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Organ (music)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Organ in Katharinenkirche, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Organ in Katharinenkirche, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Modern style pipe organ at the concert hall of Aletheia University in Matou, Taiwan
Modern style pipe organ at the concert hall of Aletheia University in Matou, Taiwan

The organ is a keyboard instrument with one or more manuals, and usually a pedalboard. In contrast to most other keyboard instruments, the organ's sound output is produced by wind and therefore continuous and constant for as long as a key is depressed. Unlike the piano or clavichord, the volume of the sound does not depend on how hard the key is struck, though some modern instruments are touch-sensitive. The organ is one of the oldest musical instruments in the Western musical tradition, with a rich history connected with Christian liturgy and civic ceremony.

The most well-known type of organ is the pipe organ, so named because it produces its sound through pipes, although many people simply refer to it as the "organ". Another type is the electronic organ, which does not have pipes, is technically not an organ, and propagates its electronically-produced sound through one or more loudspeakers. There are many other instruments that fall under the category of "organ"; see below.

A musician who plays the organ is an organist. A person who builds or maintains organs is an organ builder. The organ repertoire encompasses a wide variety of styles and eras; the most famous composer of music for the organ is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Pipe organs

Main article: Pipe organ

The pipe organ is the grandest musical instrument in size and scope, and has been around 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.

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), or it may be an electronic organ which synthesizes the sound with computer chips. 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.

Concert organs

Organs, especially large ones, are also used to give concerts, called organ recitals. Generally, any instrument of a large enough size (twenty ranks or more) outside of a church is a concert organ. 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.

Theatre organs

The theatre organ or cinema organ is 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 does not work very well for polyphonic music unless a larger number of reed stops and chromatic percussions are added. Unification also allows pipe ranks to be played from more than one manual and the pedals.

Electronic organs

See the main article at electronic organ for more details and history.

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 Hammond organ 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. 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 '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.

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 Organ, Phoenix, Baldwin, Johannus, Eminent, Content, Viscount, Makin, Wyvern, Wersi Organs, and Rodgers.

Reed organs

An electrically blown reed chord organ.
An electrically blown reed chord organ.

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.

Organ music

Classical music

See the main article at organ repertoire for details on specific countries and styles.

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, bottom, stave. To aid the eye in reading so many staves at once, the bar lines are broken between the lowest two staves. The larger number of staves often makes organ music published in landscape format more convenient than the more commonly used portrait format, and for this reason many publishers print organ music in landscape 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.


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

A harmonium. Operation of the two large pedals at the bottom of the case supplies wind to the reeds.
A harmonium. Operation of the two large pedals at the bottom of the case supplies wind to the reeds.
  • Early instruments
    • the Hydraulos, ancient Greek water-powered instrument (see water organ)
    • the Magrepha, ancient Hebrew organ
    • the portative organ, a small portable medieval instrument
    • the positive organ, a somewhat larger though still portable medieval instrument
  • 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 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
    • the harmonica, where the musician effectively blows directly onto the reeds is also known as a mouth organ;
    • the pan-pipes
    • bagpipes

See also

  • Pipe organ
  • Electronic organ
  • Street organ
  • Organist
  • Organ repertoire
  • Organ recital
  • List of organ composers
  • List of organists

External links

  • Encyclopedia of Organ Stops - Information on construction and sound of various organ stops
  • - Over 5000 tracks of free organ music, delivered via streaming audio
  • Tuning
  • Pipe organs
    • ibiblio: The Pipe Organ
    • The American Guild of Organists - A professional association serving the organ and choral music fields
    • The Organ Historical Society - The Society promotes a widespread musical and historical interest in American organbuilding through collection, preservation, and publication of historical information, and through recordings and public concerts.
    • Pipedreams - organ radio broadcasts, articles, and more
    • Pipe Organs 101
    • The World's Largest Organs
  • Theatre organs
    • American Theatre Organ Society
    • The Walker Digital Unit Orchestra
  • Electronic organs
    • Allen Organ Company history
    • Hammond organs history
    • Electronic Organ Constructor's Society
    • Rodgers Instruments (electronic and hybrid electronic/pipe organs)
    • Phoenix Custom Organs (digitally sampled and hybrid organs)

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