Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The organ is an instrument of one or more rows (called ranks) of multiple pipes, organized by the quality of sounds they produce (called divisions), each played with its own keyboard. The keyboards are called manuals when played with the hands and pedals when played with the feet. Organs can be played by a single player with both hands and both feet, or by two or more players.

Pipe organs use wind moving through pipes to produce sounds. The wind is moved by bellows, water, steam, or electricity. Most organs have pipes of some sort although some reed organs don’t. After some introductory remarks, this blog addresses the large church organs that add fabulousness to any ordinary cathedral.

There are many varieties of organs. The one you think of right away is probably at or near the top of this list. But organ development has been hot and heavy for two full millenniums, so be prepared to learn about some new types. These are some of the larger categories:

  • Church organs are the largest and grandest organs with as many as four or five manual keyboards and a pedal keyboard. Pipes can fill a whole cathedral wall and the individual pipes can be from a few inches high to many feet high. Pipes are made from reeds, wood, metal, precious metal, and semi-precious stone.
  • Positive organs are small organs, meant to be portable. The pipes are contained in a box the size of a large trunk, and they have only one or two manuals. Positives are usually in two pieces (the pipes and the keyboard) to facilitate being moved.
  • Portative organs are not only portable, it’s possible to play one while walking. About the size of a peanut vendor’s box, they hang from one shoulder. The player pumps the bellows with one hand and plays a single keyboard with the other.
  • Regal organs are portable in much the same way that positive organs are—they can be pushed around, and they had a limited number of keyboards and pipes. In the 16th century, the resonance pipes were removed and the regal became a beating-reed organ, which is the ancestor of the harmonium and other squeezeboxes. The regal’s sound was characterized as “snarling” and loud.
  • A chamber organ is small, often with only one manual, and sometimes without separate pipes for the pedals. These are for small rooms, and are confined to chamber organ repertoire, as they’re too quiet for larger halls. Music from before Beethoven could be played on a chamber organ, just as it might have been on a piano or harpsichord, and it’s occasionally considered preferable to a harpsichord for continuo playing because it can sustain tones. (The harpsichord is a plucked instrument, so the decay of sound begins immediately.)
  • Reed organs are also called harmoniums. They’re quite small and are a relative of the accordion in that the box containing the keyboard also contains the bellows. Concertinas, shruti boxes and accordions are all reed organs. It’s also (vaguely) the ancestor of the harmonica, which sometimes gets called the mouth organ.
  • Theater organs are large and ornate, like church organs, but have a different variety of sounds, such as percussion and special effects, suitable for accompanying silent movies and ball games. They are smaller than church organs, but use higher wind pressures to provide the variety of tone and more volume with fewer pipes.
  • Electric organs have sound produced by electricity instead of a bellows and the sounds are digitally altered to produce the various divisions. Some have pipes and others simply produce the sound through speakers.
  • Mechanical organs include the barrel organ, water organ, and orchestrion (that’s a fancy term for a music box). These are controlled by mechanical means, such as pinned barrels or book music (like a player piano). Small barrel organs dispense with the organist altogether by being wound up like a toy, and bigger barrel organs are powered by a crank that’s turned by an organ grinder or by an electric motor. Barrel organs are mechanical organs made famous by organ grinders. There are also orchestra organs, fairground organs, band organs, Dutch street organs, and dance organs that use a piano roll player or other mechanical means instead of a keyboard to play a prepared song.
  • Steam organs, or calliopes, were invented in the 19th century. They have a loud and clean sound, and are usually used outdoors. Many were built on wheeled platforms, making them portable.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart probably meant the church organ when he called the organ the “king of instruments.”

The church organ is the grandest of the musical instruments in size and scope and has existed in its current form since the 14th century. Like the clock, it was considered one of the most complex manmade mechanical creations before the Industrial Revolution. Pipe organs range in size from a single short keyboard to huge instruments with over 10,000 pipes. A large modern organ usually has three or four manual keyboards with five octaves each (five octaves is 61 notes), and a 2.5 octave (32-note) pedal keyboard.

Really grand organs have pipes as large as 64’ (foot here means sonic foot, which is not exactly the same, but nearly, as an English foot). Church organs with pipes like that have an extremely diverse range of sounds. In fact, that’s the most distinctive feature of an organ; the range and quality of sounds goes from barely audible to hair-blown-back almost intolerably loud, from sounding like grass blowing in the breeze to a locomotive passing through your living room.

