An Overview of the Pipe Organ

Every Organ Is Unique

Each pipe organ has been individually crafted for the customer. Picture yourself going to a tailor where not only is your suit custom made, but the fabric is custom woven as well. The quality-oriented builder works with the customer's needs and wants to produce the best organ that the budget can allow. The architecture and acoustics of the room are factored into the organ's design. The different sounds are chosen together by the builder and the customer.

Dobson Organ at The University of South Carolina
When you look at the instrument, you can notice immediately if it is a free-standing organ or a built-in instrument. A free standing instrument has a case that is built to house all the pipes and parts that make the organ work. This picture of the new Dobson instrument at the University of South Carolina is an excellent example of a free-standing organ. The case acts as a sounding board to focus and project the sound, much like the wood of a violin or guitar.

Holtkamp instrument at the University of Kentucky

A built-in instrument is literally attached to the building. In the picture of the Holtkamp, you can see that there is no case around the organ. The screened doors on the bottom half are hiding the motor and parts that supply wind to the pipes. There are also some pipes behind these screen doors. The Schantz is typical of a church organ. The motor and wind supply parts are in other parts of the church. The blower, which supplies the wind, is in the basement. Pipes line the chancel with more pipes in chambers on the left and the right, behind the vertical wooden blinds on the side edges of this picture.

Schantz Organ at Centennial ARP Church, Columbia, S.C.

Swell Shades and Pipe Screens

What are these wooden blinds? These are shutters or shades. Because they are always found covering the part of the organ called the swell, they are often called swell shades. However, they can be placed in front of the Choir and Solo divisions. They are strictly functional. When the shades are closed, the sound from the pipes can't get out so it will be fairly soft. As the organist opens the shades, the sound gets louder.

Pipe Screen Swell shades are not to be confused with pipe screens, which are purely cosmetic. In the picture of the Dobson, you can only see the pipes in the front row. All gaps are filled in by the red lattice. This lattice, together with this first row of pipes, is the pipe screen. Although you can't see behind the screen, the sound can still get out. The pipe screen is useful when the builder wants to hide the other parts of the organ which are not as attractive as the pipes.

Many different materials for pipe screens have been used. Most builders use wood carvings or metal shaped into intricate patterns. I have even seen cloth but that is not a good screen because it muffles the sound. The pipe screen is there to make the organ attractive, not detract from the sound. The Dobson pipe screens are unique because they are pieces of painted PVC pipe with wood joining them together on the backs of the pieces.

Pipe screens often use the first row of pipes, artistically arranged, as part of the screen. However, some builders will not use the front pipes to hide others and will put a large screen in front of the whole organ. The instrument in First Scots Presbyterian Church in Charleston, built by Ontko and Young, has a large, beautiful, white wrought-iron decorative screen. In many organs, including the Dobson example, these pipes are part of the organ and will speak. In some older organs from previous centuries, small pipes were used to fill in the gaps. These were fake pipes because they did not speak. In the 1800s, it was common to have the front row make of speaking pipes but to paint decorative designs on the pipes. The paint does not affect the sound. Today, most builders prefer to polish the pipes.

During this century, a push to expose the organ took place. One builder, Holtkamp of Cleveland, did not use pipe screens but arranged his pipes asymmetrically. He also put the swell shades in full view of the audience. He felt it would be more exciting if the audience could see the organist open the shades and hear the music getting louder simultaneously. The picture of the Schantz also does not have any pipe screens.

Console of the Holtkamp at  UKConsole of the Schantz at Centennial ARP

The Console

In the picture of UK's Holtkamp, you can see that the manuals and pedals are some distance away from the actual organ. The entire unit, keys, buttons, knobs and all, is called the console. It has everything the organist needs to control the organ. This one can be moved around the stage. Organs can also have an attached, non-movable console, which the Dobson has. The manuals usually have 61 notes, 30 less than a piano. The pedals duplicate the bottom 32 notes of the manuals but have their own sounds, separate from the sounds of the manuals. The different kinds of sounds available are called the stops. On the Holtkamp, they are the tabs above the manuals. On the picture of the Schantz console, they are the drawknobs on the left and right of the console.

Now that you are more familiar with the organ, you may want to learn how the sound is produced.

Glossary Resources

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