Explore the Organ

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Did You Know...

The organ is a keyboard instrument played using one or more manuals and apedalboard. It uses wind moving through metal or wood pipes to produce sound, which remains constant while a key is depressed. Its sounds, which vary widely in timbre and volume, are divided according to ranks and controlled by the use of stops. The keyboard is not expressive and does not affect dynamics. Organs vary greatly in size, ranging from a cubic yard to a height reaching five floors[1] , and are located primarily in churches, concert halls, and homes. The organ is one of the oldest musical instruments in theWestern musical tradition, and carries a rich history connected with Christian liturgy and civic ceremony.
The term "organ" may be applied to a variety of instruments which do not have all of the traits listed above. The most well-known type of organ is thepipe organ, described above and used in most church services and classical music concerts. Another prevalent type is the electronic organ, which does not have pipes and propagates its electronically-produced sound through one or more loudspeakers; these are often intended to be replacements for pipe organs but are also performed in genres ranging from rock to jazz. There are many other instruments that also may be considered organs, and these are used in many different ways. Organs are performed by organists and are built and maintained by organ builders.

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

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, a Hammond organ is fed through a Leslie speaker, which is a popular rotary speaker. The three most popular models of Hammond organs are the B-3, the C-3, and A-100. All three are identical on the inside, but are different in appearance.

Though originally produced to replace organs in the church, the Hammond organ, more specifically the B-3, became popular injazz, 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. 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

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.

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