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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

February 17, 2010

Pianists coming to the organ: the basics

evelyn @ 9:06 pm

(Experienced organists please find another blog, because you’ll be very bored by this one. Or stay and criticise, if you prefer…)

Most pianists who play the organ have been dragged there unwillingly by the clergy. The priestly approach is either sad and pathetic (‘Please, please help me out’) or domineering, like the priest who 40 years ago dismissed all my protests that I knew nothing about the organ with ‘Nonsense! Black keys, white keys, they’re all the same. You don’t need to worry about the pedals – we’ve taken them off. See you Sunday!’

I have to say that once I got to appreciate the organ I never looked back, but I still remember the horror of those nerve-racking early days. There was no one who could tell me how organs worked. I would automatically thump the thing to make it louder, and didn’t dare pull any stop that might sound above mf. And everything was so public. Every mistake of any kind would blare out, and all I wanted to do was go home. Many pianists have gone through this, and some have not felt able to take the strain, and have given up. This is a great pity, because playing at Mass can become really rewarding once confidence is established.

So here are a few notes taken from a beginners’ training day. I hope they might be of some use and encouragement to pianists who are either beginning to play the organ in church, or still thinking about taking the plunge.


All church organs work the same way. They have MANUALS (keyboards), PEDALBOARD (most of the time but not always), STOPS, COUPLERS, some kind of ‘PRESET’ arrangement and some kind of VOLUME PEDAL. The organ specification is simply a list of these for a particular organ.

MANUALS If there are two manuals, they are called Great and Swell. The Swell is the upper one, it’s less strong than the Great, and the volume can be controlled by a foot pedal. There can be more than two manuals, of course.

PEDALBOARD A full pedalboard is two-and-a-half octaves or more and goes right across the bottom of the organ. A single octave on the left – usually found on ‘home’ organs – requires a quite different technique and cannot be used for serious organ pedalling.

STOPS They can be drawstops or tabs. The figure (16′, 8′, 4′, 2′) denotes pitch – the smaller the number, the higher the note. 8′ is the middle range. Middle C on an 8′ stop sounds as Middle C. On a 4′ it sounds an octave higher, and on a 16′ an octave lower. The name tells us the tone quality, and what tonal family (diapasons, flutes, reeds, etc.) the stop is in. For more about stop families see the stop chart in the blog post of 8 January 2010

COUPLERS join up different sets of sounds. They can combine the sounds on two manuals, add a manual sound to the pedals, or add an octave above or below the stops being used. On electronics, there can be an ‘automatic bass’ feature which brings the pedal sound into the bottom of the lower manual.

PRESETS I’ve used this term to cover all ways of setting combinations of sounds so that the organist can find them again easily. They can be buttons, thumb-pistons, toe-pistons or combination pedals.

VOLUME PEDAL This is known as the ‘Swell Pedal’ on a pipe organ because it controls the Swell manual. There can be more than one pedal, especially on electronics. Be wary of the ‘crescendo’ pedal, which takes the entire organ to its loudest!

REGISTRATION is the way the organist sets up the instrument for a particular piece of music. In hymn-playing, careful registration can really inspire the singing.

And always remember that unlike the piano:

  • the organ is not touch-sensitive
  • there is no perpetual diminuendo
  • there is no sustaining pedal

And also remember, it’s worth it in the end. Honest!

1 Comment

  1. Love the story above about the timid priest and the aggressive priest. That’s often the way things are, especially out in the boonies, though not necessarily.

    In any case one cannot really handle the pipe organ [or the electronic imitation] without a good solid piano technique. If one is in possession of a good piano technique, then, coming to the pipe organ is much easier and saves a lot of time.

    The organ manuals have 61 keys with CC as the bass key and c”” as the top. As indicated above, the 8′ stop is the unison pitch. Each stop or set of 61 pipes is called a rank. So if one strikes A=440 cps on the piano and, then, strikes A=440 cps on the organ using an 8′ stop, the same pitch level will be produced. As indicated above, a 4′ stop will sound 880 cps, an octave higher, while a 16′ stop will sound at 220 cps, an octave lower. Here we have three ranks playing together on A=440 cps, 16′, 8′ and 4′. All organ stops that is, their actual pitches, are measured from the low C in the bass. Low C is either 16′ long, 8′, 4′ or even 2′ in length.

    The stop which makes the pipe organ sound most characteristically associated with the pipe organ is the Principal. Organists and organ builders discovered centuries ago that the unison sound can become somewhat boring after a while and so began adding higher pitches to give the Principal more variety and color. Hence, 4′, 2′ and higher pipes were added. Those two stops add two separate octave sounds on top of the 8′ sound so that, if one plays middle C [c’], the 4′ will sound one octave higher and the 2′ will sound two octaves higher. The result is three C’s sounding at three different pitch levels from just one key. Beyond that is the 1′ pipe which is yet one further octave higher.

    In large church spaces this was necessary in order to fill the building sufficiently. So the organist would use what is called the Principal chorus, i.e. 8′, 4′, 2′ & 1′. Originally, all of this came on all at once on the Great manual, the main keyboard of the organ. Higher pitches made the organ still more brilliant in large buildings. To allow the organist a greater choice of sound and variety, the lower pitches, e.g. the 8′, 4′, 2′ & 1′ stops began to become separate stops so that the organist did not have to play loudly all the time. The higher pitches which were left together became known as Mixtures and they had Roman numeral indications for the number of ranks each one contained. So there could be a Mixture V which would mean a Mixture of five ranks [305 pipes] which would further mean that playing one note would cause five pipes to sound. Therefore, if we put together these stops, 8′, 4′ 2′, 1′ and the Mixture V, we would have nine pipes sounding together on one note. If we played a triad of three notes, that would mean we would have 27 pipes sounding at the same time.

    The organ often has three or even four manuals [keyboards]. The third one is usually on the bottom and is called the Positive or Choir organ for historical reasons. The fourth manual would usually be on the top and was often called a Brustwerk [chest work] because this division sat normally on a little chest, often with shades which could open and close, just above the organist’s head.

    The Pedal in the USA and England normally has 32 notes each having a pipe behind it just as the manuals do. Those pipes have their lengths longer because they normally play an octave lower under the manuals. So pipe lengths are commonly 16′, 8′, 4′ & 2′ with mixtures and sometimes 32′ ranks on larger organs. However, the principle of registration for the Pedal organ is the same as for the manuals, i.e. 16′, 8′ generally balance 8′ and 4′ on the manual. For most music the organist will play in church, e.g. hymns, Pedal stops are best kept an octave lower than those on the manuals.

    There are, of course, more than just the Principal family of organ tone. There are Flutes and Reeds as well as Strings. Within each of these general families are specialty voices, especially among the Flutes, but the pitch designations are all the same as for the Principal family, 16′, 8′, 4′, 2′, etc.

    The beginning organist must use his ear to tell him what sounds work well together. If a hymn is to be played and there is only a small group of people, then, the registration may be just Principals 8′ and 4′. If there is a larger group, then, 8′, 4′ and 2′. If one is to play for a very large group, then, it should perhaps be 8′, 4′, 2′ and mixture of whatever size is available. Pedal stops would be drawn to match, of course.

    Comment by George E. Klump — September 17, 2015 @ 10:55 pm

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