Understanding Pipe Organ Lingo – Part 1

As one of the biggest investments a church can make, the pipe organ requires careful attention to ensure its longevity. In this series of articles, Luke Tegtmeier will help bridge the gap between organist and organ builder.

Recently, my car was making a funny noise. When I took it to the mechanic, he started rattling off car terminology that went completely over my head. We made it through somehow and my car got fixed, but it made me think about how I communicate with clients about an issue on the pipe organ that needs attention. Organists don’t always understand the inner workings of the instrument or have the proper terminiolgoy to explain a problem; secretaries, pastors, and music committee members usually have even less understanding!

To help increase understanding, I developed a document to help explain the basics of the organ. Please share this with your students, committee members, and anyone else interested in the organ!


Basic Components of the Organ

  • Console – the “control center” of the organ where the organist sits to play
  • Manual – a keyboard played by the hands. E.g. Great, Swell, Choir, Positiv, Solo
  • Pedal – a keyboard played by the feet
  • Division – each keyboard usually represents a division. A division may contain one to 20 ranks of pipes.
  • Rank – a set of pipes, with one pipe corresponding to one key on a given keyboard.
    • A rank can be “borrowed” to be played from another division, and a rank can be “unified” to play at multiple pitches.
  • Stop – a device on the console which activates a particular rank or set of ranks
    • Compound stop – a stop with more than one rank, e.g. Mixture, Cornet, Sesquialtera, etc.
  • Swell box – a box with shutters (imagine window shutters) containing all ranks played by a given manual. The organist can open and close the shutters with a foot pedal to control the volume heard in the room.
  • Crescendo pedal – a pedal that adds or removes stops as it is moved
  • Windchest – pipes sit on the windchest above the mechanism that delivers air to a given pipe so it will sound or “speak”
  • Reservoir – this airtight box with leather gussets helps create and maintain the pressurized air that is delivered to the windchests. Also known as “bellows”.


Types of Action
The mechanical means whereby an organ responds to the performer’s actions

  • Key Action – the method by which pressing a key causes air to enter a pipe. This could be subdivided much further, but the main three kinds of key action are:
    • Tracker – each key has a mechanical connection to the chest on which pipes sit. Named for the trackers that run vertically from the key up to the chest.
    • Electro-pneumatic – each key is wired to a magnet that activates a pneumatic pouch which allows air into the pipe
    • All-Electric – each key is wired to a magnet that allows air into a pipe.
  • Stop action – the method by which pulling on a stop activates that stop on the chest. Again, this could easily be subdivided much further, but there are three main kinds of stop action (Note that “All-Electric” key action does not have a stop action)
    • Mechanical – used only in tracker key action, the drawknob has a physical connection to the slider under each rank of pipes
    • Electric slider – used in both tracker and electro-pneumatic key action, an electric or pneumatic motor operates a slider under each rank of pipes
    • Electro-pnuematic – an electronical signal from the console activates a magnet and pneumatic components to activate a stop. This could be further divided into sub-categories like Pitman and Ventil chests.


Describing Basic Problems with an Organ

Organ malfunctions are often caused by minor issues with the “action”. Common symptoms cause by action problems include:

  • Cipher – A pipe won’t stop playing
  • Dead note – A pipe does not play when the key is pressed
  • Slow release – A pipe continues to play briefly after the key is released
  • Sticky Note – A key is slow to return