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The Pipe vs. Electric/Digital Church Organ Debate: Which Musically Wins? (Part 1/2)

Updated on November 28, 2010

Step into a beautiful, big church with a style reminiscent of old ones of Europe. You are going to a Sunday service of your suited denomination, be it a High Mass at your Romanesque-revival Catholic parish or a Gothic-style Episcopal church. Somewhere inside the sanctuary, you will find a pipe organ with either pipes gleaming in the chained lanterns' lights or with ones painted in beautiful colors.

In some parishes or non-Catholic churches, the service starts with a warm, welcoming prelude that sets the mood of the upcoming service. Then, the organ thunders into the processional hymn (mostly a traditional one, like "We Gather Together"), with the choir in the loft singing in harmony.

Now go to a more modern church (think mega-church parish) and chances are that you'll sing hymns to an electric (or digital) organ, sometimes accompanied or supplanted by a praise band with guitars, drums, and other electronic keyboards. (Sometimes, an acoustic piano is either part of the ensemble or a leader in congregational singing.)

The musical war between churches who favor either pipe or electric/digital church organ prototypes rage on. Usually the traditionalists prefer entirely pipe ones while the more modern ones lean toward the completely plugged-in (as in electric) ones. But why do the churches around the world quarrel over the two sacred music accompanists?

Let's take a look at their histories.

Related Products on Organ History

Howard Goodalls Organ Works
Howard Goodalls Organ Works

I highly recommend that you watch this documentary - it provides you some interesting facts about the organ in four parts as well as some wit from the presenter!


When the Pipe Organ Started Singing In Chruch

The role of organs in churches started in the pipe organ's history. In the Middle Ages, leather bags replaced the water pumps and other devices in the old hydraulis, and hand-operated bellows were introduced in the middle of the tenth century. Around that time, all (primarily) Catholic church service music was acappella, which was problematic when bigger churches were erected all over Europe. That type of music made congregations hard to manage in terms of singing.

Someone introduced the organ into a chapel of a monastery to aid them in its brothers' singing. It was loud and wheezy, and its keys of its manual (keyboard) were very large for human fingers. The concept of having a stentorian instrument that helped them stay together worked, thus the wheezy keyboard instrument made its way into churches.


The First Commercial Pipeless Church Organs Came Into Smaller Sanctuaries

During the western expansion in the United States in the 19th century, the churches (regardless of denomination) started out small. Then came the dilemma of musical accompaniment - pipe organs proved to be too costly or too big for their liking. If they opted for pianos, chances are that they would arrive broken because they were too bulky.

Thus, the reed organs that were introduced in America from France came into their sanctuaries to lead the small congregations. As with its predecessor the regal, bellows blow air into select reeds dependent on depressed keys of a manual. They were cheaper and were temperature-tolerant, making them suitable for churches in tropical areas overseas.

In the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers rolled out various types of reed organs. One of them was the folding harmonium. They looked like large suitcases when folded, but when unfolded they were one-manual, foot pumped instruments with little to no stops. Army chaplains and traveling priests, to name but a few, lead congregational singing with the instrument. This practice (as well as other uses of reed organs) ended as the Second World War ended.

The First Electric Organs Came to Church

Inspired by the Tellharmonium, which manually piped muzak into telephones, Laurens Hammond created something economical to help churches find ways to accompany congregations and choirs in the 1930s. In his creation, tonewheels produce electric signals to have sounds in varying frequencies come out of amplifiers by exciting transducers. His keyboard concoction, the Hammond organ, used a lone expression pedal to alter dynamics.

One of the primary goals of the Hammond organs was to sell to concert halls and churches as portable, affordable alternatives to pipe organs. For the latter, many denominational parishes purchased them to lead their congregations in song.

The first true electronic church organ came about in 1939, with Jerome Markowitz of the Allen Organ Company as the inventor. He also enhanced smaller pipe organs with electric pedal tones, thus creating the first hybrid organ.

When the The Organ Controversy Began: The Digitals and Praise Bands

In 1971, the Allen Organ Company rolled out its Allen Digital Computer Organ, which became among the first electronic organs to closely imitate their wind-driven, pipe counterparts. The invention excited some congregations seeking to find an alternative to a costly and space-taking pipe organ that sounded close enough to sounding like one.

But as the digital organ's popularity increased, controversy flowered as early as the 80's. Women, who comprised a bulk of organists, worked more in other jobs, thus decreasing their numbers. Also, less people took formal organ lessons as the times changed. The decline of organists increased not only the popularity of electric and digital organs but the popularity of praise bands (folk or rock-based) since the 1960s.

That worried many parishes, denominations, and organ focus groups like the American Guild of Organists. Another factor, some denominations (especially Catholic parishes) argue, is the changing style of congregational music. They placed the blames towards the pipe organ's decline on hymn-writers of the change of musical pace such as Marty Haugen, David Haas, and the St. Louis Jesuits. The rise of more portable synthesizers (including electronic keyboards) contributed to the controversy.

Throughout the course of history with the organ playing the role as leader in hymn-singing, denominations debate on which types of the instruments suit their services. Some of them say that the pipe organ historically leads the singing parishioners whereas some others say that the digital or electric counterpart does so likewise at an affordable price. But the question remains: which instrument is rightfully germane for church service music?

The series continues on Part 2.

