The Pianist’s Quick Start Guide to Playing the Organ

The Pianist’s Quick Start Guide to Playing the Organ

To the average human being on the planet, an organ and a piano are practically the same thing. The keyboards look the same–they both have black notes and white notes. Okay, so the organ keyboard looks shorter, but there are two keyboards so you should be good, right? I see lots of buttons that light up, but there is probably some kind of an owner’s manual that explains what they do… And, oh hey, there seem to be some kind of pedals on the floor down there.

If you’re a pianist that goes to church, there is a pretty good possibility you’ll find yourself sitting at an organ console at some point in your life.

If you end up in this circumstance, contact your Stake Organist or Stake Music Chairperson; they can get you moving in the right direction. Beginning organ lessons are helpful too.

But what about right now? Chances are, sometime in the next seven days someone is expecting you to play this thing in front of the whole congregation.

Here you go: The Pianist’s Quick Start Guide to Playing the Organ.

Fast solutions to seven of the most pressing issues for the pianist turned organist:

1) It has an on/off switch

In the 21st century, organs require electricity. The on/off switch is typically a rocker style toggle switch. Sometimes you’ll need to hold this down for a couple of seconds before you see signs of life. Something may light up. You might hear the electronics start to hum.

2) What is what?

The keyboards that you play with your hands are called Manuals. Pedals are the keys down by the floor that you play with your feet. If you look closely, you’ll see that the pedals are arranged like a piano keyboard with “white” notes and “black” notes grouped in sets of two and three.

The upper keyboard (on a two manual organ) is called the “Swell” manual. The lower keyboard is called the “Great” manual.

3) How do I get sound to come out of this thing?

After the organ is on, you’ll need to choose a sound for the keyboard you want to play. Look at the organ; it is likely that somewhere right in front of your face is a panel labeled “Great.” In this section, you’ll find a bunch of buttons or “stops.” Stops can be toggle switches or knobs that you pull out. Usually when you turn on a stop, it’s button will light up.

Stops are labeled with a word and a number. The word describes what kind of sound the stop makes. The number determines how low or high the pitch will be; the larger the number, the lower the sound.

A 16′ (or 16 foot) stop gives you a pretty low sound. An 8′ stop will be one octave higher than the 16′ stop. 4′ stops are an octave higher than 8′ stops, and so on.

The most basic type of sound you’ll use on an organ is called a “diapason” (die-uh-pay-sun) or “principal.” It’s kind of like the strings section in the orchestra. Follow this recipe to get a nice full organ sound:

8′ Principal (or Diapason)
4′ Octave (or Diapason or Principal)
2′ Super Octave (or Diapason or Principal)

Now try playing the “Great” keyboard on the organ and you’re ready to go. There should be 1-3 “volume” style pedals above the foot pedal notes. Press these like the gas pedal in your car to find out which pedal controls the volume of the “Great” manual.

4) It doesn’t matter how hard you hit the keys

When you play a note on the piano, a hammer hits a string and the string makes sound. If you want the sound to be louder, you hit the note harder and the hammer will hit the string harder and the note will sound louder.

An organ makes sound by blowing into a pipe. Play a note and a small passageway is opened allowing air to enter the pipe and make sound. Let go of the note and the passageway closes, and the sound stops. It doesn’t matter how hard you hit an organ key; the motion simply “opens the gate” for the air to flow through.

Of course, the majority of organs in LDS Chapels today are electronic and have no pipes. But they respond in the same way as a pipe organ—sound continues as long as the note is held down.

5) No sustain pedal

Nope, you can’t hide behind the pedal. It’s all up to playing with your fingers in such a way that the notes sound connected and smooth. Spend some time at the organ trying to play smoothly.

Common techniques used by organists are “slides” and “finger substitutions.” A slide is moving your finger from one note to the note beside it without lifting up your finger. Slides work particularly nicely if you’re moving from a black note to a white note; you can just kind of fall off the black note and land on the white note. A finger substitution is when you play a key with one finger, and then while holding that finger down, you put another finger on the same key; then you can lift the first finger off so that it is free to go play another key. This keeps the sound going and helps the music to sound more connected.

