The Organ: Instrument Characteristics and History

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  • 0:05 The Organ's Influence…
  • 1:01 Polyphony and Counterpoint
  • 2:35 Organ Characteristics
  • 3:58 Organ-Specific Forms
  • 6:07 Other Keyboard…
  • 7:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

The organ and other keyboard instruments were important catalysts in driving composers to create more complex music in the Baroque era. Learn how the instruments work and why they played such an important role during this time period.

The Organ's Influence on Baroque Music

'Hi! I'm the heart, one of the most important organs you have! Oh, not that type of organ? Well, okay. I'm a little heartbroken, but you know, that's all right, the musical instrument is pretty great too. Not as important as me, but anyway...' Although the organ has ancestry going back all the way to ancient Greece, its heyday was during the Baroque period (ca. 1600-1750).

Its ability to play multiple pitches at once, play at various volumes and create different tones pumped the creative spirit of composers who were looking to write differently than the previous generation. New styles were even created that showcased the organ's power, versatility and ease of playing.

Polyphony and Counterpoint

You might remember that toward the end of the Renaissance period, around 1450-1600, composers were into a style of writing that had many melodies put together at one time. This is called polyphony, and it was common in vocal music. In the late Renaissance and early Baroque period, vocal music was very popular and was often played on instruments in small groups. Keyboard instruments were a perfect alternative as they allowed composers and performers to replicate the polyphony found in vocal works on a single instrument. Similarly, composers used a lot of counterpoint.

Counterpoint is a type of polyphony where the melodies are closely related and interlocked to create a 'weaved' sound between the instruments, like this (please see the video at 01:47 to hear the sound). Can you imagine singing this in a choir? It would take some serious musicianship to sing the notes correctly, whereas on an instrument, the keys could easily be pressed to play it right. For this, the organ was ideal.

The organ's ability to emulate different tones concurrently made it an even more prized asset. The intricacies of each melody were clearly heard when played with the organ's different stops, which change what tone is heard through the pipes. Let's look a bit more into how the organ makes this happen.

Organ Characteristics

The organ actually works similarly to the heart. In the heart, muscles press, valves guide the blood into the ventricle and blood is pushed out through the arteries. In the organ, a key is pressed, air is routed through a box called the wind chest, which guides the air to selected pipes, and the air is pushed out through the pipes. Much like the heart routes blood to different parts of the body through different arteries, the organ can be set to route air through different pipes depending on the tone you want. This is done through a button called a stop.

The stops are almost like a sonic box of crayons, where you can choose the sound color you want by choosing a button. Several of the features on the modern organ were established during the Baroque period. Many of the stops were developed during the Baroque period and gave composers new colors with which to experiment. Lastly, the range of the instrument grew immensely, with more and more pipes being added to produce higher and lower pitches. A special keyboard that is played by the musician's feet was made to accommodate the additional low-pitched pipes. The stops, extended range and foot keyboard are all still used today.

Organ-Specific Forms

Organ music was written for both sacred and secular purposes, and the organ stayed closely tied to its roots in the Church. It was not musically confined there, though, and many secular types of music were written with the organ in mind. As instrumental music became more prominent, music was written specifically for keyboard instruments. Composers appreciated their versatility in that they could play high and low pitches, melodies and harmonies. Four forms used for the Baroque keyboard instruments were the prelude, the fugue, the toccata and the fantasia.

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