Because of the multiple keyboards, the organ has a polyphonic effect built right into it—all of the keyboards can be played at the same time as the others, if you can get your friends to join you on the bench. In addition, the sounds of each keyboard can be mixed and interspersed with the others, creating the effect of a whole orchestra from a single instrument.

Most organs in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia can be found in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, with some in concert halls and private homes. The harmonium is a staple of Indian music, especially as part of the Hindu and Sikh celebrations. Muslims do not include music in their worship services.

Organs are also used for concerts and recitals. In the early 20th century, symphonic organs flourished in secular venues in the US and the UK, designed to replace symphony orchestras by playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces. Using organs in concert with symphonies fell out of favor in the 20th century as a reformation movement took hold (called the Orgelbewegung, and having a particular interest in historically accurate focus on performance) and builders began to look to historical models for inspiration rather than creating something new.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century seems to be monophonic dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of score and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player.

Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based. The panpipe is also an ancestor of the organ, as it toyed with various lengths of pipe and the effect of blowing air across or through them.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. It was probably a domestic instrument as well. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum.

The hydraulis’ popularity waned and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, three stopped ranks, one open rank, and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

In the 7th century in the Christian world, Pope Vitalian is credited with introducing the much-evolved bellows organ to the Catholic church service. It served as support for singers, both as a foundation by playing lower notes than could be sung and to offer timbre options in the higher registers. It’s ideally suited to accompany singing, whether by a congregation, a choir, cantor, or other soloists. Many church services still include organ accompaniment as well as a solo repertoire, often as a prelude at the beginning of the service and a postlude at the conclusion.

By the 8th century, the organ was no longer associated with gladiators and combat and had assumed a prominent place in the liturgy of the Catholic church. It soon also became a secular and recital instrument. In that same century in the Middle East, a notable singer called ‘Ulaiya al-Mausilki played an “urgan rumi” which was a Byzantine or Roman version of the organ.

The organ was introduced to France through Constantinople in the latter half of the 8th century and the simultaneous sound of different notes on the organ by two players might have inspired imitation with the beginning of sung polyphony, organum (chant with a second voice—see? It might have gotten its name from the organ!), and conductus (which didn’t really pop up until the 12th century, but is two or three voices, usually in the form of chant, and used to musically conduct the holy books from the back of the church to the front during Mass). Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England and can be seen in museums there.

The decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reigns of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries.

In the 9th century, an automatic flute player, which was possibly hydro-powered, was a mechanical organ made by the Banu Musa brothers, Islamic scholars in Baghdad who wrote a book called “The Book of Ingenious Devices” that reported on automatic and mechanical devices of the time. Look these guys up—they’re the stuff fiction is made of! One was a highwayman and the other was an astrophysicist (or the 9th-century version of such a thing).

By then, the organ started taking the form that you might recognize today, Instead of complicated water and air pumps, the new instrument used a bellows that could be worked by hands or feet. By the end of the 9th century, Franconian organ building was so highly esteemed that Pope John VIII summoned a master from there to come and build an organ for him in Rome.

The largest instrument of the Middle Ages of any kind was an organ built in the 10th century—in 980 CE, an instrument was installed at Winchester Cathedral in England that possessed 400 pipes, 26 bellows, and two manuals, each furnished with 20 sliders (stops). A single one of those sliders could cause 10 pipes to sound simultaneously.

In the 12th century, substantial design improvements were made. Even monastic churches had early organs by 1100 and by 1300, they were common in cathedrals as well. Proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them, like a carillon’s keys.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 keys of the octave are already required (remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this). There are questions about whether the accidentals (sharps and flats that are not part of the key signature) are written in by the original documenter or by a later hand.

The organ of the church of Notre Dame de Valiere, in Sion Switzerland had 4’ pipes in the 14th century, and lower pipes had been added since it was originally built. There were three high ranks, their metal cast in sand, dating from around 1390. It was probably used to play the Faenza Codex in the 15th century. By then, larger organs were commonly placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and with the bellows operated by a second person (positive organs).

