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 On the Nature of the Beast That Does Not Breathe
A Few Words about Organ Actions
Some Basics of Notation
Extended Techniques
A Few Final Truths


There is a great diversity of opinions on what a composer needs to know and indicate on organ registrations. Rather than providing a history of organ registration and a complete dictionary of organ stop names, which may only serve to confuse a potential composer, the following is a brief classification of stop names and a short list of the more popular registration names.


The term foot is the way of indicating the pitch of a stop; it is used in conjunction with a stop name, or occasionally by itself as a sort of surrogate to 8va, 15va, 8vb, or 15vb. Typical foot indications are

32' sounds two octaves lower than written (typically on pedals only)
16' sounds one octave lower than written
8' sounds unison pitch
4' sounds one octave higher than written
2' sounds two octaves higher than written (typically on manuals only)
1' sounds three octaves higher than written--normally only to the written c two octaves above middle c (typically on manuals only)

Many others show up that are typically associated with mutation stops. They are rarely used alone except for special effects, such as the unusual tuning effects in John Lambert's Uccelli, where the just third of the tierce stop is used against tempered thirds (see "Mutation Stops"). Examples of these include the following (grouped according to simple intervals sounded):

10 2/3' sounds a perfect fourth below notated (sometimes called 12')
5 1/3' sounds a perfect fifth above notated (sometimes called 6')
2 2/3' sounds an octave and perfect fifth above notated (sometimes called 3')
1 1/3' sounds two octaves and perfect fifth above notated (sometimes called 1 1/2')
6 2/5' sounds a major third above notated
3 1/5' sounds an octave and a major third above notated (sometimes called 3')
1 3/5' sounds two octaves and a major third above notated (sometimes called 1 1/2')
4/5' sounds three octaves and a major third above notated (sometimes called 3/4')
4 4/7' sounds a flat minor seventh above notated
2 2/7' sounds an octave and a flat minor seventh above notated
1 1/7' sounds two octaves and a flat minor seventh above notated
3 5/9' sounds an octave and a major second above notated
1 7/9' sounds two octaves and a major second above notated
8/9' sounds three octaves and a major second above notated

Divided and Partial Compass Stops

A divided stop is a stop that is accentuated by two stop controls, one for the bass half of a keyboard, and one for the treble. The location of the dividing point has varied both by time and geography, and has ranged from the c below middle c to the g above. Two of the most typical dividing points are middle c (typical in 17th- and 18th-century English organs) and middle c# (typical in organs from the Iberian peninsula). Contemporary organs with divided stops frequently have the option of choosing either c or c# for the dividing point. A partial compass stop is one that exists for only part of the keyboard, typically the treble. As in divided stops, the starting point varies from the c below middle c to the g above. Typically, these are mutations or cornet/sesquialtera stops.

A Quick Guide to Organ Stop Names

This is only a general guide to the most common of organ stop names to briefly introduce each family of organ sound. Within each type listed there is great variance in both how the pipes are constructed and how they sound.

I: Flue Pipes

The Flue Pipes produce their sounds in a way akin to a recorder or pennywhistle and may be made of wood or metal. There are six basic types of flue pipe stops: Diapasons/Principals, Strings, Open Flutes, Stopped Flutes, Mutations, and Mixtures/Compound Stops. Within these groups, there are some subtypes.

