Bulgarian Accordion Tutorial - Background

This document provides some general background information for accordionists and other instrumentalists interested in playing Bulgarian music. I present here that information I think is most important for music student or artist. Much of this material is "common knowledge" in the American Balkan scene, but (so far as I've been able to determine), not really collected in concise form anywhere else. Currently available texts on Bulgarian ethnomusicology discuss some of these topics in greater detail, but focus primarily on cultural issues rather than practical musicianship. Indeed, such materials often have such a low density of artistically relevant material, they may be more discouraging than encouraging to aspiring musicians. Those more interested in exploring Bulgarian musical culture in greater detail may find the tutorial bibliography enlightening.


What is "Bulgarian" Music?

For purposes of this tutorial, "Bulgarian music" means a set of related traditional musical styles, both vocal and instrumental, that developed in "Bulgaria" over, perhaps, the past several hundred years. The Balkans is an ethnically and culturally diverse area, and various wars and waves of ethnic migration have influenced Bulgarian culture and music. Also, the geographic area comprising the nation of "Bulgaria" has changed somewhat over time, so its geography boundaries should be considered dynamic. "Bulgarian music" is not simply any music Bulgarians play. Many Bulgarians have cosmopolitan tastes, and enjoy musical styles whose origin may be better described as Serbian, Romanian, Greek, Turkish, Roma (Gypsy) or generally "Western". In modern times, radio and other electronic communications have increased the pace of cultural communication and diffusion. Nevertheless, Bulgarian music retains distinct identity, even though the musical styles of its neighbors share similar characteristics.

Musicologists traditionally divide Bulgaria into seven folkloristic regions: Shope, Severn (North Bulgaria), Pirin, Thrace, Rhodope, Dobrudja and Strandzha (see map). These regional musical styles are subject to the same forces of cultural diffusion as the national styles of Balkan pennisula as a whole, but on a smaller scale. Characteristics of these styles will be discussed in later sections of the tutorial.

Bulgaria includes not only traditionally Christian ethnic Bulgarians, but a number of other ethnic and religious minorities, such as Roma, Vlachs and Pomaks (ethnically Bulgarian Moslems). Some of these minorities have played significant roles in defining the Bulgarian style, while also playing distinct musics of their own subgroup. The Roma are particularly notable in this regard.

Each of these musical styles and sub-styles has a coherent, internal aesthetic system which you, the artist, may progressively grasp, work with, internalize and (if you're good) extend. That is, you make the music your own. Be aware that Bulgarian music is technically challenging and that internalizing a musical style you didn't grow up with is not easy. I hope you try, though, for this process has brought me, and musicians I know, much joy.


The traditional Bulgarian instruments of greatest importance to the modern student are the gaida (bagpipe), the gadulka (bowed lute), the kaval (flute), the tambura (plucked lute) and the tupan (large drum). Since 1900 several modern Western instruments have also been incorporated into the idiom. The accordion and clarinet are the most prevalent, with the saxophone, trumpet and violin following close behind.

Each of the four traditional melody instruments was originally played solo, and developed its own distinct repetoire and playing style. Much of the solo music may also be accompanied by tupan. In the early 1900s, musicians experimented with combining the traditional melody instruments. By the 1940s, the "Bitov" ensemble, consisting of one of each, became popular. To accomodate ensemble playing, keys of instruments were standardized. As a result, modern versions of the traditional instruments have several variants - a "standard" ensemble key, and one or more "traditional" keys. The "traditional" instrument often have a more evocative timbre, providing interesting material for innovative ensembles.


The gaida is the Bulgarian bagpipe. Melody is played on the largely chromatic "gaidanitsa" (chanter) which has a compass of a major 9th. The traditional tonic occupies the center of the range, with a 5th span above and a 5th below. A gaida's traditional single drone pipe is two octaves below the chanter tonic. In recent decades, both gaida music and Bulgarian ensemble music generally have explored keys farther and farther removed from the traditional drone. Due to the resulting tonal conflicts, the use the drone is optional in recent times. Gaidars (gaida players) often carry multiple gaidanitsi, pitched in different keys, switching them between tunes as needed. Gaidanitsa keys are described in two ways, either by the tonic or by the lowest note of the chanter (a 5th below the tonic). This can be confusing, so you may need to clarify which system is being used when discussing this with other musicians. Here I will use English letters (e.g. A, D, E) to describe tonic keys and (fixed Do) solfege syllables to describe lowest chanter notes (corresponding Re, Sol, La).

