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

Updated on July 26, 2012

Every Sunday, parishioners and worshipers alike step into their churches on time to sing the opening hymns. Their sanctuaries either contain a pipe or electric or digital church organ, depending on how big or historic they are and how varied their musical repertoires are.

But outside of main worship, music ministries and congregations alike bicker over whether something like a Rodgers digital organ or a small one with all pipes is most suitable for their liturgical music. Meanwhile, other musical ensembles, often folk music performers or youth groups based on rock and pop, accompany congregational singing. But what makes churches fight over the types of organs?

In Praise (of) Bands

Electric (and most digital) organs have another purpose other than merely leading the church's congregants in song solo (or in Catholic churches, with a cantor who is separate from the organist or is the organist himself or herself, if he or she can skillfully and simultaneously sing while playing it). They can be incorporated into those so-called "praise bands" - ensembles which look like nothing more than mere rock bands with guitars, synthesizers, and drum sets.

Many large, predominantly black churches have their own classes of them, known as gospel bands, rounded out by Hammond organs. Some bands even have a horn section, ranging from a single saxophone to a 5-piece wind section. Although they are more at home in megachurches, Protestant churches that have 2000-plus attendees each week, numbers of them appear in even historic ones and usually youth Masses in Catholic parishes.

But most worshipers who favor the pipe organ disagree with the concept of having "praise bands" lead worshipers in singing hymns (or rather, mere Christian songs that make people clap and sway to the beat as if their stained-glass places of worship are rock concerts held for free each Sunday). One of the boons of the guitar-laden groups is the cost - for the price of maintaining a pipe organ, the church can install a sound system to amplify the band's sounds.

That worries people who love the so-called traditional church music because the religious "rock groups" just don't fit into a Renaissance Revival Catholic church interior. (Think coffered ceilings, frescoes of angels and saints, hand-carved Stations of the Cross, and a huge pipe organ that will be just another piece of furniture!) Also, the groups are more suited for contemporary music rather than the traditional hymns people grew up with.

If their bands have horn sections, they might yearn for a better alternative - a brass ensemble with tympani and pipe organ, for example.

Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste
Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste

For more on how most Catholics see their music in their parishes as "liturgically unsound," read this book. Oh, and the author is also an organist.


What Most Consider Bad Music Can Also Be Played on Organ!

Liturgically Unsound

Also, the changing musical tastes of the worshipers and the dynamic genre of contemporary Christian music are other weapons used in the war between those who favor either pipe or pipeless organs. For Catholic parishioners who decry the decline of the diapason pipes, they put the blame on post-Vatican II liturgical music.

Some hymns of the nature have the congregation, the cantor, or both singing the role of God. (Dan Schutte's "Here I Am, Lord" is an example.) Also, Mass settings take on a musical spin thanks to hymnwriters such as David Haas and Marty Haugen, the latter of which wrote the (infamous) Mass of Creation in 1984.

But lyrics play a small role in the component of the organ wars. Many worshipers who favor modern music of the Sunday liturgy feel that it is more suited for praise or folk-based bands, whether they use electronic organs or not. Although the style and tunes are the reasons why, they can be executed very well in a multi-manual organ.

The modern music fits teens' music preferences well, thus prompting ministers and other clergy to adapt to it, sometimes mixing things up with old-time hymns.

Even though they favor pipe organs in a parish with such liturgical music, some traditionalists opt for old hymns, Gregorian chant, and traditional choral music such as motets by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina over something penned by Bernadette Farrell.

A device that plays accompaniment is like karaoke worship.
A device that plays accompaniment is like karaoke worship.

The First Problem of Both Warring Parties: Hymnal Minus One, or "Karaoke Worship"

Of course, the deterrent of both pipe and all-electric organ parties is the backing track. For budgets' sakes, some churches use taped backing tracks to sing all the hymns listed in any given church service. They also use it when a musician is not available to play the accompaniment for them.

