Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Pitch range

The pedal part for the organ is written separately, so the pitch range is shown separately here. Courtesy of Hannah Whale.

The organ is a grand keyboard instrument, with stops and pipes and pedals. There’s a lot to master!

From left to right: Pipes, Pedals, Manuals (keyboards), Stops, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins (pedals, manuals) & iStock (pipes, stops)

From left to right: Pipes, Pedals, Manuals (keyboards), Stops

The pipes stretch up to the ceiling like an enormous radiator.

The pedals are like a king-size keyboard for the feet, splaying out towards you on the floor.

Big organs can have as many as five keyboards (called ‘manuals’). These form the console.

Stops’ are in groups to the left and right. They control which pipes make a sound. The organist pulls them out or pushes them back in to create different sound-worlds – from low, thunderous notes to high, heavenly pipes and flutes.

The stops are labelled with the names of orchestral instruments, like ‘oboe’ and ‘flute’. When you pull out a ‘flute’ one, the organ sounds gentle and airy, like a flute.

Organ music

The organ’s home is in churches and cathedrals, where it has lived and been played for centuries. It is used to accompany singing in services and other church occasions, and is also played on its own.

Sometimes the organ is used for other kinds of music:

Orchestral music: In the orchestra the organ is a very occasional, spectacular visitor.

Concertos: Some, especially from the Baroque era (1600–1750). Many Baroque composers were organists themselves.

Chamber music: Smaller organs (chamber organs) also form part of small groups in Baroque music.

Choral music: Used for religious choral pieces, like Bach’s B minor Mass.

Solo pieces: Plenty of these for organists to enjoy.

The organ is the only instrument on which the feet can play a melody.

Construction of the organ

The case is wooden, the pedals are wooden, and the pipes are metal and wooden.

The Convention Hall organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is officially the world’s largest pipe organ. It has seven manuals (plus five more removable ones), over 1,000 stops, and over 33,000 pipes. It’s the loudest musical instrument ever made and it can apparently match the volume of 25 brass bands!

Left to right: An organist in playing position; Air travelling through an organ pipe, courtesy of Tony Morrell (organist) and Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins (diagram)

Left to right: An organist in playing position; Air travelling through an organ pipe

To play it

  1. You sit at the ‘console’, which contains all the manuals (keyboards).
  2. You press the keys with your fingers and/or the pedals with your feet.
  3. Air is sent through the pipes, splitting at the edge of them in a similar way to a flautist’s breath on the mouthpiece of a flute.

In pre-electric times, men would be working hard behind the scenes to keep the bellows going and make this happen. Now it’s all done electrically. You have to have good co-ordination to play the organ: hands, feet and eyes all have challenging jobs to do at the same time.

The organ is such an awesome instrument, it’s easy to forget the person playing it. In a church or cathedral, the player tends to be hidden away (often high up in the ‘organ loft’ where the keyboard is) and the pipes get all the attention!

Sometimes it’s difficult for an organist to see much except the organ, so there might be a little mirror to reflect what’s going on. In a concert, it means the conductor is visible, so the organist doesn’t play too slowly or too fast.

Other organs

Chamber organ

Sometimes, people need an organ that isn’t installed like a monster in a church. When they do, they might use a chamber organ. This has just one manual and no pedals.

Harmonium made by Steinmeyer, courtesy of Andreas Praefcke (Creative Commons Licence:

Harmonium made by Steinmeyer


This is a little organ that uses metal reeds instead of pipes to produce the sound. Air is created by bellows that are operated by hand or by a foot-pump. It is no longer used very much.

Harmoniums are still used in India. They were taken there by missionaries in the 19th century.

Accordion, courtesy of iStock



This is the smallest and oldest member of the organ family. You create the air by pulling out and pushing in the two sides: the bellows are folded – in pleats, like a fan – in the middle. You press buttons, or keys on a keyboard, for different notes. The accordion is found in a lot of folk music but it isn’t used much in the orchestra.