Gaidas are played with a steady stream of air from the bag, which the player refills periodically using the blow pipe. Because the sound is continuous and notes can't be tongued in the manner of a clarinet, gaidars use a variety of finger-based ornamental strategies to articulate notes and shape melodies (for a thorough description of gaida ornamentation, see Levy 1985). I've adapted some of these ornamental techniques for accordion, as described later in this tutorial.

Since air pressure affects reed intonation, it can't be varied, so gaidas to not have dynamic control in the normal sense. However, dynamics play a major role in gaida music because note volume increases dramatically as you go up the scale. Thus, a melody played in the lower 5th seem muted and restrained compared to the same melody played in the upper 5th. In addition, ornamenting the tonic note with a "blip" using the highest note of the chanter will sound brighter and livelier than when using a "drop" to the lowest note of the chanter.

Gaidas come in two basic styles, Thracian and Rhodope. "Thracian" gaidas are played not only in Thrace, but in most of Bulgaria outside the Rhodopes, and are what most people have in mind when they say "Bulgarian gaida". They are smaller than Rhodope gaida, higher pitched and more strident (resulting from a conical chanter bore). The standard "ensemble" Thracian gaida is the Re (tonic A), which balances nicely with a single gadulka and kaval. The Re has a tone quality that varies from mellow to broadly assertive. When poorly regulated, players say it sounds "like a duck". For solo work, most gaidars prefer the Sol (tonic D) which is pitched a 4th above the Re. The Sol is brighter and significantly louder than the Re. When poorly regulated, it can be rather shrill, especially when amplified. Volume, tone and range issues make the Sol more difficult for traditional instruments to work with, although this is not a problem for the accordion. For tunes from Varna and Burgas (E Bulgarian on Black Sea coast) you will sometimes see a La gaida (tonic E) pitched 1 step above the Sol. The La is (in my experience) somewhat quieter and gentler than the Sol with a floating, fairy-like tone quality. When poorly regulated, it may sound "like a toy".

The Rhodope (or "kaba") gaida is larger, deeper and mellower (resulting from a cylindrical chanter bore) than the Thracian. It is rarely used outside of traditional Rhodope material. Characteristics of this style include slower tempi, less chromatic scales and extended, rolling ornaments. Rhodope gaidas do not normally play with other melody instruments (beyond other Rhodope gaidas), so pitches are not so standardized as they are for Thracian gaidas. Chanter tonics are mostly in the range D-E below the Re Thracian gaida.

In ensembles, gaidas are strictly melody instruments. During other musicians' solos they may either drop out, or play a single low note on the chanter consonant with the harmonic context.


The gadulka is a bowed, pear-shaped lute with 3 strings tuned A, E, A. The modern gadulka is the high-tech cousin of a family of similar instruments in the Balkans, including the Serbian gusle and the Cretan lyra. Modern gadulkas have roughly a dozen sympathetic strings that are not bowed, but resonate along with the 3 bowed strings, resulting a very rich sound. Gadulkas are also surprisingly loud (e.g. compared to a violin) due to more robust strings and bow, higher string tension, sound post placement and (possibly) sympathetic string vibrations. A violin can like a feeble toy once you get used to a gadulka. In past times, the gadulka was played balanced on the player's knee, but nowdays is normally played held to the player's chest by a small strap, improving both motility and musicianship. Gadulkas are played almost entirely in 1st position (excluding vituostic solos), and so possess a working range of a 12th.

In ensembles, gadulkas play melody most of the time. However, they may sometimes provide multi-string tremolo for ballads, or rhythmic vamping for horos.

A smaller cousin the the gadulka, lacking sympathetic strings, is the kopanka, found in Dobrudja. (Need more info)


Kaval is an end-blown wooden flute with a range of roughly 2 and a half octaves, depending upon the player. The lowest octave, called "kaba", is rich and mysterious. The middle octave is clear and assertive. The highest octave tends toward whistly and shrill unless played very expertly. The standardized ensemble kaval is called the D kaval, referring to the lowest note (a different convention than that used for gaidas). For solo work, many kavalists prefer the richer sounding C kaval, pitched a step lower. Bulgarian kavals are assembled from three separate sections, which facilitates tuning.


