The Pipe Organ

The AWESOME! page has random music stuff that I think is cool. You never know what you will find here!

Musical instruments give an amazing array of sounds. The history on the development of various types of instruments is fascinating to me. In previous AWESOME blogs, I’ve written about the development of percussion instruments (October 16, 2019) and the history of hand bells (December 12, 2021). This edition of AWESOME explores the history and sounds of the pipe organ.

The pipe organ is a keyboard instrument that uses pressurized air (called the “wind”) pushed through pipes that are designed to emit a certain pitch sound. Different pipes create different pitches, with the longer pipes creating the lower pitches. The pipes can be made of metal or wood (in rare instances, they may be made of glass, paper, plastic, stone or even bamboo). The organ’s console contains one or more keyboards, a pedal board and stops. The keyboards are played with the hands – small pipe organs will have just one keyboard and a dozen pipes, while the largest organs might have seven keyboards and over 33,000 pipes. The pedal board is played with the feet, producing the lowest bass notes. The stops are devices that control which pipes will be open to the pressurized air. If you’ve heard the term “pulling out all of the stops,” its origin is with the pipe organ – if all of the stops are pulled open, all of the organ pipes are in use, and the organ will produce the loudest sound.

The earliest pipe organs were built in Greece in the third century B.C. The wind for these organs was generated by a reservoir of air pushed to the pipes by water pressure. These organs were used at arenas in the Roman Empire. By the second century A.D., the water systems were replaced by inflated leather bags, and this evolved to a bellows system. By late in the first millennium, pipe organs became integral to cathedrals and other places of worship. As they became more elaborate and reliable, they were installed in concert halls, and composers began to write orchestral works that included the pipe organ. The earliest keyboard music dates to the late 1300s, and works specifically for the organ have been documented back to 1420. Johann Sebastian Bach was an accomplished organist who wrote nearly a hundred pieces for the organ in the first half of the 1700s. Beethoven’s Fugue in D Major for Organ was written in 1783. Many other composers have included the pipe organ in their orchestral works.

In the early 20th century, pipe organs were installed at movie theaters to be used during the screening of silent movies, creating an ambience that complemented the action on the film screen. Pipe organs also were common in schools and other public buildings.

Alas, the electric organ displaced the pipe organ for many musical applications. The earliest electric organs were introduced in 1897, and by the 1930s, improvements in the electric organ made them compact, affordable and inexpensive to maintain. And of course, even the electric organ became obsolete with the advent of the digital keyboard, synthesizers, and other electronic means to create sound. In fact, many modern pipe organs are controlled by computers.

Despite all of the innovation and technology, nothing quite sounds like a pipe organ when it is played by a skilled organist. There are some fascinating videos on YouTube that show you how they work and how massive they can be. Here’s two videos. The first is from Handel’s Water Music, the famous Hornpipe (trust me, you’ve heard it many times). The second is a short video on how a modern pipe organs work. Check them both out!





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