Organ (music)

The organ (from Greek όργανον – organon, "organ, instrument, tool") is a keyboard instrument of one or more divisions, each played with its own a keyboard played either with the hands or with the feet. The organ is one of the oldest musical instruments in the Western musical tradition. By around the eighth century it had overcome early associations with gladitorial combat and assumed a prominent place in the liturgy of the western church; more recently it has reemerged as a secular and recital instrument.

All organs are descended from the pipe organ which uses wind moving through pipes of various materials to produce sounds which can vary widely in timbre and volume and are divided into ranks and controlled by the use of handstops and/or combination pistons. The keyboard touch is not expressive and does not affect dynamics; some divisions may be enclosed in a swell box, allowing the dymamics to be controlled by shutters. These instruments vary greatly in size, ranging from a cubic yard to a height reaching five floors , and are built in churches, synagogues, concert halls, and homes. Small organs are called positive (i. e. easily placed in differrent locations) or portative (small enough to carry while playing)

Non-pipe organs include the reed organ or harmonium and accordion, which like the harmonica or mouth organ use air to excite free reeds; the electronic organ or digital organ which generates its electronically-produced sound through one or more loudspeakers; and more exotic instruments like the hydraulophone which use pipes but not air. Increasingly hybrid organs are appearing in which pipes are augmented with electronic additions; great economies of space as well as cost are possible especially when the lowest (and largest) of the pipes can be so replaced.

Mechanical organs dispense with the hands and feet of an organist and are controlled by pinned barrels turned by an organ grinder or other clockwork-like means.

Pipe organs

The pipe organ is the grandest musical instrument in size and scope, and has existed in its current form since the 14th century (though other designs, such as the hydraulic organ, were already used in Antiquity). Along with the clock, it was considered one of the most complex man-made creations before the Industrial Revolution. Organs (the "pipe" designation is generally assumed) range in size from a single short keyboard to huge instruments which can have over 10,000 pipes. A large modern organ typically has three or four manuals with five octaves (61 notes) each, with a two-and-a-half octave (32-note) pedalboard.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart called the organ the "King of instruments. Some of the biggest instruments have 64-feet pipes (a foot here means "sonic-foot", a measure quite close to the English measurement unit), and it sounds to an 8 Hz frequency fundamental tone. Perhaps the most distinctive feature is the ability to range from the slightest sound to the most powerful, "pleine-jeu" impressive sonic discharge, which can be sustained in time indefinitely by the organist. For instance, the Wanamaker organ, located in Philadelphia, USA, has sonic resources comparable with three simultaneous symphonic orchestras. Another interesting feature lies in its intrinsic "polyphony" approach: each set of pipes can be played simultaneously with others, and the sound gets truly mixed and interspersed only when they reached the environment, not in the instrument itself (this is the main difference with digital organs, where the sound comes from loudspeakers which plays the resultant electric waveform of several tones being played).

Church organs

The principal purpose of most organs in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand is to play in Christian and Reform Jewish religious services. An organ used for this purpose is generally called a church organ. The introduction of church organs is traditionally attributed to Pope Vitalian in the seventh century. Due to its ability to simultaneously provide a musical foundation below the vocal register, support in the vocal register, and increased brightness above the vocal register, the organ is ideally suited to accompany human voices, whether a congregation, a choir or a cantor or soloist. Most services also include solo organ repertoire for independent performance rather than by way of accompaniment, often as a prelude at the beginning the service and a postlude at the conclusion of the service.

Today this organ may be a pipe organ (see above), a digital or electronic organ which generates the sound with Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chips or a combination of pipes and electronics. It may be called a church organ or classical organ to differentiate it from the theatre organ, which is a distinctly different instrument. However, as classical organ repertoire was developed for the pipe organ and in turn influenced its development, the line between a church and a concert organ is hard to draw.

Organs are also used to give recital concerts, called organ recitals. In the early twentieth century, symphonic organs flourished in secular venues in the U.S. and UK, designed to replace symphony orchestras by playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces. Symphonic and orchestral organs largely fell out of favor as the Orgelbewegung (Organ Reform Movement) took hold in the middle of the twentieth century and organ builders began to look to historical models for inspiration in constructing new instruments. Today, modern builders construct organs in a variety of styles and for both secular and sacred applications.

