10 Tips on Organ Registration – by Dr Steven Nisbet

1: Spend time by yourself exploring the organ stops. Your knowledge of the stops will increase as you spend more and more time at the console, listening and experimenting.

2: Explore the organ, division (section) by division, i.e. each manual separately, then the pedals. Associate the names Swell, Great and Choir with the manuals. On a two-manual organ the lower manual is usually the Great; above it is the Swell. On a three-manual organ, the middle manual is usually the Great; above it is the Swell; and below the Great is the Choir.

3: For each division, identify which stops are speaking stops (e.g. Open Diapason 8’, Flute 4’, Oboe 8’), and which are non-speaking stops (e.g. couplers such as Swell to Great, and Swell to Pedal, or tremulant).

4: Get to know the sound of each speaking stop individually. Play some single-line melodies or scales all over the keyboard (and pedalboard). Hear what they sound like at different pitches.

5: Listen to and classify the speaking stops according to which family of sounds they belong to, namely:

  • principals (the characteristic organ sound);
  • flutes (imitating the orchestral flute),
  • strings (imitating stringed instruments), and
  • reeds (containing vibrating brass reeds; imitating orchestral reeds and brass instruments);

6: If there is a Swell pedal (usually for the Swell manual), get to know how it affects the sound of the stops as you open and close the Swell box.

7: Play some simple music (e.g. hymns or melodies) using the various stops, starting with a Diapason 8’, then Flute 8’, etc., and try to describe the sounds in words.

8: Get to know the significance of the numbers on each stop knob, e.g. Flute 8’ and Flute 4’. These numbers generally signify the length of the longest pipe in the rank (in feet). With an 8 foot stop drawn, the pitch of middle C on the manual should match the pitch of middle C on a piano. Stops labelled as 4’ will sound an octave above the 8’ pitch. Similarly, stops labelled as 2’ will sound two octaves above the 8’ pitch. Stops labelled as 16’ will sound an octave below the 8’ pitch. Remember the relationship between pipe length and pitch: in general, long pipes have low pitch, and short pipes have a high pitch.

9: Try combinations of stops within families. Play some music starting with an 8’ principal
stop (perhaps called Principal 8’ or Open Diapason 8’), and then add a 4’ principal (perhaps called Octave 4’), and then a 2’ principal (perhaps called Fifteenth) if there is one. Repeat for the other families of sounds – flutes and strings. These combinations are called choruses – e.g. principal chorus.

10: Identify the mutation stops and mixtures. Mutations are stops labelled with fractional numbers such as 2 2/3, 1 3/5. They sound the fifths and thirds in the scale, rather than octaves. Try a mutation stop in combination with an 8’ stop, or 8’ and 4’ stops. Listen to these interesting effects. Mixtures have multiple pipes playing for each note pressed and are labelled as 2 ranks, 3 ranks, 4 ranks, or with Roman numeration II, III, IV, etc. The pitches of the pipes are high and add brilliance to a chorus.

[Dr Steven Nisbet is an RSCM Member and the director of music at St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane.  He is also a committee member of the Organ Society of Qld.]