Harmonica, courtesy of iStock


Harmonica (or ‘mouth organ’)

The harmonica isn’t much bigger than a Mars Bar and doesn’t have a keyboard, so it’s not an organ in the normal sense. To play it, you cover the little holes with your mouth and breathe alternately out – and in! It takes time to master that. Small metal reeds vibrate inside its narrow box. By sliding the harmonica left or right and moving your head slightly, your mouth covers different holes so different notes sound.

Some famous composers have written for the harmonica – Vaughan Williams wrote a Romance for harmonica, piano and string orchestra – but it’s not usually part of the orchestra.

The harmonica is the world’s best-selling instrument.

Find out more about the development of the Organ in .

A Little History of the Organ

The organ is another very old instrument. The earliest one dates from the third century B.C. It was powered by water and called a ‘hydraulos’.

The organ then had 2,000 years of development which ended in mammoth instruments with thousands of pipes, an exciting array of different sounds, and inbuilt gale-force winds.

The organ was called the ‘king of instruments’ as early as the 14th century.

In the 18th century, some churches had small barrel organs. The ‘barrel’, covered in little pins, was turned by hand. Each pin made a pipe sound. So no need for a skilled human being!

Composers wrote less for the organ after the Baroque era. The orchestra had grown such a lot that they focused on that instead.

But organ building kept developing. The invention of electricity meant organs could be even larger and louder. The volume that some can produce today makes surround-sound in the cinema seem second-rate!

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What, on the organ, does the player use to change the sound?

a. Starts
b. Stops
c. Pedals

 What are the keyboards of an organ called?

a. Manuals
b. Plates
c. Consoles

 What do you need to play the organ?

a. A smart pair of boots
b. Plenty of breath
c. Good co-ordination

 Where are organs often found?

a. Churches
b. Gardens
c. Houses

 What has the organ been called?

a. ‘Queen of keyboards’
b. ‘King of instruments’
c. ‘Prince of pianos’

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Organ Extracts

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552, ‘St Anne’: Prelude (extract)

One of J.S. Bach’s many masterpieces for organ.

Performers: Wolfgang Rübsam, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.553859

Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937)
Symphony No. 5: V. Toccata: Allegro (extract)

The organ can be a fabulous musical machine!

Performers: Simon Lindley, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.550581

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’: II. Presto (extract)

The ‘King of Instruments’ powers through the orchestra.

Performers: Imrich Szabo, organ; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.553277

Solo Organ

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565

This Toccata is very famous. Such a tense beginning! It is just single, loud notes on the organ, with big pauses between them. Music we listen to usually goes on without stopping, but it’s often the gaps in the sound that are the most effective thing. You could imagine this being used for a scary film. At 0.29, Bach builds a kind of sandcastle in sound, note by note. It sounds terrifying, but then resolves into a glorious chord at 0.39. It still stops and starts though – as if the organist is making bits up. After the Toccata comes the Fugue (track 2): a fugue is a clever musical structure: you have to follow the rules to write one, but the results can be brilliant. So you might be able to hear at the very beginning of track 2 that there is a ‘subject’ (a theme): at 0.06 a new ‘voice’ comes in with that theme, while other things happen above it. That is just the beginning of voices (or lines, or parts) moving in and out of each other in an elaborate musical swirl.

Performers: Wolfgang Rübsam, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.553859

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Fantasia on Komm, heiliger Geist, BWV 651

Chorales are hymns from the German Protestant Church: Bach took the tunes of these hymns and created some superb pieces for the organ. He would use one like a set of ingredients, cooking up delicious music that makes the most of the organ’s glorious sound. He knew how to make a path of chords – of harmony – that satisfies our ears. It is never uncomfortable, yet never unadventurous, however many times it is heard. Here is an example, based on the tune of the chorale ‘Komm, heiliger Geist’ (‘Come, Holy Ghost’). The very first note you hear is on the pedals of the organ. Can you hear it still grumbling away, while the other notes are sounding above it? It starts to move at 0.29. The pedals are another dimension to the organ that, alongside the manuals (keyboards), allow it to produce its spine-tingling breadth of sound.

