Classical Music For Dummies, 3rd Edition
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The organ is an important instrument in classical music. In modern times, you hear the pipe organ at every wedding (and simulated at every baseball game) you attend. Pipe organs have a varying number of pipes, ranging from dozens to thousands.

The largest organs in the world have enough pipes to fill several walls of a cathedral. The pipes, of all different shapes and sizes, make different kinds of sounds as air passes through them, imitating anything from a trumpet to an oboe to a flute.

A pipe organ. [Credit: © Aiselin82]
Credit: © Aiselin82
A pipe organ.

Inside the organ is an air pump. Nowadays, the pump’s run electrically — a motor ensures that a constant flow of air is available to the organ. But in the old days, the pump was run by a couple of teenagers, hired to jump up and down on the bellows while the organ was playing. If the teenagers ran out of steam, so did the organ, and the volume or pitch of the music suffered.

Today’s organ plays well even without the help of teenagers. Here’s how it works.

Pulling out the stops

For each note the organ can play, it has anywhere from one to a hundred different pipes. Each plays a slightly different sound: a trumpet sound, a string sound, and so on. If you, the organist, want to hear one of these sounds, you pull out a little knob (called a stop) on the console of your organ, near the keyboard.

The console of a really big organ is an awe-inspiring thing; it looks like a cross between an airplane cockpit and a pinball machine. Pulling out a stop for a certain kind of pipe lets air from the pump flow into that pipe, allowing it to sound. If you push the stop back in, the air supply to that pipe is cut off.

But the fun is just beginning! The organ isn’t limited to one stop at a time; you can choose as many stops as you please. If you want a sound of strings, trumpet, and oboe on the note A, pull out those three stops. And if you want a seriously hair-blowing blast of sound, you pull out all the stops. (Thus the phrase “He pulled out all the stops.”)

Nearly all organs also have pedals. They’re not like piano pedals; each of these pedals plays a low note when pressed. They’re laid out like a mini keyboard, complete with sharps and flats, so that organists can play with their feet as well as their hands.

In his day, Bach was most famous not for his compositions but for his incredible dexterity at the keyboard and at the pedals. People came from miles around to watch the organist with the flying hands and feet. You must admit that he’d be kind of fun to have at your next party.

If you play a piece of music on the organ, you may want to change from one set of stops to another very quickly. You must be a master of speed and dexterity (most organists are) to punch in all the old stops and pull out all the new ones, without missing a beat of the music.

A simpler alternative is to use an organ equipped with two keyboards (also known as manuals) and preset each one with a different bunch of stops. If you want to change sounds, you just move your hands from one keyboard to the other.

Hearing the organ

If you’d like to hear the organ in action, here is some music for you. . . .

  • Bach: Toccata and fugue in D minor (This is that famous Halloween piece that you hear everywhere. You’ll definitely recognize it.)

  • Handel: Concerto in F major (The Cuckoo and the Nightingale)

  • Cesar Franck: Pièce héroique in B minor

  • Charles-Marie Widor: Symphony no. 5 (Yes, it’s called a symphony, but it’s for organ alone. The Toccata movement is especially impressive.)

  • Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony no. 3 (Organ Symphony) (This one actually is a symphony, for orchestra, but with a big, brash, highly noticeable organ part.)

About This Article

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About the book authors:

About David Pogue David Pogue is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and has performed magic at parties, special events, on TV, and even over the radio for 25 years. He created and taught the beginning magic programs at the New School for Social Research and the Learning Annex. He has been known to mesmerize audiences with his magic tricks while on tour promoting his many bestselling books, including Macs?? For Dummies??, 5th Edition, Opera For Dummies??, and Classical Music For Dummies??. Contributor Mark Levy, magic consultant, has levitated and read spectators' minds for nearly 30 years. His writings have appeared in some of magic's most revered literary sources, including Richard Kaufman's CardMagic, Apocalypse magazine, and Magic.

Scott Speck has conducted hundreds of ballet performances throughout the United States and Europe. He is Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet, Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet. Evelyn Cisneros danced for the San Francisco Ballet for 23 years and is the Artistic Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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