Until around 1400, the organ had a single keyboard with a range of one to three octaves, the keys were large and cumbersome or consisted of sliders that moved in and out, and there were no stops to allow the variety of color and tone that we’re used to today. The sound was a fixed, and fairly loud mixture of several ranks of pipes. Pedals and a second manual (on the positive) were added in Germany and the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, the second manual having its own pipe-work located behind the player (which is why it’s called Rūckpositive in German).

National preferences for organ building emerged during the Renaissance. German innovations included additional manuals and interesting new tone colors. Italian and English organs remained simpler, often with a single manual and a basic chorus of stops with only one or two individually distinctive colors. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote the richest source of knowledge about organs as part of Syntagma Musicum.

Praetorius gave specifications for an organ in “Syntagma Musicum” in 1618, some of which were built in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance movement. There’s one at Harvard University and another at the Westminster Choir School in Princeton New Jersey.

Protestant German countries used the organ as accompaniment to choral singing and paid particular attention to the softer registers by using flue pipes. Roman Catholic countries used the organ as more of a solo instrument and favored the sharper reed registers.

Around this same time (the early 16th century), the number of pipes within a register also increased, increasing the range of the keyboards. As early as 1519, Anthony Doddington wrote of an English organ with a range of four octaves, and in 1523, Pietro Aron wrote about a Venetian organ that also had a four-octave range. Germany didn’t expand the range of their organs until the close of the 16th century.

Great pains were taken in Italy to develop the manuals, but the pedals lagged behind. Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591) speaks of the pedals disapprovingly, and his is the only Italian mention of pedals. But in Germany, where polyphony was king, the pedals were an essential part.

The organ was particularly well-suited to polyphonic music by the 17th century. By then, it had clearly distinguishable registers that didn’t merge into one another, although dynamic contrasts were still limited and could be achieved only within very restricted limits—neither thunder nor whispers. Crescendos and decrescendos were impossible. The tone was clear and unromantic, as the taste of the late Renaissance for unemotional and classic art demanded.

During the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th, the organ was modified to produce more expression, and to have a more flexible and variable tone. Things like tremolo, string registers, Vox Humana, couplers and transmissions, swell, and equal temperament were invented. (See the structure section for more on these topics.)

During the Baroque period (1600-1750), the organ became increasingly important as vocal accompaniment and as a participant in orchestral music. During this era, organs were used to provide continuo (where the bass line or chords were left to the creative powers of the player but the other lines were written out. Other continuo instruments were harpsichord, lute, theorbo and chitaronne).

Organ music enjoyed a golden age in the Lutheran areas of Germany between 1650 and 1750. It was greatly aided by famous (and reportedly astonishing) organists such as Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707), several members of the Bach family, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), and a tradition that had been established earlier by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654).

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on the musical styles of Italy, France, and northern lands. The best known builders were Arp Schnitger (1648-1718) and Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). They adopted the Dutch practice of dividing the pipes into a main group and subsidiary groups, each with its own keyboard and the pipes having a particular character and function.

The main group, the Hauptwerk, sits high above the player. Other groups include the Rūckpositive that was mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, the Brustwerk that was directly above the music rack in front of the player, and the Oberwerk that was high above the Hauptwerk. The pedal organ had pipes that were arranged symmetrically on the sides of the Hauptwerk. Only the largest German organs had all of these components. Even a modest two-manual instrument could create a great variety of sounds combining variously voiced principal, flute, and reed pipes as well as mixtures, in which pipes sounding upper harmonics add brilliance to the fundamental tone.

The early 18th century was musically focused on dynamic range, and even the somewhat unsuited organ was affected. The organ had grown less appreciated during the Classical period (1730-1820) because it was regarded as too rigid and lifeless, so a contrivance was made to vary the volume. Both portative and positive organ styles gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the great church organ remained in general use.

Abt Vogler (1749-1814), a German organist of some renown, replaced the large and expensive pipes of the church organ with smaller ones, which produced the deepest low note by sounding only part of the harmonics of the note (the octave and the twelfth). He got rid of any registers that he didn’t think were essential and enclosed the rest in a chamber that could be closed with the Venetian Swell that had been invented by Burkat Shudi in 1769. Vogler also rearranged the pipes and introduced “free” reeds, borrowed from the Chinese mouth-organ (that also later became part of the harmonium). Vogler’s efforts made the organ less expensive and easier to manufacture, repair, and maintain, and in addition, made the tones clearer, which suited the tastes of the Classical period. But they also made the instrument sound thin and ordinary. The early Romantic period opposed his reforms and they soon disappeared.