The modern Bulgarian tambura is a plucked lute with 4 double-string courses, tuned D, G, B, E (like the top 4 strings of a guitar). It is played with a plectrum on metal strings, providing a distinctive and pleasantly twangy tone. The modern tambura evolved from a simpler 2 course instrument that is known as the Macedonian tambura. Bulgarian tamburas play either chordal accompaniment or melody, although the former is much more common. This is due, in part, to other traditional instruments being poorly suited for accompaniment and, in part, to the technical difficulty of playing highly ornamented, up tempo melodies on the instrument.


The Bulgarian tupan is a two-headed bass drum used for accompaniment and rhythmic accentuation, mostly in metrical contexts. Traditionally, the frame is wood and the heads goat skin, although synthetic heads and become more popular recently due to their robustness during changeable weather. It is played using a big stick and a little stick providing a "boom" and "tick" respectively. One stick is held in each hand, on opposite sides of the drum. The tupan's basic boom/tick rhythmic framework underlies the study of Bulgarian rhythm later in this tutorial.


A detailed view of Bulgarian traditional singing is beyond the scope of this document, but some basic understanding of song is useful for instrumentalists. Folkloristic distinctions between functional song contexts, such as ballads, work songs, ritual songs and dance songs, are generally less important to instrumentalists, except as part of a folklore perfomance group. For musical artistic purposes, what matters more is the feeling, mode and rhythm, which draw from the same general material as instrumental music. As with any other instrument, the voice excels as certain effects and the sensitive musician may attempt to find some imitation of these ideas in his own playing. Traditional a cappela song may be performed in several configurations: a single soloist; two singers - melody and drone; three singers - melody, fixed drone and moving drone (Shope only); two singers in simple 3rds (Pirin only); antiphonal (call and response) groups; or large monophonic groups. Since the time of Koutev (see below), large choirs using sophisticated Western-influenced harmony and counterpoint have become popular.

Bulgarian vocal quality differs in timbre from Western singing. This quality has variously been described as more strident, more nasal, or most like one's speaking voice. To the Western listener, it may evoke power and confidence with a delightfully unaffected quality. Songs are often highly ornamented in a manner similar, though not identical to, instrumental tunes. When working with a singer, instrumentalists may provide accompaniment or double the melody. Since the ornamental details differ between the singer and the instrumentalist(s), a pleasing heterophonous effect results.


Bulgarian music has, no doubt, ancient origin. However, time line for its development before 1900 is (like cosmology) "largely free from the constraints of observational data". This has lead to all manner of fascinating speculation, with estimated ages ranging from a few hundred years to more than a thousand. Lacking written notation, it's difficult to say with any confidence how far back in time one might go before the music would differ markedly from that of that in the first recordings and transcription of the early 1900s. Here we will only consider Bulgarian music since then.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the following instrumental groupings were popular. Any of the following groups might also include a singer or singers:

At this time, travel and communication being difficult, the music of different Bulgarian regions was relatively distinct. Most music was played by native Bulgarians, for themselves or to share with the residents of their village. A small class of professional musicians (mostly Roma) were hired for special occasions. The Roma, with more time to devote to their craft, often became superior musicians. Through working and travelling, they learned the musical styles of different regions. This let to a modest diffusion between the various Bulgarian regional styles, those of Bulgaria's neighbors and the indigenous music of the Roma themselves.

Soon, the accordion became popular. In Dobrudja, the button accordion was most often used - a simple version of the instrument lacking minor chord buttons. In particular, trios of gaida, kopanka and accordion came to define what is still considered the most characteristic sound of Dobrudjan music. In other regions, the piano accordion was used in a style much influenced by Serbian music. Accordionist Boris Karlov (1924-1964) became widely popular playing Bulgarian music is a clear and agressive style that sounds like a Bulgarian/Serbian hybrid to modern ears. Numerous other accordionists following in his immediate wake, most notably: Ivan Shibilev, Misho Gyurov and Emil Kolev.

Small "modern" ensembles of this era usually had accordion and/or clarinet lead, with a mixed cast of other lead instrument such as trumpet, violin or gadulka. Accompaniment was usually string bass (bowed or plucked) with guitar, tambura or (2nd) accordion supplying chords.

Experiments with combinations of traditional instruments led eventually to the "bitov" ensemble, consisting of one or more of each of the five traditional instruments. The ensemble "Strandzhanskata Groupa", containing some of the most accomplished players of the time, was very popular, playing music not only of Strandza, but of other regions. Their inflence (and that of others) led to dominance of a national "Thracianized" style that somewhat lessened Bulgarian regionalism.