Performers: Wolfgang Rübsam, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.550901

Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937)
Organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42 No. 1

By the age of 11 Charles-Marie Widor was organist of his school chapel. After further studying, he became a real virtuoso and he was one of seven organists chosen to perform on a brand new organ in Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. He became a giant in the rich musical scene of Paris in the 19th century. He was intelligent, he knew important people, he dressed well, people liked him, and he taught the organ and composition. This Symphony No. 5 is famous for its Toccata (track 3). After a varied first movement and tender second movement, this joyful Toccata makes the organ into an incredible musical machine. The exciting, fast-moving notes from the hands don’t stop, and at 0.37 the feet get to work: pedal notes are added, following the overall melody and adding another layer of sound. This music – a party-piece for organists – is often played at the end of a service or event in a church, as people gradually leave.

Performers: Robert Delcamp, organ

Taken from Naxos 570310

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Livre d’orgue (‘Organ Book’): No. 4. Chant d’oiseaux (‘Birdsongs’)

Olivier Messiaen was a French composer and organist who had a strong musical imagination. His works sometimes contain weird and wonderful ideas. He was also an expert on birds, and often imitated birdsong in his pieces. He thought that birdsong signified ‘spiritual freedom’ and said ‘nothing is more appropriate in church than birdsong’! So this extraordinary organ piece contains imitations of the blackbird, robin, song thrush and nightingale songs, with chords in between. Have a listen and see if you can imagine these birds perched out of sight in the church, occasionally opening their mouths to sing.

Performers: Tom Winpenny, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.573845

Works with Organ

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’

As a boy, Camille Saint-Saëns was brilliant at the piano. When he was older, he studied the organ – and he ended up composing this popular work featuring the instrument. The organ doesn’t play all the way through, so begin with track 2: it’s a very quiet opening, so you might have to turn up the volume! Can you hear the organ playing long sustained notes underneath the soft string melody? It supports them like a velvet cushion, and it shows you how gentle the organ can sound. Then, for something completely different, go the start of track 4. Be careful as it will be loud! The organ thunders out a chord with all its might at the start of this. Hearing that noise live in a concert is really thrilling. At 0.30, can you hear a piano tinkling? This is actually a piano duet: two people are playing. The delicate music doesn’t last for long though: at 1.09 the organ and orchestra are back to announce the tune, and after each phrase they’re answered by the brass section – as if it’s underlining everything they just said. The organ is sometimes hard to spot when the orchestra is loud, but right at the end (7.12) you might be able to hear it work its way down the scale to a huge chord at 7.24 for the orchestra to finish with a flourish.

Performers: Imrich Szabo, organ; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.553277

Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Cantique de Jean Racine

Fauré won a big prize for this piece: he was only 19, but it was clear that he had a gift for writing a great melody. This one, calm and flowing, is introduced on the organ before the choir comes in. The organ is often used in choral works. This is partly because singing has grown up in churches and cathedrals, where an organ is used in services, so it is natural to hear them together. This serene piece sets religious words of praise that the dramatist Jean Racine adapted from an earlier Latin hymn.

Performers: Oxford Schola Cantorum; Carey Colm, organ; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550765

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Organ Concerto in G minor

The music of French composer Poulenc is both quirky and enchanting. Whether fast and energetic or slow and thoughtful, it has a distinct character – a ‘voice’ that is Poulenc’s own. The opening of this concerto – for organ, timpani and strings – is a violent contrast to Fauré’s Cantique: it will certainly wake you up! The first movement contrasts these violent moments with quiet, mysterious passages (helped by drumrolls – e.g. 1.28). The second movement (track 2) is more determined, and mixes a serious sound with a playful mood. The third movement (track 3) is much more songlike: a long, lyrical, lovely melody. The contrasts continue all the way through this vibrant piece, which was recorded here on the Great Organ in Notre-Dame, Paris.

Performers: Philippe Lefebvre, organ; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.554241