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What Is an Organ?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 July 2014
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Used without modifiers, the word "organ" usually refers to a wind instrument with a keyboard and foot pedals. Playing the instrument activates pipework to produce sounds in a wide array of timbres, called stops, that are arranged in four standard families: flutes, strings, reeds, and principals. This is the instrument that is referred to in the term "church organ" and the version played in The Phantom of the Opera.

The barrel organ is a mechanical instrument that, in some of its incarnations, provides the music in clocks. It is usually a small pipe organ, with a pinned wooden barrel turned by a crank. This both provides air and rotates the barrel and its pins across keys that are engaged and, depending on the placement of the pins, play a tune. The bird organ is a type of barrel organ meant to be used with caged birds to encourage them to sing.

The electronic organ is a pipeless keyboard organ, designed to share many of a pipe instrument’s features. They are able to sustain tones, play chords, and crescendo and decrescendo on sustained tones. Many have a choice of timbres, as do pipe organs. An electric organ is an electronic instrument in which acoustic sounds are combined with pickups or transducers.

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A fairground organ is a mechanical instrument that is used on carousels and merry-go-rounds. While the first organs of this type were barrel organs, a mechanism more like a player piano was developed. "Reed organ" is a generic term for instruments with a keyboard and a reed that vibrates freely; these include accordions, concertinas, and harmonicas, also known as mouth organs. A calliope or steam organ produces sound using a pinned cylinder and steam whistles. It was used on river showboats, and appears in the 1951 version of the movie Showboat.

In other contexts, the word organ is both the name for the major, self-contained components of the body, such as the heart, liver, skin, kidneys, brain, as well as for a newspaper or periodical that serves as the voice of an organization.

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Discuss this Article

shell4life
Post 7

@DylanB – That's exactly what I love about the organ. It commands your attention. You cannot be in the same room with an organ and ignore it.

You really can't even be outside the building without hearing it. The organ is very dramatic, but that's why it's used in emotional situations.

I sit there in awe as it is played on Sunday morning. The piano would be like a tiny little music box compared to the power of the organ.

giddion
Post 6

I had no idea that harmonicas and accordions were considered organs! When I think of an organ, I think of a giant system of pipes lining a wall.

Now that I think about it, both accordions and harmonicas are capable of producing chords with one movement. Maybe that's what it takes to make an instrument an organ.

They do all sort of sound similar. I just can't get my original image of an organ out of my head, though. I think everyone associates it with pipes.

kylee07drg
Post 5

My friend has a digital organ that she never even learned to play. It is just so different from the piano that she grew up learning how to play.

There are two rows of keys, and that alone is confusing. I don't see how anyone can keep it all straight in their heads.

DylanB
Post 4

I've always found organ music rather creepy. I think this is because of its use in horror movies and at funerals.

I would much rather hear a piano in a church or a funeral home than an organ. Organs are just way too loud and dramatic. They take over the entire room, instead of gently permeating the air with a melody.

krisl
Post 1

As synthesizers become increasingly able to imitate the idiosyncrasies of specialized instruments, demand for once valuable and rare instruments, particularly electric organs, has started to decrease. Last year, I managed to find a Hammond C-3 organ in good shape for 80 bucks. Some older instruments still require quite a pretty penny though, such as Hammond B-3's and Fender Rhodes'. Even still, I thought I got a pretty a good deal for such a wonderful antique instrument.

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