In 1944, Bulgaria adopted a Communist government. For ideological reasons, the government promoted folklore as a symbol of national pride and to promote visions on a socialist utopia. This meant substantial government support for traditional musicians, including studio recordings, record distribution and performance on radio and television. Many talented Bulgarian musicians could now devote their lives to their craft, and the level of musicianship rose substantially.

In addition, a professional national ensemble and about a dozen professional regional ensembles were formed with state support. Philip Koutev, a Bulgarian who had studied Western classical composition in Paris, was tapped to run the national ensemble, which is still known as Ensemble Koutev. He recruited the best traditional musicians, singers and dancers and staged music and dance performances of high quality and drama. He ingeniously wove folk melodies into complicated compositions using the techniques of classical conterpoint and harmony, to create an entirely new genre of music.

State support came at the price of a strong ideological agenda. Koutev's success with large-scale composition led to a bias toward complex arrangement by the party operatives who controlled recording industry. (One correspondent even told be "composers were paid by the note". I can't verify this, but it's not unreasonable given the well-documented perverse economic incentives common in Communist regimes.) Complex arrangements became the norm for both traditional and modern (e.g. clarient/accordion) ensembles that recorded or played on the radio. Few of these arrangers had the taste and disgression of Koutev, resulting in a deluge of over-orchestrated crap. Musicians of my generation had to become adept at "listening through the arrangement" and extracting the lovely traditional melodies embalmed within it. If you're going to play Bulgarian music, you'll need to learn to do this, too.

Brass arrangements were also the subject of state encouraged over-arrangement, perhaps exacerbated by the Cold War need for martial posturing. As a result, much of Bulgarian brass band music of this era sounds rigidly formal compared to the cookin' brass ensembles in nearby Serbia and Macedonia. As with bitov and accordion/clarinet ensembles, you need to listen through the arrangment to get to tunes. They're in there!

The state also became quite rigid in the artistic bounds it placed on musicians. Traditional Bulgarian regionalism was encouraged in folkloric performance (e.g. regional folklore festivals, Koprivstitsa). For radio orchestras, the national "Thracianized" style predominated. Synthesis of foreign elements (beyond established Western classical elements) was discouraged. This was particularly true of music of the Bulgarian Roma which, due to ethnic tensions, was largely unrecorded, despite its popularity.

In the 1960s, the government created folkloristic school teaching the traditional music in a conservatory environment. This further elevated the technical level and grounded musicians in both Bulgarian regional styles and classical technique. Some students took the opportunity to explore the idioms of Bulgaria's neighbors and those further afield, such as American jazz. Musicians who would become the leaders of the new "Wedding music" style, such as Ivo Papazov and Petar Ralchev, trained in these schools.

With few consumer goods available in a command economy, people put their extra funds into services - in particular, hiring elite musicians for weddings and other special occasions. Many professional musicians made more money for a weekend wedding that at their (government controlled) regular jobs. With a large pool of well trained musicians, and a paying public more interested in a good party that government sanctioned, folkloric authenticity, a new style of music was born, the so-called "Wedding music". (Music was always important at a traditional wedding, so this term is prone to confusion. Nevetherless, it's the standard term.) Wedding music blends traditional melodies of Bulgaria, the Roma and Bulgarian's neighbors with increased chromaticism, improvision, faster tempi and almost unbelievable virtuosity. The result was larger musical forms, perhaps lasting hours instead of the recording industry approved 3-5 minute set arrangements.

State domination of musical life ended in 1989 with the fall of communism. With it's demise, state support for recordings, radio, professional ensembles and music schools was dramatically scaled back. In addition, general economic troubles meant less money available for wedding musicians. Many musicians struggled with these new realities. A few left Bulgaria for other countries, including the US, where there is a market for their music in ethnic communities. In general, there remained some market for Wedding music, but almost no market for more traditional Bulgarian music. A flurry of innovation took place at this time, producing what might call avante garde folk music, incorporating traditional Bulgarian motifs into non-traditional frameworks such as dissonant modern Western art music and American jazz.

Since about 2000, a fusion of Western pop music and aesthetics with Bulgarian and other Balkan elements has become popular in Bulgaria under the name chalga or popfolk. I find this style too remote from its predecessors to call traditional in any sense, and will not consider it further here or in my remaining years on this planet. Fans of Miley Cyrus's twerking, may enjoy looking up Azis.

Copyright 2015 Erik Butterworth. All rights reserved.