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Pipe Organs and Composition

A simple treatise on registering the most complex in­
strument built in history

Joshua Nichols


◦ E. which means fve diferent ranks of pipes are speaking at once. 'V' is displayed. and it res­ onates freely through the pipe when pressurized air fows through it. • Any roman-style numeral indicates how many ranks of pipes speak when engaging that particular stop. and has three manuals. E. it is also important to understand what the numbers or roman numerals mean on an organ (as well as colors): • Any arabic-style numeral displayed on a tab or draw-knob indicates the length of the lowest speaking pipe in that particular rank. but utilize resonating reeds (like an oboe or clarinet) that 'color' the sound of the pipe by vibrating against the pipe or another reed or piece of metal. Beyond these two bits of information.Starting Guidelines It is important to know how a pipe organ is built and organized. which means the lowest speaking pipe is 8 feet long. • Couplers are stops which can manipulate which manuals control which divisions. • Reed: Tese pipes resonate the same as a fue. these look like inverted cones (think trumpets). . E. then color. In addition. a general knowledge of how pipes are built is es­ sential. Tere are two types of pipes: • Flue: Tis type of pipe is either open or closed in construction. • Organs are usually judged in size by how many ranks of pipes are found in the organ. Generally speaking.g. • Ranks are usually organized by length frst. • A division is a collection of ranks controlled by a particular keyboard.g.9% of all organs built with façade pipes (or pipes that you can see in plain sight) are fues. Tough know­ ing the specifcs is very useful.'X' organ is 56 ranks. pipes are arranged by rank and are grouped into divisions: • A rank is a single collection of a color and length of pipe.g. -1- . '8' is dis­ played. In 99.

Tey can also be under expression. MS. Tink pppp to mp/mf dy­ namics. the division of pipes that corresponds with this manual is not enclosed (or under ex-pres­ sion).” or single ranks of lower pitch (such as '8. ▪ Te Choir or 'III': comprises usually the sofest and sometimes more interesting stops of the organ.' and '2') for the purpose of adding color and expanding the sympathetic tonal spectrum. containing solo stops and/or mutations suitable for creating solo efects. ▪ Te Orchestral/Anything-Else-Unique or 'IV+': comprised usually of uniquely voiced stops that do not ft into traditional stop cat­ egories. it is sometimes called the Positiv or Positif). Tink pppp to ff dynamics. has a beautiful Cello stop at 8' and 4' in the Orchestral division that pairs beautifully with the fute chorus on the Choir. Finally. Tink f and f dynamic levels (with modern variations). Snare Drum. this means that the pipes are enclosed in a large 'box' which can be opened or closed with shuters to change the dynamic and (primarily) color of the stops. E. It houses the great-est sounds. there is a physical component to how the organ is organized: • Te keyboards that are played with hands are called manuals or manual divisions. Teater organs tend to have specialized divi­ sions of orchestral stops such as Timpani.◦ Tese stops are generally regarded as “mixtures” or “mutations. With exception to a couple of American organ builders. Tese stops can swell with emotion. etc. -2- . but are under expression. or perhaps beter resemble the sounds of an orchestra or percussion instruments. It also is not necessar­ ily under expression (if it is not under expression. ▪ Te Swell or 'II': comprises stops that can be sof or loud. ◦ Tey are organized in the following order: ▪ Te Great or 'I': comprises the loudest and most projected sounds coming from the organ.” Tese stops never play by themselves in traditional organ literature. Xylo­ phone. Tink f to pp dynamics. they are used in addition to “foundation stops.' '4. First Baptist Church in Jackson.g. Te church choir is most easily ac­ companied by this division of pipes.

