In the third century, a Greek engineer named Ctesibius of Alexandria created what we now call the organ. The instrument was originally called the hydraulis as the instrument made noise through water pressure flowing through a set of pipes allowing the instrument to produce different notes based on the size of the pipe and how much pressure was put through the pipe. The hydraulis would mainly be played in arenas of the Roman Empire to get the crowd excited, similarly how the organ is used today at ballparks to play Take Me Out To The Ball Game.
Today the organ still uses different sized pipes to create sound, but makers have since replaced the pressurized water system with pressurized air. The organ is composed of two or more manuals (keyboards) played by the hands and a pedalboard which is played by the feet. Each set of keyboard controls a new group of stops. Stops are groups of pipes that can replicate different sounds that can be played on the organ.
The average number of stops that an organ can have is 32 stops, meaning there are 32 different sized pipes inside the organ. Many large organs will have 64 stops, and the largest organ in the world has 78 stops. Stops are used to reference different pipes inside of the organ because each pipe only plays one note. In order to have 88 different notes represented as well as four different types of sounds, many organs will have an average of 785 pipes inside of them, with the largest organ in the world, located in Atlantic City, New Jersey, has 33,114 pipes.
There are four different groups in the organ called the organ families. These families are in charge of making different sounds on the organ based on what stops are pulled before playing. The first family is called the principals.
The principals are the main stops of the organ and sound like the gloomy almost scary sound of the organ that gets featured most in Dracula movies.
The second family is the flutes. This family is what it sounds like, when the flute stops are pulled, the organ an imitate various instruments of the flute family such as the recorder, orchestral flute, and piccolo.
Third in the family are the strings. The string stop can make the organ sound like string instruments such as violin, viola, cello, or double bass.
Finally in the organ family are the reeds. The reeds are a special family are unlike their organ siblings, the pipes are made differently in order to get the sounds for the reed stops. All of the pipes in the reed family have a brass plate called the tongue which lines the small opening of the pipe in order to have a different vibration of air travel through the pipe. Reeds can then be broken down into two different groups, solo reeds, and chorus reeds. However, all reed stops imitate various kinds of wind instruments like oboe, clarinets, french horn, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and tuba.
Typically only one stop would be played at a time during the duration of a piece, but their can be multiple stop changes throughout a piece. There are some rare occasions where multiple stops are played at once, but most composers avoid this as to not make the piece sound crunchy or filled with too much noise at once.
Many people argue that the organ is the instrument of all instruments because it can replicate four different families of instruments, and it can also be compared to the voice. In order to sing, the larynx has three operating systems, the actuator (respiratory mechanism), the vibrator (phonatory mechanism), and the resonator. All three of these components can be found within the organ. The actuator or the respiration comes from the air pressure that is constantly circulating throughout the instrument in order to have sound come from each of the pipes. The vibration or phonation comes from the pipes itself, as each pipe is a different size and can be lined, sealed or created from different materials such as wood or metal that creates different vibrations of sound. Finally, the resonation comes from the stops and the manuals as the organ player is the one that is in charge of creating the dynamic level of each pipe when a note is played. The pipes can also fit in the category of resonation as each pipe comes in different sizes that will enhance the tone quality when played.
Overall, the organ is a very large and complicated instrument, not only to build but to play as well. One must have fine-tuned coordination to play the organ as they have to use their feet, and hands, to play while simultaneously changing stops and turning pages of music. The number of people that know how to play the organ has slowly been on the decline, but many schools are trying to reverse that by offering students organ lessons for free.
No matter how invested one gets into learning how the organ works, or even how to play it, I think one thing can remain true. No wedding, church service, or baseball game would ever be the same if we didn’t have the organ.