The Organ at St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington DC
The Organ at St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington DC | Source


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      In the "olden" days, electronic keyboard & pedal instruments (e.g. Hammond A100, Compton Electrone) generated analog electronic signals in a manner quite different to a pipe organ and converted the analog electronic signals into sound using one or more loudspeakers, namely by using a process quite alien to pipe organs. In consequence, in the "olden" days, e.g. the days of the Compton Electrone and similar, acoustic sounds were generated by such instruments which very superficially sounded organ-like. As Allen Computer Organ in Pasadena would agree, digital electronics allowed the sound of a digital instrument with keyboards and pedal to approximate more closely to a sound of that of a real pipe organ. Contemporary Hauptwerk represents a next level of refinement in approximating the sound of a digital instrument to a real pipe organ. In a contemporary perspective, with Hauptwerk sample sets being recorded pipe-for-pipe from real pipe organs with professional quality microphones and high bit resolution in associated ADC's, what is now preventing digital instruments, for example of Hauptwerk variety, sound substantially exactly like real pipe organs is loudspeaker systems. The reason of speaker limitations is very simple: Doppler shift occurs in a loudspeaker by loudspeaker cone movement when more than one acoustic tone is simultaneously generated by the loudspeaker, resulting in a form of intermodulation distortion between a plurality of tones. Using many speaker channels and large speaker cone areas reduces aforementioned Doppler-related distortion, but can never eliminate it. However, Hauptwerk listened via headphones which suffer negligible Doppler shift is often quite thrilling. Organ pipes simply do not have moving speaker cones and hence there is no such Doppler distortion in a real pipe organ. This is an objective view of a purist.

      However, digital "pipe" organs definitely bring benefits in promoting interest in pipe organs and associated repertoire. Moreover, it is often not practical for people to have a pipe organ in their homes on which to practice, whereas a digital instrument (for example of the Hauptwerk variety) is a more practical proposition.

      A further issue with digital instruments is that they often have complex integrated circuits and software, which are very difficult to fix, esepcially after a given model becomes obsolete and no longer supported by its manufacturer. In contradistinction, a pipe organ employs relatively simple technology that can be readily understood and serviced or rebuilt century after century by a resonably skilled craftsman or craftswoman.

      When comparing real pipe organs with digital "pipe" organs, we are considering two very different things. Both are extremely useful and I have a personal enthusiasm for digital "organ-like" instruments. However, when all analysis is done, digital "organ" instruments should be regarded as disposable user commodity products (rather like a cell phone (mobile telephone) or personal laptop) of limited lifetime, whereas real pipe organs can potentially last centuries. Some churches do not have the space or money for a real pipe organ, in which case the relative lower cost and convenience of a digital "organ" instrument can be a good practical solution.

      I hope the text above gets to the heart of the issue in an unbiased manner which is helpful and illuminating.

      Kind regards


    • talfonso profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      That's fine, Ton. Though I like the sound of the pipe organ and eventually prefer it, I can do fine with digital. I'm more of a Rodgers fan than an Allen fan.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Ah yes, there little perfect, well voiced set of ranks, or not, in tune or not...yes precious. However have played huge numbers of organs both digital and pipe, I have come to a point! The point is: when I want to play little pipe organs in a nostalgic or pedantic way or just musing while playing...I like them. But...If you put me on a fine digital or digital pipe with about 80 ranks and good acoustics and tack sharp tuning...then I am in my race car... and going around the track is like a 200 mph car with me in it.

      You can't imagine what that feels like as opposed to the sluggish actions one finds in churches nursing along an old vintage instrument, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it going because it is their "identity". That is my utmost disagreement...the most outrageous thing that a church would saddle an organist with an old relic.

      The digitals are really good, tack sharp, accurate and agile key actions.

      In tune and a multiplicity of tonal changes if I wish.

      ....but, I know, people get accustomed to their stuff...and that is why i no longer play for churches as a job unless they have a good organ. Just don't want to be bothered with vintage instruments. Now here and there if it is a good one and restored perfectly, then I can indulge myself and actually play music.

      I think that the "organ" as an object is just a little to much on the iconic, God's voice, a heavenly instrument et al, when it is only an electrical/mechanical machine. We would see more good digital organs if we could loose the icon and look for the best music.

      A definitive digital organ of about 180 ranks will knock your socks off and I might just sell my race car if I could luck into a church with one.


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Ah! I'm sorry. I not wrote that this italian organ is from 1905. Thank You.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      The pipe organ is a long life instrument, the digital organ became old in a few years. I can see a little two manual (58 notes) italian church organ with 27 notes pedalboard, 23 stops, direct mechanical action (the best action if it is made with the best parts). When the lights went out in a concert, we run to give it wind from the pumping bellows and the concert finish with candles lights, and the surprised looking of public... ¡Marvellous!

    • talfonso profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      Good points - I agree with the fact that it doesn't matter which organ a church prefers (although I prefer pipe). Oh, and I have part 2 set up already!

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Pipe organs can be bulky and expensive, although I've seen some old ones in museums that take less floor space than a grand piano. Reed organs are something like a harmonica with a bellows and keyboard. Reed organs can be very cheap, but the cheap ones sound, well, cheap. The ones that sound as good as pipe organs get really pricey.

      Initial installation price does not tell the whole story about cost, though. Pipe organs require routine maintenance, which in most cases the organist can perform. Electronic organs begin to go bad in twenty years or so and must be replaced. Over the long haul, pipe organs cost less than electronic organs. If a church has been designed for a pipe organ, that's the better way to go. Not all churches are architecturally suitable.

      Those are some thoughts to keep in mind for good stewardship of a congregation's resources--something as important in glorifying God as the music itself. I'll have to wait for the second part to see where you're going with this musically, but so many churches today go in for "contemporary services," with electric guitars, drums, and electronic keyboards that are hardly ever used to sound like an organ, even if they can.

      That change of taste over the last half century or so explains why there are so many fewer musicians majoring in organ. Performance skills and standards are likely to decline with the number of specialists available. If it gets to where hardly anyone really plays the organ well, it won't matter if it's a pipe organ or an electronic organ that a congregation eventually abandons.


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