The 18th century in the New World meant an effort to adhere to Old World sentiment and aesthetics. Anglican churches in large cities presented music that differed little from their English cousins. French Canadian and Spanish colonies emulated the Catholic music of France and Spain. They used organs and choirs of men and boys, just as they had in the Old World. Two groups were especially notable regarding these efforts: the Puritans of New England and the Moravians of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The Puritans were Calvinists and their music centered on metrical psalm singing—congregations were taught to read music, not to depend on rote learning like in the Catholic tradition. The Moravians embellished their church services with concerted arias and motets using organs, strings, and other instruments.

The Reform movement in Judaism during the early 19th century brought many Protestant-style practices into the synagogue, one of which included singing congregational hymns (often borrowing melodies from Lutheran hymns) and introducing organs and choirs. The first influential composer of the movement was Solomon Salzer (1804-1890), who was a Reform cantor at a synagogue in Vienna. He updated traditional chants and wrote service music in modern styles for soloists and for the choir. He also commissioned music from other composers, including Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) choral setting of Psalm 92 (written in 1828) that used the Hebrew text.

Soap operas popularized organ music when they were created for the radio in the 1930s and later for television in the 1970s. They played in the background to enhance the mood and performed the theme songs before and after the show. In the early 1970s, the organ was phased out in favor of full-blown orchestral music, which, more recently, have been replaced with pop-style compositions.

Sporting events, particularly in the US and Canada, often have organs punctuating occurrences during the games, especially baseball and ice hockey. The Chicago Cubs were the first to use an organ before, during, and after games at Wrigley Field in 1941. Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hired the first full-time organist (Gladys Gooding) in 1942. The trend caught on. In the 1990s, several teams replaced their organist with recorded music and sound effects, but many fans appreciate the presence of a live organist, considering it traditional. In an ultra-modern move, the organist for the Atlanta Braves uses his Twitter account to take requests from fans during games at Turner Field.

Pipe organs continue to be common in church services and electronic organs are available for those with a lower budget. And as the repertoire developed for the pipe organ and affected its development, church and concert organs became increasingly similar.

But pipe organs are not limited to classical or traditional uses. Rock music has been known to employ church organs and occasionally synthesizers that sound like pipe organs. The artists record in cathedrals, and enjoy the lovely slow decay (like a long echo) that is to be found in such huge buildings.

Organ Structure

Predecessors to the organ include panpipes, pan flutes, syrinx (the reeds out of which panpipes are made), and the ney (an end-blown flute, like a recorder). The aulos, an ancient double reed instrument with two pipes is where we get the the word hydra-aulis (water aerophone).

The hydraulis was a piped instrument, where levels of water determined the note played. The concept of the pipe, sounded by air maintained at a fairly stable pressure by weight of water, could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes. It was played with a series of sliders that were pulled out and pushed in to affect the water levels (and therefore the amount of air movement).

Next, they made it easier to move the slides by creating keys that could be pressed and returned to the original stopping position by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary, Vitruvius (c80-c15 BCE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The earliest image of a keyboard is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks of 18 pipes each. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, and the balance are reeds. The player would have used both hands, his left hand for changing the drone note, and his right for playing the melody. This idea of playing against a drone wasn’t new; Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE-65 CE) makes reference to consonance on stringed instruments in the 1st century CE. (This is an indication of simultaneous differing sounds rather than any kind of polyphony.)

Older organs had two to four manuals, but modern instruments might have five or six, depending on what the instrument was used for.

  • The Great organ used in cathedrals operates the greatest number of registers and the largest stops.
  • The pipes of the keyboard on the Choir organ was usually situated behind the player.
  • The Solo organ has stops specifically designed for playing solos.
  • The Echo organ has soft-toned stops that are at some distance from the majority of the other pipes.
  • The pipes of the Swell organ are enclosed in a wooden box that can be opened and shut by means of a “Venetian swell,” producing a crescendo (getting gradually louder) and decrescendo (getting gradually quieter).

The solo, echo and choir organs are often fitted into swell boxes with shutters. Some instruments also have a tuba organ with stops that are played by unusually high wind pressure.

Toward the middle of the 19th century, the double-touch keyboard was invented in England. These are especially sensitive keys that produce the normal amount of sound when barely touched and get super loud with a firmer pressure.

