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A Basic Guide to
Playing the Organ

The intention of this site is NOT to teach you how to play the organ. It's a very basic guide so that pianists are able to accompany hymns and other simple music. Also, it does NOT give instruction on using the pedals. It's possible to provide a completely satisfactory accompaniment without introducing this complication.

PAGE 1 gives a basic description of the mechanics and geography of the organ.

PAGE 2 suggests ways of accompanying a congregation and other aspect of service playing.

PAGE 3 includes downloadable repertoire, and suggestions for further study or finding a teacher.

Some of the information may seem very basic, but it's put here for completeness. Some general tips about accompanying a congregation will be included and suggestions how someone, who is really very reluctant to take on any service playing, can manage it in an acceptable manner.

The descriptions and comments on this page are pretty universal but, if playing somewhere for the first time, it's always useful to get there early to check out the instrument.

Although these pages describe pipe-organs, digital and/or electronic organs are conceptually the same, it's just that the method of sound production is different.

As mentioned above, this is a survival guide. It misses out 95% of the glory and variety of playing an organ, but it does lead to safe, useable accompaniments.

If possible (and do all you can to make it possible) arrange practice time on the organ you are going to be playing so that you can get to know its idiosyncracies.

Keyboards (or Manuals)

Essentially, there's no difference between a piano keyboard and an organ manual. Organ manuals, however, are shorter, starting just two octaves below middle C and only ranging upwards for five octaves. The main differences are that they are not touch-sensitive (no matter how hard you strike the keys, the volume remains the same) and the sound doesn't die away (as long as you hold the key, the note will sound).

diagram of piano and organ keyboards

Some organs have two manuals (called Swell and Great from top to bottom),

picture of two manuals

and others have three (Swell, Great, and Choir).

picture of three manuals

It's not necessary to use all the manuals, and quite possible to play satisfactory accompaniments on just one manual (in which case, choose the Great).

You're not likely to run across an organ with four or more manuals but, if you do, the Great and the Swell are the second and third from the bottom.

The Stops

The stops provide the different tone colours and can vary between very quiet and very loud. Each stop controls a group (or RANK) of pipes. The longer pipes produce the lower notes and the shorter pipes the higher notes.

picture of pipe lengths

To produce sounds at concert pitch (give or take a little ) the length of the pipe for the lowest manual note is about 8 feet. In the organ world, notes around concert pitch are said to be "at 8 foot pitch".  (This is universal across the world. The metric system isn't used.)

With some ranks, the longest pipe is only 4 feet long. The whole rank sounds an octave above concert pitch and the rank is said to be "at 4 foot pitch".

Here, you can listen to Middle C played on an 8' stop, and then on a 4' stop.

With others, the longest pipe is only 2 feet long (at 2 foot pitch) and sounds two octaves above concert pitch.

And here, Middle C on an 8' stop and then a 2' stop.

 I'll leave you to work out for yourself what a 16' stop does.

To complicate matters, some stops have fractional pipe lengths (2-2/3 feet, or 1-3/5 feet). More of this later. But you can decide right now, if you like, to ignore this complication. It's not necessary to use these stops.

The stops themselves can be either drawstops (which have to be pulled out to activate the pipes),

picture of drawstops

or tab stops, which need to be depressed.

picture of stop tabs

Occasionally, the stops are rocking tablets which illuminate when active. This is fine until the bulb fails ....

Never mind the fanciful names of the stops. They each have a number which tells you the length of the longest pipe, so you know which sound at concert pitch and which at other pitches.

The stops which apply to any one manual are grouped together and, unless you are very unlucky, are labelled Great, or Swell etc. If there's no labelling (thankfully rare) it's vital to test the organ beforehand and hope for a good memory.

As mentioned above, the stops have many fanciful names and produce an amazing variety of tone colours and power. This is not the place to go into this in any depth. Later, suggestions will be made for further information.