6) Do I really have to use my feet?

It’s nice to use your feet, but you don’t have to.

Just like with a drummer, the more limbs you use, the more you can do.

One of the main advantages to using the pedals is that you can access super low bass sounds that provide a great foundation for the congregation when they sing (kind of like riding in a car with a sub-woofer).

The “proper” way to play a hymn is to play the Soprano and Alto notes (typically written in the treble staff) with your right hand. The left hand plays only the Tenor notes. And what about the Bass notes? You guessed it, use your feet!

“Okay, so I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of using my feet right now. Is there an alternative?”

The answer is “yes!” On most organs found in LDS chapels, you will find a button or knob labeled “Bass” or “Bass Coupler” (or as I like to call it “the beginning organist’s best friend”).

Here’s how it works: Choose the stops in the “Pedal” section of the organ (a 16′ Bourdon and/or a 16′ Lieblich Gedackt are good choices). The turn on the bass or bass coupler. Now play the “Great” keyboard and notice that when you play several notes at once, the organ also sends the lowest note you’re playing to the pedal stops. And voila! It sounds like you’re using your feet.

For added effect, it’s nice to look down at the pedals occasionally so that people think that you really are playing with your feet.

7) Am I too loud?

Short answer? You’re probably not too loud.

An organ is a whole lot bigger and puts out way more sound than a piano, so our initial instinct is to turn down the volume. That, combined with the fact that beginning organists are usually terrified to play in church, causes us to play too softly. Another thing to remember is that you’re sitting right next to the pipes or speakers, so of course it’s going to sound louder to you than to everyone else.

Just remember that the congregation wants to feel supported. If you put plenty of sound out there, they’ll be more willing to lift their voices in praise. So do them a favor and play a bit louder than you think you need to.

It’s a great idea to experiment with the volume before Sunday arrives. Find a way to get into the building during the week (your bishopric will be happy to accommodate you).

When you first start practicing in an empty chapel, you’re going to feel like you’re rattling the walls. Remember that when there are bodies in the room, some of that sound will get soaked up…and if those bodies are singing, they’re going to start to cover you up.

If you can get into the building when there aren’t a lot of other people around, don’t be afraid to crank it up. Pull out all the stops. Literally. Put the pedal(s) to the metal. See what the volume pedals will do. Try the crescendo pedal; as you press the pedal down, the organ will add stops…more and more lights will come on, and you’ll feel like the Phantom of the Opera.

Feel the power.

Hunch up one shoulder maybe (not actually during church…).

Be sure and play minor chords.


Well, you are now officially qualified as a beginning organist!

Don’t be too worried—you’ll be fine. You’re among friends who are very willing to support you. Especially the other pianists in the congregation who are delighted that it’s you and not them!

Remember that you’re here on the Lord’s errand.

And if you ask for His help, He will bless you.

About The Author

Brian Jensen is the founder and Chief Editor at Music for Worship and, a Utah based publisher of print music and recordings. He is an in-demand studio music arranger, producer, and orchestrator. With more than 500 sheet music arrangements in print, his credits include Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, Inspirational Music Showcase 60 Favorite Hymns, Inspirational Music Showcase 80 Most Requested LDS Songs,, Steven Kapp Perry, Michael McLean, Marvin Goldstein, Jessie Clark Funk, Jenny Jordan Frogley, Especially for Youth, Classroom Classics, April Moriarty & Todd McCabe. Born and raised in Southeastern Idaho, Brian lives in Provo, Utah with his wife Deby and their two children.

1 Comment

Jennifer Lynn » 19 Mar 2018 » Reply

We have have an organist that puts too much emphasis on base (foot pedals) and makes the windows rattle. It’s rather annoying actually to have the volume on high – at the end of church service in particular when many of us are socializing (connecting as a community) before going on our way.

I don’t agree that cranking ‘er up inspires us to sing – there is playing, and then there is pushing it…

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