[Open] Diapason, Principal, Octave, Prestant, Montre (with various prefixes)
Basic "organ" tone, generally of medium volume
Dulciana, Dolce, Dolcan
Generally a soft, slightly stringy diapason
Salicional, Viola, Cello, Violin, Viol, Gamba, Æoline, Gemshorn
Grouped together as "strings," the volume range is from pianississimo for the Æoline (not common in contemporary organ building) to forte; timbre ranges from very mild to a very acidic sul ponticello
Celeste (with prefixes like Voix or other organ tone names), Vox Angelica, Unda Maris, Schwebung
A stop purposely mistuned to cause a wave effect. Generally of string tone, it may also be a flute or dulciana. Best used in soft combinations.
Quintadena, Quintaton
Variously a soft strange string sound, or a medium-loud strange flute sound. Name derived from its very strong third harmonic.
Open Flutes
Clarabella, Melodia, Open Flute, also sometimes called Waldflöte, Hohlflöte
A full-bodied flute tone created by open wood or metal pipes.
Concert Flute, Harmonic Flute, Traverse Flute, Orchestral Flute
A flute tone evocative of the orchestral instrument, created by double-length pipes.
Spitzflöte, Waldflöte, Hohlflöte, Koppelflöte
A tapered or partly tapered flute, generally made of metal; its tone ranges from a pure open flute tone to an almost stringy tone.
Stopped Flutes
Gedeckt, Stopped Diapason, Stopped Flute, Chimney Flute, Rohrflöte
A flute tone created by half-length pipes, which favors the odd harmonics. Occasionally sounds like a clarinet playing softly.
Tibia (Clausa, Plena, Mollis Dura, Profunda)
A very large, pure flute tone approaching that of a sine wave. Extremely uncommon in current organ designs, but occasionally found in organs built in the first thirty years of the 20th century.
Doppel Flute
A very large flute tone. Uncommon in current organ designs, but found regularly in organs built in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mutations refer to any stop producing a single tone other than a unison or an octave; generally flute or diapason toned, they may occasionally be found as strings. The most typical sound the third or fifth harmonic or their multiples.

Twelfth: Diapason toned 3rd harmonic.
Quint: either Diapason or Flute toned 3rd harmonic.
Nasard: Flute toned 3rd harmonic.
Larigot: either Diapason or Flute toned 6th harmonic.
Seventeenth: Diapason toned 5th harmonic.
Terz: either Diapason or Flute toned 5th harmonic.
Tierce: Flute toned 5th harmonic.
Septième: 7th harmonic; uncommon.
None: 9th harmonic; uncommon.

Mixtures/Compound Stops
Mixture, Cymbal, Fourniture, Plein Jeu, Scharf, Acuta, Hintersatz
A stop producing several tones per key, containing tones from the 2nd and 3rd harmonics and their octaves. The composition of these stops change (break) as one ascends the keyboard, favoring the higher harmonics in the bass, and the lower harmonics in the treble.
Harmonics, Terzzimbel, Obertön, occasionally Sesquialtera, Cornet
A mixture containing additional harmonics besides the 2nd and 3rd (and octaves thereof); in order of frequency the 5th, 7th, 9th, and(rarely) higher harmonics (including the octaves thereof).
Besides being used as a name for a breaking mixture containing the 5th harmonic, the cornet is also a special treble solo combination of loud flute tones of the fundamental and the 2nd through 5th harmonics (8', 4', 2 2/3', 2', 1 3/5') Picture pulling drawbars 3-7 on a Hammond B3 all the way out. Best if used above the f below middle c.
Besides being used as a name for a breaking mixture containing the 5th harmonic, the sesquialtera is also special treble solo combination of the fundamental and the 3rd and 5th harmonics (8', 2 2/3', 1 3/5') Best if used above the c below middle c.
Terzsept, Quintnone, Terznone
Stops consisting respectively of the 5th and 7th, 6th and 9th, and 5th and 9th harmonics. These stops are typically found in pipe organs derived from post 1945 Germanic building trends, although they are not particularly common even within that tradition. Usually considered to be nonbreaking.
Dolce Cornet, Cornet des Violes
A cornet of string tones. Uncommon in current organ building.

II: Reed Pipes

Reed pipes operate like a duck call or a party horn and are generally made of metal. Reed pipes come in two basic types: chorus reeds and color/solo reeds. There are several subtypes.