Chamber organs

A chamber organ is a small pipe organ, often with only one manual, and sometimes without separate pedal pipes, that is placed in a small room, that this diminutive organ can fill with sound. It is often confined to chamber organ repertoire, as often, the organs have too little voice capabilities to rival the grand pipe organs in the performance of the classics. The sound and touch are unique unto the instrument, sounding nothing like a large organ with few stops drawn out, but rather much more intimate. They are usually tracker instruments, although the modern builders are often building electropneumatic chamber organs.

Theatre organs

The theatre organ or cinema organ was designed to accompany silent movies. Like a symphonic organ, it is made to replace an orchestra. However, it includes many more gadgets, such as percussions and special effects, to provide a more complete array of options to the theatre organist. Theatre organs tend not to take nearly as much space as standard organs, relying on extension and higher wind pressures to produce a greater variety of tone and larger volume of sound from fewer pipes. This extension is called "unification", meaning that instead of one pipe for each key at all pitches, the higher octaves of pitch (and in some cases, lower octaves) are achieved by merely adding 12 pipes (one octave) to the top and/or bottom of a given division. Since there are sixty-one keys on an organ manual, a classical or concert organ will have, for diapason stops at 8', 4' and 2' pitch, a total of 183 pipes (61 times 3). The same chorus of diapasons on a theatre organ will have only 85 pipes, or 61 plus 12, plus 12. Some ranks, such as the Tibia Clausa, with up to 97 pipes, allow the organist to draw stops at 16', 8', 4', 2', and mutations from a single rank of pipes.

Unification gives a smaller instrument the capability of a much larger one, and works well for monophonic styles of playing (chordal, or chords with solo voice). The sound is, however, thicker and more homogenous than a classically-designed organ, and is very often reliant on the use of tremulant, which has a depth greater than that usually found on a classical organ. Unification also allows pipe ranks to be played from more than one manual and the pedals.

Electronic organs

Since the 1930s, pipeless electric instruments have been available to produce similar sounds and perform similar roles to pipe organs. Many of these have been bought both by houses of worship and other potential pipe organ customers, and also by many musicians both professional and amateur for whom a pipe organ would not be a possibility. Far smaller and cheaper to buy than a corresponding pipe instrument, and in many cases portable, they have taken organ music into private homes and into dance bands and other new environments, and have almost completely replaced the reed organ.

Hammond organs

The Hammond organ was the first successful electric organ, released in the 1930s. It used mechanical, rotating tonewheels to produce the sound waveforms. Its system of drawbars allowed for setting volumes for specific sounds, and provided vibrato-like effects. The drawbars allow the player to choose volume levels of 1-8 for each of the members of the harmonic series starting from 16'. By emphasizing certain harmonics from the overtone series, desired sounds (such as 'brass' or 'string') can be imitated. Generally, the older Hammond drawbar organs had only preamplifiers and were connected to an externalty amplified speaker. The Leslie speaker became the most popular, which is a rotating type speaker. The three most popular models of Hammond organs were the B-3, the C-3, and A-100. Inside all three models, the tone generators, drawbars, & keyboards were identical. The B-3 cabinet stood on 4 legs, the C-3 was an enclosed "church" model and the A100 series had built in amplifiers & speakers.

Though originally produced to replace organs in the church, the Hammond organ, more specifically the B-3, became popular in jazz, particularly soul jazz, and in gospel music. Since these were the roots of rock and roll, the Hammond organ became a part of the rock and roll sound. It was widely used in rock and popular music during the 1960s and 1970s by bands like The Doors, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. Its popularity resurged in pop music around 2000, in part due to the availability of clonewheel organs that were light enough for one person to carry.

Other organs

Frequency divider organs used oscillators instead of mechanical parts to make sound. These were even cheaper and more portable than the Hammond. They featured an ability to bend pitches.

In the 1940s until the 1970s, small organs were sold that simplified traditional organ stops. These instruments can be considered the predecessor to modern portable keyboards, as they included one-touch chords, rhythm and accompaniment devices, and other electronically assisted gadgets. Lowrey was the leading manufacturer of this type of organs in the smaller (spinet) instruments, with Conn-Selmer and Rodgers dominating the larger instrument market, although the larger models were movable but were not considered portable.