Older organs sometimes had two levels of pedals, but this was thought to be both uncomfortable and unnecessary. Combination pistons make a single tier sufficient, and the player can prepare combinations of registers in advance so they’re all activated with a single touch. In the 19th century, J.F. Schultz made the pedals slightly concave on the organ in St. Peter’s church in Harrogate (England), making it easier to reach the highest and lowest notes.

A crescendo pedal was added in the 19th century. This is a pedal that, when depressed, sets a cylinder spinning that activates additional stops and makes the sound louder.

Since the 16th century, pipe organs have used various materials for the pipes, each with a different timbre and volume. Pipes are distributed into ranks (rows) and controlled by the use of hand stops or combination pistons on the console (near the keyboard).

A clever invention is called “unification,” where an extension is added to a pipe. Instead of one pipe per key for each pitch, the higher octaves (and some lower octaves) are achieved by adding 12 pipes (one octave) to the top or bottom of a specific rank. In a church organ, for every 61 keys on a single keyboard, there are 183 pipes (three times 61). In a theater organ, there might be only 85 pipes (61 plus two octaves of 12 each). Unification gives the smaller instrument the capability of a much larger sound that is thicker and more homogenous than a classically designed organ. They often rely on something called tremulant, which varies the air pressure passing through the pipe, lending a wavering to the sound much like human breath does in singing or playing a wind instrument. It provides a complexity of sound greater than that usually found on a classical organ. Unification also allows pipe ranks to be played from more than one keyboard (rather than one key per pipe).

Organs of the middle ages required a lot of wind. As late as the 14th century, there could be as many as 24 bellows, operated in pairs by the feet of the bellows workers, with one player to each pair of bellows. The enormous organ at Winchester Cathedral (England) was one of these.

In Germany in 1667, Christian Förner (1609-1678) invented the wind gauge, which is a manometer-like device, making it possible to measure the pressure of the air inside the bellows.

In older organs, there were many folds of leather in the bellows, but in the middle of the 16th century, a new kind of bellows was introduced that was made of wood with only a single fold. This simple and stronger construction made a more regular supply of wind possible and a more equal tone. The wind still reached the interior of the organ in puffs, which was remedied by drawing the air into a reservoir (like a bagpipe’s) before it was conveyed to the pipes.

This reservoir of air was called a wind chest. Air pumped from bellows passed through conduits into the wind-chest and from there into the soundboard. The soundboard contained a number of grooves for each individual pipe that affected volume. Spring soundboards had a special valve fitted into the grooves to interrupt or admit wind. But this was complicated and expensive.

The tremolo  device was invented around 1600. It operated in the wind-channel, giving the notes a tremulous, plaintive tone.

Around the end of the 17th century, they invented a slider soundboard, which was more efficient than the spring soundboards. Slider soundboards had grooves underlying all the pipes that were specific to a particular key on the keyboard. The sliders working across the grooves are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off, depending on its position. The solid portions of the sliders closed the pipes. When the register was to be included, the slider was pulled out until the holes were situated at the bottom of the pipes so that the wind could enter unimpeded when the key was depressed. The slider was less likely to break than the spring version, and was universally adopted during the Baroque period.

At the beginning of the 19th century, bellows were still operated by manpower. As the century unfolded, steam, hydraulic power, gas, and electricity were used to provide the necessary wind. To even out the wind, the single feeder (as the outer part of the bellows is called) was replaced by several smaller feeders that work alternately. There are even special devices to put a feeder out of action as soon as the necessary pressure is reached in the reservoirs.

Wind pressure makes it hard to connect a single key with several pipes. To depress several of the valves (or pallets) that allow the wind to enter the pipes, considerable effort was required, so much so that organists of the 19th century used to strip to their skivvies in preparation for hard physical labor before concerts. English inventor Joseph Booth (d.1797) had invented puff valves, or little bellows, to improve this situation and they were improved further by the pneumatic lever that was invented in 1832 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879) and used for the first time in 1841 by the famous French organ maker Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899) for the organ of St. Denis, in Paris France.

With the pneumatic lever, the depression of a key opened the valve of a small auxiliary bellows, which opened the valve on the pipe. In 1867, Henry Willis (1821-1901) constructed tubular pneumatic keyboard action in which the wind activating the tiny auxiliary bellows was led through tubes of sometimes considerable length. The tubular pneumatic action was used successfully in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England in 1874.