Chorus Reeds
Trumpet, Clarion, Trombone, Tromba, Horn, Cornopean, Tuba, occasionally Bassoon
Fairly loud brassy sounds, generally available in families of 16', 8', 4'. Can be used in big combinations for grandiose sounds or alone for trumpet-like solos. There is much variance in the tone of these stops, with the Horn, Cornopean, and Tuba types leaning toward a darker sound, and the others toward a brighter sound. In addition, Trumpets, Trombones, Clarions, and Bassoons can vary depending on the nationality of origin: German Trompetes have a tendency toward mildness, while French Trompettes are much brighter and louder.
Chamade (Trompette-en-Chamade, other fanciful names)
Very loud brassy trumpet pointed horizontally out of the case. Best used sparingly, as a solo against everything else.
Tuba Mirabilis
Very loud trumpet. Used like a Trompette-en-Chamade, though not as brassy.
Solo/Color Reeds
Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Cromorne, Cornodi Bassetto, Musette, Schalmei
Softer reeds generally used for solos, though they may be added to flue tones to "color" the sound. The name of the stop generally indicates the tone color to be expected.
Regals, Vox Humana
Nasty sounds ranging from fairly loud to fairly quiet, variously described as buzzy, rattly, or less kindly, "a bee in a bottle" or "a ninety-year-old French Tenor with a bad head cold." You ask for it, you'll get it.

III: Mechanical Stops

Mechanical stops do not produce sounds by themselves but affect other stops and keyboards when in operation.

Tremolo, Tremulant
Produces a sort of vibrato in other stops. May affect only one keyboard, or may affect more than one division or even the whole organ when engaged.
Connects one manual to another manual or to the pedal. The phraseology most typically used in English-speaking countries is that engaging the "Swell to Great" coupler will cause whatever is played on the Great to be duplicated on the Swell. In French, the same phraseology is used except that a manual to pedal coupler is called a "Tirasse" (e.g., "Great to Pedal Coupler" = "Tirasse Grande Orgue"). In Germanic countries this phraseology may or may not be reversed (i.e., Koppel P/II actually meaning couple the second manual to the pedal, not couple the pedal to the manual) so care should be taken.
Calcant, Bellows Signal, Blower's Signal
Various historic names for what would now be called the power switch, these stops signaled the man or boy who was manning the bellows to start working. On older organs that have been converted to electrical blowing, the electrical switch to the blower may be connected to this stop knob.

IV: Toy Stops

A group of bells that are struck in sequence by some sort of device. While traditional examples of this stop were designed to operate at one speed and produce a simple triad, modern examples frequently have speed controls, and occasionally even have controls to determine what bells are struck. Don't plan on the latter being the case, however; it is typically either on or off.
Nachtigall, Rossignol, Cuculus
Less typical than the Zimbelstern, various bird imitations can be found. Like the Zimbelstern, their function is either on or off.
Glockenspiel, Chimes, Organ Harp, Celesta
Tuned percussions of this sort crop up periodically in church instruments, and in some cases may be touch sensitive (the harder you hit the keys, the louder the sound). Don't count on the touch sensitivity, however.
Drum Effects
Typically two or more dull-sounding open flute pipes tuned to produce an effect similar to a timpani roll. Not too common outside of Italy and Spain.
A drum effect using more and lower pitched pipes.
Other percussive effects
Typically found only on "theater"or "cinema" organs.

Although beyond the scope of this article, the theater or cinema organ is a fascinating distant cousin of the church organ that is frequently treated as the black sheep of the family by many organists and organ builders. No contemporary repertoire has been conceived for the theater organ, although there are pieces where one produces an imitation of a theater organ on a "classical" instrument. The traditional theater organ repertoire is typically improvised on the spot or adapted from popular or light classical music, and is infrequently notated.

A Brief Compendium of Relatively Standard Organ Registrations

The following is a brief collection of terms used with some regularity as a sort of shorthand by composers and organists to indicate certain stop combinations; while the specifics of what is drawn would vary from organ to organ, the desired sounds indicated by the term are fairly universal. Many massive texts exist on organ registrations, a continuously evolving subject of which many organists grasp only the basics.