Conn and others also made electronic organs that used separate oscillators for each note, giving them a richer sound, closer to a pipe organ, due to the slight imperfections in tuning, by not using precise division.

In the '60s and '70s, a type of simple, portable electronic organ called the combo organ was popular, especially with pop and rock bands, and was a signature sound in the pop music of the period, such as The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Iron Butterfly. The most popular combo organs were manufactured by Farfisa and Vox.

The bamboo organ called Bambuso sonoro is an experimental custom-made instrument designed by Hans van Koolwijk. The instrument has 100 flutes made of bamboo.

Digital organs

The development of the integrated circuit enabled another revolution in electronic keyboard instruments. Electronic organs sold since the 1980s utilize sampling to produce the sound.

Also available are hybrids, incorporating a few ranks of pipes to produce some sounds, and using digital samples for other sounds and to resolve borrowing collisions. Major manufacturers include Allen (who built the first digital organs), Walker, Marshall & Ogletree, Makin Organs, Wyvern Organs, Phoenix, and Rodgers who built the first hybrid instruments starting in 1972 and for decades has built more organs with pipes than any other manufacturer.

Reed organs

The reed organ was the other main type of organ before the development of electronic organs. It generated its sounds using reeds similar to those of a piano accordion. Smaller, cheaper and more portable than the corresponding pipe instrument, these were widely used in smaller churches and in private homes, but their volume and tonal range was extremely limited, and they were generally limited to one or two manuals, pedalboards being extremely rare.

A development of the reed organ was the chord organ, which provided chord buttons for the left hand, again similar to a piano accordion in concept. A few chord organs were later built using frequency divider technology.


A newly invented instrument, the hydraulophone, is a pipe organ that uses incompressible fluid (water) rather than compressible fluid (air). The organ console resembles a flute, and is played by insertion of fingers into one or more "mouths" of the instrument. This allows for very subtle changes in sound pitch, volume, texture, and timbre, giving rise to an ability to play the organ very expressively. In this way the hydraulophone combines the expressivity of the tin flute (where you can cover up the finger holes halfway, or change the sound in other subtle ways) with the polyphony of the organ.

Because these organs run on water, they are, in a sense, self-cleaning, and are thus useful as outdoor pipe organs. The largest such pipe organ is the main architectural centerpiece out in front of the Ontario Science Centre, and is open to the public 24 hours a day.

Organ music

Classical music

The organ has had an important place in classical music throughout its history. Antonio de Cabezón, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and Girolamo Frescobaldi were three of the most important composers and teachers before 1650. Influenced by these composers, the North German school then rose to prominence with notable composers including Dieterich Buxtehude and especially Johann Sebastian Bach, considered by many to have achieved the height of organ composition. During this time, the French Classical school also flourished.

After Bach, the organ's prominence gradually lost ground to the piano. Felix Mendelssohn, A.P.F. Boëly, and César Franck led a resurgence in the mid-1800s, leading a Romantic movement that would be carried further by Max Reger, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, and others. In the 20th century, composers such as Marcel Dupré and Olivier Messiaen added significant contributions to the organ repertoire. Organ music continues to be composed.

Because the organ has both manuals and pedals, most organ music is notated on three staves. The music played on the manuals is laid out like music for other keyboard instruments on the top two staves, and the music for the pedals is notated on the third stave or sometimes added to the bottom of the second stave to save room. To aid the eye in reading so many staves at once, the bar lines are broken between the lowest two staves. For convenience sake, the larger number of staves often contributes to the music being often published in landscape format rather than the more commonly used portrait format.

Soap operas

From their creation on radio in the 1930s to the times of television in the early 1970s, soap operas were perhaps the biggest users of organ music. Day in and day out, the melodramatic serials utilized the instrument in the background of scenes and in their opening and closing theme songs. Some of the best-known soap organists included Charles Paul, John Gart, and Paul Barranco. In the early 1970s, the organ was phased out in favor of more dramatic, full-blown orchestras, which in turn were replaced with more modern pop-style compositions.