But for those on the electric organ side, they benefit somewhat from devices that can play the accompaniment for them. Ministers plug the device into one that is MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) compatible and select the hymns of the Sunday.

But pipe organ fans are more miffed than their electric parties towards a plugged-in device because it replaces real music. Emily R. Brink, Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship,voiced her irony towards her interest in the device:

"I'll have to admit that I would rather hear a good recording of music excellently performed than a poor live performance of the same music. If I were to buy a new instrument for our church (which has a pretty good pipe organ and piano), I would consider a synthesizer, because its potential is so exciting. But I am excited about that instrument not because it offers some easy, plug-in solutions, but because it would allow us to compose and perform music that is indeed the offering of the congregation."

Many pipe organ fanatics agree with Brink. They would rather find themselves singing acappella (which is pretty hard to keep in tune and rhythm together because they are just using their God-given human voices as their own musical instruments) than sing along to "karaoke worship."

It's big and expensive, but it's everlasting.
It's big and expensive, but it's everlasting. | Source

(Out of) Cost Control

Cost plays a big role in the organ wars in churches. On the digital and electric organ side, the cost of purchasing one is less than the cost of buying a pipe organ. But the cheapness of it comes with a price. For a couple of years, the organ breaks down, thus prompting the parish to buy another one. The cycle repeats again and again, but the parish who buys it says it's worth it.

But churches who are for the pipe organ say that it's worth the high costs of buying and maintaining one. Besides the cost of the instrument itself, the prices of tuning, cleaning, and repairing it add up. Despite the fact that it would take funds to upkeep it, churches who stick with the instrument are satisfied with it.

But the real cost is the salaries of the players themselves. Organists earn less in even medium-sized churches, but very skilled ones at the bigger ones (sizable minor basilicas, cathedrals, etc.) generally earn more.

Dissonance of (Organ) Sounds

Digital or mere electric organ supporters agree that their instruments (especially the former types or electronic ones) imitate the sound of real pipes, at a lower cost. Churches who use organs in their rock-flavored groups (especially Hammond organs in predominantly black sanctuaries) brag about how fitting their electric sound is when played in harmony with other instruments.

But pipe organ supporters on the other hand can see the main difference between their instrument and an electronic facsimile. In a church with no pipe organ, they notice that there is neither a visible pipe facade (not even en chamade reed pipes, which usually protrude horizontally over worshipers' heads) nor a grille concealing the pipes on the wall.

For those with rather trained ears, they note the sound quality differences of the organ types. A good digital organ can imitate its wind-powered cousin by playing one quality stop at a time, but when multiple ones are played, the sound is a few numbers-dimensional. That's because each speaker of the organ sends out a single wave that contains all the sounds and notes.

Because the pipes produce sounds from select pipes in terms of keys pressed on any manual, the sound is more rounded and fuller. Also, the sound of the pipe organ is less directional that their pipeless counterparts, making them capable of filling the sanctuary more easily and effectively.

The Second Problem of Both Warring Parties: the Shortage of Players

Besides the meager pay, organists are hard to obtain, but why? First of all, most students kindergarten to college are just not interested in pursuing organ lessons. Reasons for the disinterest include interest in other fields (particularly film, athletics, and music of their culture), the availability of and encouragement in training for stable jobs including those in the healthcare field, and the decline of music education programs.

Especially for the latter, organ lessons are costly and sparse to find in most areas. Also, select schools are financially lucky to have pipe organs, but some of them offer it as an low-cost to free elective. The decline of students aspiring to play the organ threatens the faces of both organ-type opposing sides.

Wishing for A Pipe Organ

Sometimes, for most pipe organ advocates, it takes more than just pressuring churches with existing digital organs to replace them with their types.

Over a month before the September 11, 2001 attacks, I went to the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine with my ex-cousins, uncles, aunts, and parents. I attended the last half-hour of Mass, and looked around for any signs of a facade. I found none, just a lonely organ console with a lady seated on it. I found out that the organ was digital, perhaps one from the Allen Organ Company.