Almost simultaneously with this device, the electro-pneumatic action was invented in 1868 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879), which was an attempt to operate the pneumatic lever using electricity instead of air. This system was improved by Schmöle & Mols of Philadelphia, USA, a system that was put into the organ at Paris’ famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1890. Even more recently, all-electric organ actions have been built.

Stops were invented around 1500. These are sliding pulls that alter the length or width of the associated pipe or its flue and affected the quality of the sound, making it louder or softer. They could also make the pipes sound like various instruments, such as flutes, strings, bassoons, and so on. As far back as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), little bells were affixed to the organ along with other things that imitated percussion instruments, like the triangle, xylophone, timpani, and drums—even cuckoo birds!

Organs of the 19th and 20th centuries have devices for controlling the wind pressure. Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899), the same man who used the pneumatic levers at St. Denis in Paris) introduced over-blowing flue pipes, such as the Flute-Harmonique, which sounds a harmonic instead of a fundamental note. (Notes are actually an accumulation of sounds. The note you intend to play is called the fundamental, and the higher—and lower—sounds that make it up are called overtones and harmonics. The other sounds that comprise a note are the ones that sound prettiest when you play them too, as it happens.)

The church organ had a huge number of registers—scales—from enormous 32’ pipes to tiny 1’ pipes. Each register was named for how long the pipes were, and the longer pipes produced lower notes. The most important register of the organ is called the Open Diapason (“diapason” means full and rich sound from the full range of the instrument) which were powerful mid-range flue-pipes, usually in 8’.

In an effort to create new registers, the pipes changed shape. One way to save both space and materials was closing the 8’ and 16’ stopped registers at the top and using only half the length of open pipes to achieve the same pitch. Even though they weren’t quite as bright in tone color as the open pipes, they have been quite popular. There are also half-stopped pipes with a narrow tube inserted at the top for the wind to exit through. And there were pipes with an inverted conical bore that tapered toward the top. Reed pipes include powerful 16’ trombones that are operated by the pedals, 8’ trumpets with inverted conical tops, 4’ shawms and a nasal sounding fagotte (the Baroque name for bassoon). There are also ways to get harmonics to sound—these are only a few of the dozens of registers that had been invented by the end of the 16th century.

String registers came about because of the increased interest in stringed instruments in the 17th century. The narrow flue pipes had colorful names like viola da gamba or violin.

Couplers that connected individual keyboards and their pipes became more common in the Baroque period. Using something called a transmission, one keyboard could connect with another so that multiple registers were accessed through a single keyboard. The combination of stops meant new tonal values that were similar in quality.

In the 17th century, a series of reed pipes was invented to make a register called Vox Humana, which sounded somewhat like a human voice. The Italians invented it, along with other registers that went well with one another. The rest of Europe followed suit, especially in the Baroque era. Because of all the new registers, the rigid tone of the organ that was standard at the beginning of the 17th century was nearly completely gone by the end of the century.

The keyboard of an organ wasn’t expressive like a piano’s. Although some of the special registers with free reed pipes were expressive, most registers weren’t, and every note sounded at the same volume. Specials devices, called swell registers, were added at the end of the 17th century to allow crescendo (getting louder) and decrescendo (getting softer),  through the use of shutters. In 1712, London organ builder Abraham Jordan (c1666-1715/16) created  a pedal attachment that opened and closed the front wall of the echo chamber to create the effect. They even damped tones to produce echo effects.

Tuning and range became an issue. The Baroque taste for extreme contrasts meant that they extended the range of the organ (and the harpsichord) downward, adding low notes until they almost exceed the ability of humans to hear them. Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706) declared that the introduction of equal temperament (a particular kind of tuning) was urgently needed, and began modifying individual notes on the “well-tempered” organs of the day.

The organ continued to undergo extensive changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. It now has more volume all by itself than an entire orchestra.


Because the organ has both manual and pedal keyboards, organ music is notated on three staves. The music on the manuals is laid out like music for other keyboard instruments on two connected staves, and the pedals are notated on the lowest staff, or sometimes, to save space, added to the bottom of the second staff. The latter was  how it was done in the early days.

Because music racks are often built quite low to preserve sightlines over the console, organ music is usually published in oblong or landscape format.