Popular music

Church-style pipe organs are occasionally used in popular music. In some cases, groups have sought out the sound of the pipe organ, such as Tangerine Dream,and Arrogant Worms which used combined the distinctive sounds of electronic synthesizers and pipe organs when it recorded both music albums and videos in several cathedrals in Europe. Rick Wakeman of British progressive rock group Yes also used pipe organ to excellent effect in a number of the group's albums (including "Close to the Edge" and "Going for the One"). Wakeman has also used pipe organ in his solo pieces such as "Jane Seymour" from The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and "Judas Iscariot" from Criminal Record. Even more recently, he has recorded an entire album of organ pieces – "Rick Wakeman at Lincoln Cathedral". George Duke employed the pipe organ in a flamboyant manner in the piece "50/50" on the Frank Zappa album Over-Nite Sensation. Dennis DeYoung of American rock group Styx used the pipe organ at Chicago's St. James Cathedral on the song "I'm O.K." on the group's 1978 album Pieces of Eight. In 2000 Radiohead Frontman Thom Yorke played the organ on the Kid A album to great effect, most notably in "Motion Picture Soundtrack". More recently, Arcade Fire have used a church organ on the songs "Intervention" and "My Body Is a Cage" on their newest album Neon Bible. Muse have also used a church organ on their album 'Origin of Symmetry' in the form of 'Megalomania', played by their frontman Matt Bellamy. It has been performed live only once on a pipe organ, at the Royal Albert Hall.

On the other hand, electronic organs and electromechanical organs such as the Hammond organ have an established role in a number of non-"Classical" genres, such as blues, jazz, gospel, and 1960s and 1970s rock music. Electronic and electromechanical organs were originally designed as lower-cost substitutes for pipe organs. Despite this intended role as a sacred music instrument, electronic and electromechanical organs' distinctive tone-often modified with electronic effects such as vibrato, rotating Leslie speakers, and overdrive-became an important part of the sound of popular music. Billy Preston and Iron Butterfly's Doug Ingle have featured organ on popular recordings such as "Let it Be" and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", respectively. Well-known rock bands using the Hammond organ include Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.

Recent performers of Popular organ music include William Rowland of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma who is noted for his compositions of "Piano Rags" which he plays on a Wurlitzer theatre organ in Miami, Oklahoma; George Wright (1920-1998) whose "Jealousie" and "Puttin on the Ritz" are some of the finest performances of this genre and Virgil Fox (1912-1980), who bridged both the classical and religious areas of music with pop and so-called Heavy Organ concerts that he played on an electronic organ accompanied by a light show similar to those created in the 1960s for rock concerts. Jimmy Smith was a famous jazz organist of the twentieth century.

The American Theatre Organ Society ATOS has been instrumental in programs to preserve the instruments originally installed in theatres for accompaniment of silent movies. In addition to local chapter events they hold an annual convention each year, highlighting performers and instruments in a specific locale. These instruments feature the Tibia pipe family as their foundation stops and regular use of tremulants. They were usually equipped with mechanical percussion accessories, pianos, and other imitative sounds useful in creating movie sound accompaniments such as auto horns, doorbells, and bird whistles.


The electronic organ, especially the Hammond B-3, has occupied a significant role in jazz ever since Jimmy Smith made it popular in the 1950s. It can function as a replacement for both piano and bass in the standard jazz combo.

Similar instruments

Early instruments

Hand- or foot-powered instruments

  • the accordion and concertina, in which the bellows is operated by the squeezing action of the instrumentalist;
  • the Harmonium or parlor organ, a reed instrument usually with many stops and two foot-operated bellows which the instrumentalist operates alternately;
  • the American Reed Organ is another foot bellow reed keyboard very similar to the Harmonium but it works on negative pressure rather than positive so it sucks air through the reeds;
  • the melodeon, a reed instrument with an air reservoir and a foot operated bellows, popular in the USA in the mid-19th century;

Entertainment instruments

  • the barrel organ, made famous by the organ grinder in its portable form, and relatively invisible in its larger form because it was then often fitted out with keyboards to give the option for an entirely human performance
  • the steam calliope, a pipe organ operated on steam rather than air;
  • the fairground organ, a pipe organ which uses mechanical means instead of a keyboard to play a prepared song.
  • various sorts of novelty instruments operating on the same principles

Mouth-played instruments

See also


External links


Michael Markovits, Die Orgel im Altertum (Leiden: Brill, 2003), Pp. xxiii, 783.

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