You will see some things which look like stops with a text like Swell to Great, or Choir to Great. These are Couplers. When drawn or activated, by playing on the second named manual, you also play the active stops on the first named manual. They are useful for quickly adding extra power, but can be ignored.

Choosing Stops (1)

This section is for basic survival. It assumes that you have no experience and limited time to prepare. The information given here can be expanded upon by experimentation at any time. (I am assuming that you, or someone who knows what's what, has switched the organ on. [There's many a book to be written about finding organ switches.])

Choosing Stops (2)

This section is for those who have passed beyond basic survival. As a very general rule, the easiest way to get a louder sound is to include stops at a higher pitch than you are already using.  For instance, if you have already chosen an 8' stop, add one at 4' pitch;  if already using 8' and 4' stops, chose one at 2' pitch. And the reverse for getting quieter. Given time, it's always best to experiment a bit and find out what works well.

As mentioned above, some stops have fractional pipe-lengths, (known as MUTATIONS). These sound different notes to the one(s) being played. For instance, a 2-2/3' stop sounds an octave and a fifth higher than played:

Here is an example based on Middle C on a 2-2/3' stop:

and a 1-3/5' stop sounds two octaves and a third higher.

Apart for specialised use, these add richness and colour to a combination of stops. HOWEVER, they can lead to some very strange sounds. Unless you know what you are doing, or have time to experiment and listen, ignore them.

Some stops are named Mixtures, and have Roman numerals instead of pipe-lengths. For each note you play, these stops add several high sounding notes.

 Well used, they add clarity and power.

But, Unless you know what you are doing, or have time to experiment and listen, ignore them

Changing Stops (1)

As mentioned above, you can get variety by changing manual at natural gaps in the music. It is similarly possible to change stops, either using the suggestions above or things you have found out for yourself. But: It's best NOT to change stops whilst holding a chord. This just leads to a bump in the music.

Here is a stop change, well managed, at a natural gap in the music:

Here is one with surprising bump in the sound:

Here is one that destroys the rhythmic flow.

Changing Stops (2)

Some organs have Combination Pistons between the manuals,

picture of pistons

or above the pedals,

picture of toepistons

These activate groups of stops at the same time, and (if you feel confident) can be used in the same way as changing stops by hand. GENERALLY SPEAKING, they add extra stops from left to right, but NOT ALWAYS.

Before using pistons, test them out to see what happens. They can be TOTALLY IGNORED if you prefer.

BEWARE!!! BEWARE!!! BEWARE!!! If you use a combination piston, it MAY add some pedal stops. If your feet are resting on the pedals, you will get unexpected notes.

However, if you feel uncertain about choosing stops, the use of pistons usually gives you a good combination that sounds well.

More about the Swell manual
(and the Choir manual)

Usually, the Swell manual and (sometimes) the Choir manual are said to be expressive. That is, the pipes are tucked away in a box to reduce the sound but, by deployment of a pedal (not one of THE PEDALS - but something easy to use without training or practice), shutters are opened and more sound allowed out. These pedals may be Balanced (they stay where in the position where you leave them) or Trigger (they have to be latched open).

picture of swell pedals

If there is more than one, and you are lucky, they may be labelled as to which manual they apply. If you get the chance, try them out beforehand.

It's not necessary to use these pedals and, if you choose not to, leave them in the open position (balanced - toe well forward, trigger - latched down).

BEWARE!!! BEWARE!!! BEWARE!!! Very occasionally, something that looks like a balanced swell pedal is a general crescendo pedal and, if "open" brings on all the stops. Usually it's labelled but, if the organ has two or more unlabelled balanced pedals, test them before playing and leave a general crescendo pedal in the "closed position" (heel well down).

Rare, but ...

This last section is here for the sake of completeness. Older organs (or more modern ones seeking to emulate older ones), or Continental inspired ones, can include some unusual features:

Next pages

The second page includes information about actually playing with suggestions for getting round difficulties.


The third page includes links to useful repertoire and books for further study.