It’s Not a Piano!

It looks like a piano. Sort of.
It sounds like a piano. Sort of.
You play it like a piano. Sort of.
But not really.

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The Nature of the Beast

a pipe organ primer

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Tone—the style or manner of expression

To the casual observer, the piano and the organ may both be considered keyboard instruments. And in a sense that is accurate. The player of either instrument must depress a key to create a sound.

However, if we go a little deeper and understand the way that sound is produced, the instruments would be classified very differently—the organ as a wind instrument (air moving through the pipes) and the piano as percussion (hammer striking a string). Even electronic organs could be considered wind instruments since they are imitating the sound of pipe organs.

No matter how you classify the instruments, when you strike a piano key the sound starts loud and drops off gradually. But the sound that comes from depressing an organ key will continue on until the key is released.

“Since the only way to create accent and rhythmic stress at the organ is through the contrast of silence and sound, observance of rests and meticulous release of notes are of prime importance.”  (The Organist and Hymn Playing by Austin Lovelace, emphasis added.)

The bottom line is that the release of the key becomes as important as the initial striking.

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Touch—the type of connection between consecutive notes


Generally considered the standard touch for hymn playing, smooth or connected is a way to describe the legato touch. To achieve this, an organist needs to release a note at the same time that the following note is depressed. Next time you are at the organ, carefully play a scale or simple melody line listening for the legato touch—smooth and connected, without any overlap of notes.


As with the piano, the staccato touch is often said to be light, choppy or detatched—releasing a note well before the next one is played. At the organ, try playing a scale or simple melody line with a staccato touch. Keep it light and detached. Listen to the feel of the music when you vary the length of the staccato. (For example, a quarter note on the organ may be played staccato as an eighth note with an eighth note rest, or as a sixteenth note with a dotted eighth rest or as a thirtysecond note, etc.)


This falls somewhere in between legato and staccato. It is as if the notes almost touch, but not quite. But the gap is not obvious enough feel any sense of breaking or breathing between the notes. Though it is generally not used in hymn playing, practicing scales with a non-legato touch can be a good exercise for improving the organists control and listening skills.

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Phrasing–the expression of musical thoughts

The usual method of indicating the end of a phrase is to release the last note of the phrase early, allowing a short rest. Fortunately the hymn text phrases and the hymn musical phrases often end at the same place. When they do not, the hymn text takes priority.

If it seems awkward to have a “moment of silence” in the middle of a hymn, try to think of the organ as a singer who needs to take a breath now and then. Having the organ “breathe” in this way will be a great help to the congregation and add life and meaning to the hymns.

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