The Name

The name “organ” comes from the Greek organon, meaning instrument or tool.

The name Regal comes from “regulare,” because it was meant to regulate the singing in churches.

In Germany, the Rūckpositive is the name for the positive, because the pipes are behind the player.

The portative is called the organetto in Italy.

Organ Builders

You can’t really talk about organs without talking about the builders, who are a special hybrid of obsessed engineers and extreme musicians.

Organ Composers

There are so many composers, it’s impossible to list them all. I have dispensed with my usual courtesy of supplying dates and some sort of comment, but I have instead provided links to articles about these fine folks.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Samuel Barber
John Blow
Georg Böhm
Johannes Brahms
Nicolaus Bruhns
Dieterich Buxtehude
William Byrd
John Cage
Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet   Charpentier
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault
François Couperin
Louis Couperin
Hugo Distler
Maurice Duruflé
Edward Elgar
Johann Caspar Ferdinand   Fischer
César Franck (born in Belgium)
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Johann Jakob Froberger
Andrea Gabrieli
Giovanni Gabrieli
Orlando Gibbons
Philip Glass
George Frideric Handel
Hans Leo Hassler
Jakob Hassler
Paul Hindemith
Johann Kaspar Kerll
Johann Ludwig Krebs
Johann Tobias Krebs
Johann Krieger
Johann Kuhnau
Franz Liszt
Vincent Lubeck
Johann Mattheson
Felix Mendelssohn
Olivier Messiaen
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Georg Muffat
Gottlieb Muffat
Johann Pachelbel
Vincent Persichetti
Daniel Pinkham
Alessandro Poglietti
Jacob Praetorius
Michael Praetorius
Henry Purcell
Steve Reich
Johann Adam Reincken
Josef Rheinberger
Ned Rorem
Camille Saint-Saëns
Alessandro Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti
Heinrich Scheidemann
Samuel Scheidt
Heinrich Schütz
Dmitri Shostakovich
Johann Speth
Charles Villiers Stanford
Jan Pieterszoon SweelinckThomas Tallis
Franz Tunder
Johann Gottfried Walther
Matthias Weckmann
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow

Organ Players

Again, there are too many to name, so I’ll tell the stories of just a handful.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) might be the most famous composer of all time. But what you might not realize is that he was also a seriously fierce organist. He was so obsessed with learning all he could that, at age 20, without the permission of his employer, he walked 250 miles to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play in Lūbeck. He stayed there for several months, absorbing what he could from the great master, before returning to fulfill his duties. If he hadn’t been so talented and working for a pittance, he would surely have been fired. Bach would go on to write 225 cantatas, 225 works for other keyboards, 225 organ works, 150 canons and fugues, 100 choral works, 40 pieces for chamber groups, 30 pieces for full orchestra, and five lute pieces. Bach was married twice and had seven children with his first wife and 13 with his second wife, only nine of whom survived into adulthood and outlived him. Five were significant musicians themselves.

Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707) was a German-Danish composer and organist whose works compose the core of the organ repertoire. Sadly, much of his music is lost or was poorly documented, but he wrote over 112 cantatas, about 100 organ
works,  100 choral works, 50 chorale preludes, 50 works for harpsichord, 40 chorale settings, 25 chamber music pieces, 19 preludes, 14 trio sonatas,  a dozen wedding, liturgical, and canon works, a handful of miscellaneous pieces, and another two dozen pieces that may have been falsely attributed to him.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was in France with the English occupying forces. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at court until his retirement in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian who came to study at the Paris Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. His improvisatory style expanded on the repertoire of Bach and the French Baroque, and in the end, the design of the organ adapted to accommodate it as well. This style included lyrical themes, contrapuntal development, and orchestral color. He reportedly had huge hands  that could easily span 12 white notes on the keyboard (most people can reach eight), which may have affected his style.  He only wrote 12 pieces for the organ (he was into improvisation), but was considered the best organ composer after Bach.

Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) was a German who wandered all over Germany and England, and whose fame spread far beyond those boundaries. He opened three music schools and saw a lot of excellent musicians become professionals. He also did some work on changing the design of the organ. The super famous English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

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  1. […] instrument popular in 15th and 16th century Spain, Portugal, and Italy), harp, cornetto, and organ. Francesco was talented enough to earn the attention of Cristóbal Morales, and soon became his […]

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