A Closer Look at the Pipes Pitch Levels Sound Characteristics of Stops

Additional Information About Pipes

Space Concerns

Lack of space in the room is often a problem for organ builders as pipes for some stops can be as large as 32' tall. Sometimes, pipes are too tall to fit in the room. Sometimes builders solve this problem by laying the pipes on their sides if the space is wide enough to do this. Another solution is mitering the pipe. This picture shows some mitered pipes. The length is the same but the top of the pipe has been folded so it can fit in the room.

Another solution is to use stopped pipes instead of open pipes. This cuts the length in half. Most 32' flute stops use stopped pipes. Many practice room organs, which must fit into a much smaller space than church or concert instruments, use stopped pipes on the 16' stops. Space problems can be avoided if the architect makes room for a pipe organ while designing a new building.


Tuning a flue pipe is achieved through altering the length of the pipe. Open pipes have several methods: 1. A collar on the top is raised or lowered or 2. A metal scroll at the top is curled or uncurled. or 3. A stopper which fits like the lid on a sugar bowl, is raised or lowered. Stopped and collared pipes use leather or felt to ensure a tight but moveable seal.

A professional organ builder is the only person who should adjust reed pipes. These pipes frequently have a tuning scroll. Some closed reed pipes have a metal lid which is attached on 1/2 to 2/3 of its edges. The unattached portion can be raised or lowered. However, this also affects the timbre so it is not the best method of tuning. Pitch can also be adjusted through raising or lowering the tuning wire. As the wire moves, the length of the tongue allowed to vibrate changes and the pitch is affected. *NOTE* Reed pipes are easily damaged so only a professional should adjust them. The cost of repairing damaged reed pipes is far more than the cost of hiring a professional to tune them.

Pipe organs can go out of tune with weather changes. The organ is most susceptible to temperature changes which causes the pipes to expand or contract. This causes the collars and stoppers to move slightly. Reed pipes are the most stable pipes in the organ because the tongue is held tightly in place by the tuning wire and is unaffected by weather changes. Flue pipes, which have the stoppers and collars, are the culprits of poor tuning. However, they usually go out of tune at the same rate and in the same direction (sharp vs. flat). Since there are more flues than reeds in the organ, it sounds like the reeds are out of tune.

Pipe organs have a bad reputation in the United States as being constantly out of tune. All pipe organs should get a yearly tuning and maintenance check, although it is preferable to tune at the major (seasonal) weather changes. During the year, problem notes should be fixed as they are discovered. Despite popular belief, there are inexpensive solutions to help the organ stay in tune.

Tuning Solutions

American churches do not have architecture and construction material on their side, but there are other things that can be done to keep the organ in tune.

Air Circulation: This is especially important for the pipes behind swell shades. The difference in temperature between the pipes inside the swell and the exposed pipes causes the flue pipes in these locations to expand or contract in different amounts. The swell will be out of tune with the rest of the organ. I know an organist who put fans inside all enclosed pipe divisions and now has fewer tuning problems. The Ontko and Young instrument at First Scots Presbyterian in Charleston, SC was built into a depression in the wall. It covers a large area in the church but the deepest part of the organ only a few feet so the air circulates to all of the pipes.

I work frequently as a substitute organist so I can say from experience that organists are part of the air circulation problem. Leave the swell shoe open! Many newer organs are being made with a device which automatically opens when the organ is off. On older organs, this doesn't happen. A closed swell box cuts off air circulation to the swell and creates tuning problems.

Temperature When Tuning: Tune the organ at the temperature the church will be when service take place. The organ will go out of tune during the week but when the church is cooled or heated for services, the organ will go back in tune. It will not be perfectly back in tune but the difference is not noticeable to most people.

Maintaining The Temperature During The Week: Do what you can to keep the temperature from fluctuating between extremes. One church in Bronxville, NY found that the energy bill was lower when they kept the church at 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the week in the winter than when they let the temperature drop into the 20s and heated the room back up to 68 degrees F on Sunday morning. A pleasant side effect was a more stable organ.

For those of you in hot summer climates, it may not be possible to keep the church temperature constant but the less extreme the temperature change, the more the organ will stay in tune. Air conditioning is not always necessary to control temperature because humidity bothers people, not the organ. Just circulating the air near the pipes with fans will do a lot to help. If there are very serious humidity problems, also consider dehumidifiers but carefully think out how they will be emptied. You do not want water to spill on the organ!

Tune the Reeds to the Flues and Fix Stray Notes as Needed: My first organ teacher was an organ professor at Houghton College in Houghton, NY. The organ was used several times a week for chapel services so tuning was very important. My professor had been properly trained in adjusting the reed pipes so she would tune the reeds to the flue pipes as a temporary fix. However, DO NOT ALLOW an inexperienced person to do this or they will ruin your organ! If your maintenance budget is really tight, invest in some professional training.

Glossary Resources

This site is part of the Pipe Organ Education Project. © Copyright 1996-2001 by Marya J. Fancey.