Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

10 facts about the “king of instruments”

The organ is a complex, powerful instrument. Its history is involved and wide-ranging, and throughout the years it has commanded respect as it leaves its listeners in awe. To celebrate the organ, we compiled a list of 10 facts you may or may not know about this magnificent instrument:

  1. Mozart once famously praised the organ, writing, “in my eyes and ears… the king of instruments.”
  2. There are three main parts to the construction of an organ: the wind-raising device, the windchest (also called soundboard) with its pipes, and the (keyboard and valve) mechanism admitting wind to the pipes.
  3. The organ is one of the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution.
  4. The cinema organ, or theater organ, is a type of pipe organ built between 1911 and 1940 specifically for the accompaniment of silent films and the performance of popular music. It can be differentiated from those of traditional design by the use of a strongly fluctuating wind supply which caused the pipes to speak with an exaggerated vibrato. Cinema organs were provided with numerous percussion stops such as drums, cymbals, and xylophones, as well as such various sound effects (‘traps’) as bird chirping, police sirens, train whistles, ocean waves, and crashing sounds.
  5. The colour organ is an instrument designed to relate the aural sensation of music to the visual sensation of colour. The first known attempt to build a colour organ was by the Jesuit Louis-Bertrand Castel, whose clavecin pour les yeux, proposed as early as 1725, had 60 coloured, illuminated glass panes mounted in a frame over a harpsichord, each pane covered by a shade that opened when a key was pressed.
  6. ACorgan
    Organ console of the Convention Hall in Atlantic City (New Jersey). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
  7. An organ is the emblem of St Cecilia, patron saint of music.
  8. There are several classes of organ pipes, the two oldest and most integral to the development of the organ being flue pipes and reed pipes. More common, though not necessarily more varied, are flue pipes. Both types operate on the coupled-air system of sound production common to flutes, recorders, oboes, clarinets, etc.
  9. The earliest, simplest organs consisted of one set of pipes, each pipe corresponding to one key of the keyboard. Beginning in the 15th century organs could include many sets of pipes of different pitches and tone-colors, and multiple keyboards. Modern organs are found in all sizes, from one-manual instruments with two or three sets of pipes, to ones with four or more manuals and several thousand pipes.
  10. The first organs in the Americas were brought from Spain to Central America by Franciscan and Dominican missionaries in the mid-16th century. During the 17th century the use of organs—both imported and locally built—was widespread throughout Spanish colonial America; 17 small organs are reported as being in use in 1630 in what is now New Mexico, and one is later recorded in present-day Florida.
  11. The invention of the organ is attributed to Ctesibius of Alexandria in about 300 BCE. His hydraulis had the basic elements that define an organ: a row of pipes, one for each note, with a key for each to admit the air, which was supplied by bellows.

Headline image credit: Davis Concert Organ. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments


    An amazing brief history of one of the most important instruments in the history of western music …

Comments are closed.