1 Final Considerations It can still be overwhelming to register a work for organ. If afer this guide you aren't sure what type of of registration fts what you want. no mater how “simpli­ fed” the methodology might be. length. if there is only one manual. It is important to understand these difer­ ences so that embarrassing and naïve mistakes are not made. 2. It is not enclosed. or in comments. it will not be important to know the diferent names. there are major difer ­ ences even within each type of pipe. -3- . describe what mood or atmosphere you want to project through the composition in postscript notes. Tere are older instruments (espe­ cially those built in Bach's time) that were organized very diferently. that manual is the Great. Unless you are composing for a specifc instrument of this nature.• Te keyboard played with the feet is called the Pedal division. Avoid referring to the specifc names of stops in your registration unless you are commissioned or asked to write for a specifc instrument. Commu­ nicating your desires and wishes with a fellow organist is also good (gen­ erally we are compliant if you ask nicely). and thus were referred to diferently. Now. 1 Note: An organ does not need a pedal division to be an organ. Tis comprises the majority of concerns with registrations. Modern organs are organized in this order. Here are some good rules of thumb or general guidelines: 1. on to the guide! Te Simple Treatise Remember how there are only two types of pipes? Well. but keeping in mind the general layout of the organ will help with this kind of grief. and general name of a sound is more useful for an organist (they will not generally listen to very specifc requests of stops anyway unless they are playing on the specifc instrument for which the composition is set). and it also contains the lowest speaking pipes of the organ. Refer­ ring to the color. if there are only two manuals. It also usually doesn't have unusual sounds. then those manuals are the Great and the Swell (and so on and so forth).

harshness. [VII]. or tuba. trombone. and other colors. 16. Tese types of pipes are found in larger organ installations. these stops are classifed from loudest to sofest): • Principal – [32]. though. [16]. Tese sounds closely re­ semble the sound of a trumpet. [1]. and graduated (e. 4: Tese are usually sofer reeds under expression used for 'solo voice and accompaniment' type works. whereby the futes were ofen closer in sound to principals. Generally speaking. 8. V. [32]. here are the diferent colors (in all cases. 4. A mixture must sound at least two diferent ranks of pipes. '[]' indicate non-standard lengths of pipes.2 8. III.3 • Mixtures – II. [2]. and cover a general family of sounds. IV—V): ◦ Te sounds that are emited from mixtures are generally shrill and “shiny” in color. VI. 2. [1]. • Miscellaneous Stops – [16]. • Strings – [16]. Here are the diferent colors: 2 3 • Trumpet – [16]. • Flutes – warm to hard. there are far more diferences of tonal quality and loudness than in the Flue category. but upper harmonics above it (such as thirds. 4.g. • Solo Reed – 8. Tey can be as loud as Trumpets. 8. and so on). In the case of Reeds. so there was an implicit practice of using the futes with the principals. but generally are sofer and take on less harsh tonal character­ istics. it could sound as warm and as sweet as an orchestral fute or possibly as harsh and present as a principal stop. Tey can be quite useful to form a specifc sound in mind.Within Flues. and have varying ranges of loudness. [2]: Tese are perhaps the loudest pipes known on the organ. Te greatest exception would be the French Symphonic/Romantic organ building style. Tey take on the most 'luscious' colors of the organ and be­ came quite pervasive in the Romantic era style of organ building. 4: Tese stops vary from organ to organ. these pipes are not combined with any other fues in registration. and Mix. 4: Tese ofen resemble the sounds that a string orches­ tra makes. and Mix. Tey usually never sound the fundamental pitch played. -4- . 8. Generally. (usually II or III rank): depending on the type of material used to construct this pipe. 8. 4. ffhs. (usually IV or V rank): Tese are the loudest speaking fue pipes. IV. and they ofen overpower all other fues.