Principal Chorus [Eng.], Organo Pleno [Ger.] Plein Jeu [Fr.], Ripieno [It.]
Principals and Mixtures on that division; if 16' is added, it implies the addition of a suboctave register, as well as its harmonic series
Foundations [Eng.], Flues [Eng.], Fonds [Fr.]
Mild flutes, principals, and strings, avoiding the more extreme colors; if pitch indications are added, it indicates what pitches to draw.
Fonds et Anches [Fr.]
Flues and reeds (including chorus reeds); if pitch indications are added, it indicates what pitches to draw.
Full Swell [Eng.]
Principal Chorus with mixture, with chorus reeds at 16', 8', and 4'.
Full to Fifteenth
Principal Chorus without mixture, possibly with oboe.
Flutes and Strings
Flutes and strings at 8' only.
Strings and Vox
Strings, Celestes, and Vox Humana.
Grand Jeu [Fr.]
Chorus Reeds, Cornet, Flute Mutations, and Principal 4'.
Synthetic Oboe [Eng.]
Salicional and Nazard.

Further Thoughts on Indicating Registrations

One option for composers in working out registrations for a piece is to collaborate with an organist on registering your piece. This is not a requirement for success (nor will it guarantee success), but neither should it be dismissed out of hand. Keep in mind that the simpler your terminology when describing your registrations, the happier future organists will be in trying to learn your piece. This is not to say that being precise in your registration is a bad thing, rather that it is easy to go overboard. It is one thing to say "Clarinet in A" in an orchestral score and another to specify "An Albert System Clarinet in A with an extra wide barrel and a #5 reed." So it is in organ registrations: "Flute" says much the same thing as "Gemsrohrpommer" and is nowhere near as prolix. In addition, a fair amount of the terminology used in stop names has more to do with the construction of the pipes than the actual timbre; the stop names Gamba, Spitzgamba, and Bell Gamba all refer to the same basic sort of sound, with the prefixes indicating construction characteristics of the pipes.

That said, it is also possible for a composer to provide a very clear idea of what is desired without relying on the opinions of a second person.

A composer might choose to work out the registrations in detail relative to a particular organ. In this case, the composer should also include some information about the organ in the preface to the score, such as location of organ, the name of the builder and the year it was built, and the stoplist of the organ. Such information can be very helpful in clearing up any potential confusion the detailed registrations may generate.

The composer may also be content to provide the organist with only a dynamic level and (perhaps) a brief verbal description of the timbre(s) desired, such as "ethereal," "lush," or "cold and dark," or a foot indication to indicate proper octaves.

Some composers have provided very detailed explanations of the registration scheme required for their compositions, without using specific stopnames. Here are some examples:

Christopher Bochmann's Essay II is conceived for a two-manual organ. The organist is asked to choose three registrations (approximately piano, mezzo, and forte) for the lower manual, five registrations (pianissimo, piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, and forte) for the upper manual, and two (mezzo and forte) in the pedal, the only additional comment being that the upper manual's forte should be slightly softer than the lower manual's forte. Thus the minimum requirements to play the piece are that the organ have three stops on the lower manual, five stops on the upper manual, and two in the pedal, while at the same time allowing the possibility of playing the work on a much larger organ. While this specific solution apparently ignores the option of timbral variation (in practice, there would certainly be a fair amount of timbral variation from one dynamic level to another), it certainly would be possible to construct such a structure that would include timbral variation; it would be quite simple to expand this to include verbal descriptions, such as "soft and ethereal" or "cold" or "lush" to a chart of registrations such as that in the Bochmann score.

James Bohn's Toccata, Passacaglia, and Fugue indicates registrations in a way similar to the Bochmann. Nine manual and three pedal registrations are defined in general terms and assigned to specific dynamic markings from pianississimo to fortississimo (two discrete but similar "piano" registrations are required). The performer can assign the registrations to whichever keyboards work best on that instrument. Bohn also notes that it is possible to use two slightly different sets of registrations, one in the toccata, the other in the fugue, still following the guidelines.