Tradition has it that upon visiting a new church I had to make three wishes, but the most primary one of mine is to have that old church obtain a pipe organ. Few years later, it obtained a good 3-manual, 55-rank Casavant instrument. Upon hearing the news, I became elated that my wish came true.

Solutions Attempted

Organ companies and organ focus groups alike are appeasing the warring parties by coming up with solutions. On the pipe organ side, such focus groups like the American Guild of Organists (AGO) offer programs to entice young people to their instruments. One of them is the summer Pipe Organ Encounter, which gives the audience information on organ playing, construction, its role in liturgical music, and much more. It's also a music education campaign, and it kindly asks for donations as with other programs of the broad type.

But for churches who are on the fence of selecting pipe or a completely electronic organs can opt for hybrid organs, which give them the best of both parties. They cost between the prices of the cheap digital brothers and the higher-cost all-pipe cousins. In existing smaller organs, digital ranks can enhance the overall sound of the organ, but the pipes are the front-and-center musical team. Some of the notable digital organ builders who kindly create hybrids are Rodgers Instruments and Phoenix Organs.

As churches fight over which organ type is best for them, the best organ type is based on their taste. Ditto for worshipers who either roll with the times or want to keep more traditional, pipe organ-accompanied Sunday service music. If they feel that the music of recent times played by praise or folk bands in their churches is getting the best of them, they are free to petition the church to offer something their style such as high (sung) Tridentine Masses or move to churches with those types.

But if financially struggling churches want cheaper alternatives to the piano used since their foundings and consider buying digital organs, the congregation can either dig their heels and deal with it or move to ones with completely pipe organs. It doesn't matter what type of organ a church prefers, just as long as someone still plays it.

As for me, I'm with the people who prefer pipe over digital.

This Hub picks up from part 1.

Electric or Pipe - Keep Organists Playing!


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    • talfonso profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      David, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Though I agree with you, I have heard a digital organ that sounds very, very, very close to the pipe organs I grew up listening to. It was a Marshall and Ogletree, and I heard it in the oratory of the university town of Ave Maria. Though I prefer pipe vs digital, I was BLOWN AWAY by the sound.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Digital organs are adequate for congregational accompaniment, but they don't generate the excitement necessary to undergird a drive to excellence in a music ministry.

    • profile image

      Randrianaivo Michel 

      6 years ago

      I am from Malagasy .The Church in our country is in the heart of discussion :Should we use Modern style or traditonal one to worship in Church.The fact is that the young adopte the modern style with ignorance but most of congregation are waiting something solenel :"classical"and sometimes there are some minority mature player then those old group of congretion feel like really at church service .

      What I suggest as solution is to have a special comitee taking care of technic,artistic and spiritial of the congregation

    • profile image

      Pete in Texas 

      7 years ago

      I have sung David Haas motets during the same service we sang Mendelssohn and Bach hymns, led by our superb pipe organ and choir, and enjoyed very satisfying worship. Throughout my adult life I have also participated in home fellowships with only 6-string guitar and voice, and heard everything from old gospel songs to newer pieces that rival the elegance of my own church. I was blessed and feel that God was glorified.

      The commonality is artistry and dedication to the craft.

      It’s naïve to think that having a fine organ will fix everything. That’s like putting a professional grade camera in the hands of an artless person hoping it will make him a great photographer—it never does because it can’t.

      If only a priority in our churches was artistic excellence. With that as our driver, determining whether the traditional model or more modern one was the better fit would be considerably easier.

    • talfonso profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      Ditto for me! I'm a pipe organ fanatic. Although I attend Masses with all the praise bands, digital organs, and what not, I love Masses with a real pipe organ - they make it so memorable! In fact, my childhood church in Clifton, NJ has one built by Peregallo, located not too far from there (in Paterson)!

    • profile image

      Pipe Organs 

      8 years ago

      Excellent hub loaded with great info. Thank you for that. Cost is a major factor, no doubt. As for sound, grace and everything in between, I might be bias in my selection, but I go with the pipe organ, hands down!


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