Rule 1 Less is more. Tis introduction qualifes all rules of registration from here on out. and you will gain respect more naturally. -5- . because real organs and larger installations of digital organs are unanimously much louder than their small counterparts in practice rooms or home organs. Figuring it all out with dignity Short of writing 'something churchy' or 'not loud' as a registration. but this stop is not common in other churches. however. Tere is a tonal precedent with the pipe organ. but also that what you have writen is sensible and dignifed. MS. Tis allows more efective communication when/if an organist contacts you for clarifcation. E. even with “sofer” stops. Contrary to haircuts. Tis is because listing complex stop combinations (other than the fact that it might break one of these rules) adds ambiguity. it is useful to know how to put together a registration that you understand. and to communicate efectively with your future collaborators. Not only is it important to understand what you have writen. Te 'Tuba' stop at 8' on the organ at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson. Why? Te beautiful thing about modern technology and digital organs is that you can simply play around with it underneath a pair of headphones and fnd sounds that you like. Take these examples: 4 Organists will take your compositions more seriously.4 Below you will fnd (much like tonal harmony) rules that help you to understand what you write in relationship to registration. so understanding the dynamic interest of a composition and its character/atmosphere is key.avoiding registering for this type of stop is suggested. Tis has led to many problems. it is always easier to add stops in a registration as an or­ ganist than it is to take liberty to take away registrations. or to ask for permission (!) to amend/change what you have suggested.g. is great for leading congregational singing in new or unfamiliar hymns.

Same thing goes for futes and principals. and thus it should be expected that one will never hear the strings if the principals are present. Tese stops are only designed to expand a foundational tonality. just don't do it. 4'. 4. Why? Something that hasn't been explained in detail before is the nature of mutations and mixtures. Tey require founda­ tional stops (particularly 8'. don't even try to register strings with prin­ cipals. Principal 8. what sound did they have in mind? What are the strings doing for the color of the sound? Rule 2 Mutations (and mixtures) must mutate (or mix) something. 4. Flutes 16. because they utilize harmonics containing multiple ranks of pipes sounding at consecutive octaves and ffhs (and in some cases. If you were to just use a mixture rank without any foundational stops.1. without the foundation stops. Ped. Ped. it seems the futes confict with the character of the principals. Principal 16. Why? Te rule of thumb is precisely this. Principals are the louder stops. 8 • Okay. and sometimes 2') because they use higher har­ monics which. 4. 8. Ped/I • I'm not sure what type of sound they want.. with a body”-but my or­ gan's futes need a litle more body. Flutes 16.. I know what this person wants-“sof. obscure the tonality. I: Flutes 8. you would not hear the actual pitch dictated in the score when you played that note. I: Flutes 8. but not the writen pitch it­ self. because you would be hearing ffhs and thirds above the writen pitch. thirds). so I'll register with a Principal 8 in addition. Strings 8. 4. Rule 3 Loud stops always overpower soft(er) stops. 2. -6- .

However. if you are having trouble. Reeds have an extra interface (the vibrating reed) which means it takes a litle more time to speak. Of course. Rule 4 The speed of the music must take the inverse in registration. if anything remains unclear even afer seeking counsel. fnding (or buying) recordings and sheet music of the Greats makes understanding registra­ tion a lot easier.6 Final Thoughts Tese rules should go a long way to bringing light to what seems like a daunting or mysterious task. if something remains unclear. the best way to reach me is by email. In this. generally reeds are combined with principal chorus. Couple this with fast moving music.Below is a table of some of the most common stops: pp p Wood futes Metal futes Vox Humana Strings mp/mf f Super5-Flutes Mixtures Solo Flutes Super-Prin­ Principals cipals Sof Reeds ff Loud Reeds fff Super-Reeds Solo Reeds Trumpets One exception is the tuti (or all) type registration. If you have fast moving music. -7- . basically. avoid using reeds (of any kind). Why? Busy music takes time to speak with pipes. the opposite of delicate). try it out on a real pipe organ. and reeds. especially louder ones. then the best thing to do would be to study the real thing. a sound which no professional organist can compensate in terms of articulation to make clearer. and the registration will take on a “muddy” sound. or if you need personal clarifcation. lots of high-pitched principals. or ask an organ professor. pass it on to another organist. Tis registration is a “hair-blower” and is gen­ erally meant to signal large and grandiose passages of organ music (so. Happy registering! 5 6 “Super” is a term used on some French organs that refers to stops which are foundational at foot levels higher than 8'. Have slower moving music? How about grandiose passages? Tose are great for mixtures. Of course. Use dis­ cretion.