Christopher Fox's Straight Lines in Broken Times and 27 Fanfares (new heaven, new earth) are also conceived for a two-manual organ. In the former piece, there is no indication as to the use of manuals, although the description makes it clear that two manuals are required. The composer then states, "Registration for the two lines should make it possible to distinguish them as separate; however, the timbres chosen should have strong family resemblances. Discreet modifications in registration may be made during the course of the music, but these should not be apparent to the listener." In 27 Fanfares, each hand is specifically assigned a manual, and at points in the piece, the performer is instructed to add or subtract a set number of stops (although not which stops are to be added or removed). The composer also notes that "the desired effect is of audible change between related soundworlds rather than of a shift to a different sound world. The composer adds the following proviso regarding registrations in general: "The overall sound should be loud, timbrally complex, quite bright, rich in overtones; although the vertical harmonic relationships shown in the score should be audible, this need not preclude the use of extensive doublings to extend the frequency range of the music both up and down." It should be noted that as of 2000, Fox has written five pieces for organ totalling over an hour and a half of music, and that while each piece contains performance notes giving a very specific sense of the sorts of registrations to be used, none of the pieces contains anything that resembles a traditional registration indication.

John Cage's Some of the Harmony of Maine takes a related tack. Cage specifies a two-manual organ with 10 stops on one keyboard, 12 on the other, and 9 in the pedal and also requests the use of multiple console assistants for the manipulation of stops. The stops are numbered. At points in the music, the registrants are instructed to add and subtract stops (i.e., add stops 2, 3, and 5 of the pedal while subtracting stops 1 and 9). It is understood that stop 1 of the pedal remains stop 1 throughout the piece, but there is no indication whatsoever of what timbre or pitch level stop 1 is supposed to be.

These suggestions are a possible point of departure in providing registration indications. I would add that, even if the composer chooses to provide detailed registration instructions, provided that he has not written the work around an unusual feature of a specific organ, it is still quite likely that organists could perform the work regularly on a variety of organs.

Combination Pistons

Combination pistons are small buttons operated by the organist's thumbs, fingers, or toes to make registration changes. They come in many types and may or may not be adjustable. It is possible for the composer to assign combinations to piston numbers, which are typically notated in the score as numbers placed in triangles (or another geometric shape) and placed in the score at the points where the changes should be made--that is, where the pistons should be pushed. A chart indicating the registration to which each of these numbers refers should be included as a preface to the actual score. However, no two consoles are laid out identically, and in some cases the organist may have to relocate the pistons to suit the layout of a particular console. Further, Murphy's law frequently comes into play on pieces requiring large numbers of combination pistons: the number of adjustable combination pistons on a particular console will be at least two fewer than the number indicated in the score. In this instance, an organist will probably need to arrange for one or more console assistants.


Reversibles look like combination pistons, but they are not adjustable, and they alternately engage or disengage a particular coupler or, less frequently, a single stop. They are also styled as a "sforzando" pedal, alternately engaging and disengaging nearly everything on the organ, although one cannot effect a true sforzando unless one is very fast and limber. These are also termed (more accurately) "Tutti" or "Full Organ" pedals, and on larger instruments several different reversibles of this type are present. There is no need for a composer to worry about these things; the end result is the same whether the organist grabs the great to pedal coupler stop control or presses the great to pedal reversible piston or toe stud.

Indicating Manuals

There are many ways of indicating which manials are to be played. One is to use the names of keyboards; the problem with this is that the names of keyboards can be confusing to an organist faced with an organ with a different set of names on their organ. In addition, just because the score says "Swell" doesn't mean that that passage will be played on the "Swell" if the required stops aren't there. I have occasionally ended up with the hand marked "swell" on the keyboard marked "great" and the hand marked "great" on the keyboard marked "swell." Most important, try to avoid mixing languages on manual indications. Another way to indicate manuals is to use Roman numerals; this method is clear and doesn't carry the baggage that names do. For that matter, there is no need to designate manuals, as it is possible to develop a very workable registrational scheme without accounting for which keyboard a particular registration may be assigned to. One final warning: most organists play organs with two or three manuals, and seeing registrations in terms of four or five manuals can be a big turn-off. Things registered to be played on two manuals can easily be played on a larger organ, whereas the reverse is much more difficult though not necessarily impossible.

On The Nature of the Beast That Does Not Breathe
[Introduction] [A Few Words about Organ Actions] [Some Basics of Notation]
[Registrations] [Extended Techniques] [A Few Final Truths] [Appendixes]

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Copyright © 2000 David Bohn. All rights reserved.
Last updated 12 November 2000. Contact information.