitable way.

Tip #4  Write it where you want it

Bandoneon music is written on two staves like a piano. If only one stave is in use, by all means hide the other to reduce page turns; as long as the RH has a treble clef and the LH has bass clef it will be clear which hand is indicated. Some parts I receive have everything written in one stave ranging across the instrument, and this means that I have to decide in which hand to play anything that is in the overlap between the hands: this decision should be taken by the composer/arranger, as the timbral implication is huge.

Tip #5 Less is more

The solo bandoneon repertoire makes full use of both hands playing together. To make effective use of the instrument in this way requires considerable skill and experience on the part of the composer or orchestrator: if you want a right hand melody to be clear and prominent, bear in mind that adding a comp part in the left hand will take away a great deal of the energy available for those melody notes: leave it unaccompanied, or, on a recording session, ask the bandoneonist to overdub the comp part. Remember that Piazzolla mostly played an unaccompanied melody line, so if you are inspired by his sound and aesthetic, then that is how to achieve it.

The traditional tango orchestra, the  “Orquesta Típica”, had a minimum of four bandoneons ,so a lot of the more complex polyphony on old records of Golden Age tango can’t be emulated with a single player.

Tip #6 Ask a bandoneonist!

If in doubt, ask – I am always happy to answer questions, and to review scores and give feedback, in order to support and encourage the creation of new music for this wonderful instrument.

Further Reading

This article on the Bandoneon Page, by Ricardo Fiorio, is very interesting and has more musical examples. (Original version in Spanish here)

I will be adding to the information on this post; do leave a comment if there is anything else you would like to see covered here.

10 thoughts on “Writing for bandoneon

  1. Steve Ogden says:

    If you’re a self taught player it’s quite tricky even if you’re the one who came up with the arrangement 🙂


    1. bwadmin says:

      I’m very reluctant to commit to a final version Steve, there always seem to be little tweaks to be made. Piazzolla worked the same way so we are in good company. Its an instrument that always retains a certain mystery (even from its players) – I think Leopoldo Federico said something along those lines.

  2. Kati says:

    I am working on a musical show with a choreographer. Think ballet, but less ballet music. Because the budget is so tight, at this point I can’t hire musicians so I am depending on electronic music. But I want to be able to write music that eventually can translate to live instruments for future shows.
    One of the pieces I am writing is incredibly influenced by Tango. Violin, guitar and piano are easy to find resources on, but not the bandoneon! This page has been bookmarked, so thank you for posting this information!

  3. Boot Hamilton says:

    Julian – You have provided a wonderful resource. I cannot thank you enough, as I continue to learn from each and every visit. However, I have a question. Either I am confused, or a correction may need to be made (it happens).

    Specifically on the page “Writing for Bandoneon”, under “Tip #1 Range….. ” it states:

    “The full range of the instrument is just under 5 octaves from C2 to B5”

    Should that not read, “… B6”?

    1. bwadmin says:

      Yes you’re right. Thank you for taking the trouble to let me know, I’ll fix it!


  4. Peter says:

    I am sure I have heard examples of rapidly played repeated chords (in-out motion of the bellows?) on bandoneon – but if I wasn’t imaging it how does this work if notes are different when the direction of the bellows changes?
    Thanks for your help.

    1. bwadmin says:

      Yes we don’t really do that exactly for the reason that you say, and also because the geometry of the bellows doesn’t really supported it in the same way as an accordion “bellows shake”. In fact it is possible to do something like that on the bandoneon by shaking in such a way as the opening reeds only are sounded. This is a bit like an exaggerated vibrato so that the sound stops and starts.


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