What is this instrument called the harmonium? Why is it used for devotional chanting? Where can you buy one for your own chanting practice?

The harmonium is a simple, hand-pumped reed organ that can indefinitely sustain a smooth, continuous sound. In devotional singing and chanting, this characteristic helps devotees stay focused on the chant and their inner awareness rather than being distracted by the variations in sound that are present with most other instruments.

Notes struck on a piano or guitar, for example, rise and fall. The sound from a wind instrument necessarily stops when the performer needs to breathe. But a harmonium’s design allows for an unbroken sound.

You play a harmonium by pumping the external bellows with one hand and playing notes on the keyboard with the other. Pressing a key allows air to flow across one or more reeds (controlled by the stop knobs on the front), that vibrate and produce sound. Air pressure is maintained by a second, internal bellows, allowing the sound to be sustained indefinitely.

For more details, see A Brief Tour of the Harmonium.

Is the harmonium an Indian instrument?

The harmonium has origins both East and West. The instrument was originally invented in Europe based on ancient Chinese mouth organs, which is why it has a Western-style keyboard of 12 notes per octave. Missionaries took the harmonium to India in the 1900s where it was readily adopted for devotional chanting.

The Indians simplified its construction and made smaller models suitable for sitting on the floor. When hand-pump harmoniums fell out of favor in the West due to the advent of electronic organs, harmoniums remained popular in India, where they are manufactured to this day.

For a more detailed history, see The Harmonium Handbook: Owning, Playing, & Maintaining the Indian Reed Organ, published by Crystal Clarity Publishers. Crystal Clarity also offers a variety of chanting albums that feature the harmonium.

How do I choose a harmonium to buy?

There are a number of considerations to choosing the right instrument for your sadhana. See Choosing and Buying a Harmonium.

Where can I buy a harmonium?

A number of instrument stores in the United States and elsewhere regularly import harmoniums for retail sale, including the locations below: 

Inner Path, Nevada City, California

Ananda Portland, Portland, Oregon

Ananda Washington, Seattle, Washington