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How do Pipe Organs Work? A Brief Guide

Posted on March 18, 2016 by Bill Skubik in Things to Consider

Pipe Organs Work Like Humans

Repeat after me, “Do, Re, Me”. Good, you used your internal organ to produce the notes of the tonal scale. Internal organ? Bad puns aside, the way humans make sounds is not that different from the way a pipe organ produces music. Using our lungs, we push air past our vibrating vocal chords. This process produces sound, which resonates through our chest, nasal cavities, mouth, and head (vocal resonation).

Church pipe organs have lungs too. Well, not exactly. Organs use bellows to pump air past reeds and whistles, which creates vibrations. The waves are amplified through the organ’s pipes. In other words, bellows are what regulates the wind pressure inside the pipe organ.

From where does this air inside the bellows come?

If you go way back to the first pipe organs, you would have to blow the air in yourself. Thankfully, today’s pipe organs use an electric motor to power a small centrifugal blower that creates the wind.

What happens to the pressurized air in the Pipe Organ’s Bellows?

Now that the pipe organ’s bellows are filled with air, its the job of the windlines to transport the air to the chest. The chest, which is airtight, is where the air is held before it’s released into one of the pipes. It’s up to the organist’s fingers which valve inside the chest will be opened, sending air through the designated pipe(s).

Tone, color, and pitch: What’s the Deal With All Those Pipes?

Pipes are arranged in rows – also known as ranks. The pipes in a position will vary in rank, which is why each pipe has a different pitch. What conforms all the pipes in a row is known as the row’s tone color. Despite the various pitches, each pipe in a row will have the same tone. To illustrate, a simple pipe organ, one that has only one row, will only be able to produce one tone color.

If you want a variety of tone colors, you’ll have to choose a pipe organ with more than one row. What makes the sounds different in each row is the alteration in the pipe’s shape – i.e. a larger or smaller diameter and shorter or longer length. So how are these rows controlled? In a row, each pipe is controlled by a single key on the keyboard or pull knob. For this reason, pipe organs with more than one row have more than one keyboard or pull knob.

For a more in-depth guide to church pipe organs read:


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