Learning to play piano opens up a whole world of keyboard instruments. Piano skills are transferrable to synthesisers, electric pianos, harpsichord, clavs, and organ.
Most of these instruments are pretty similar to the piano – they all involved some sort of percussion on a string to make sound, except the synth and the organ. Synthesizers are still closer to a piano than anything, just because of how they are played.
Organs however, are keyboard driven, but they are a pretty far cry from being a piano. For one thing, when you strike an organ key, an electrical circuit is completed, and you can hold the sound for an infinite amount of time.
But more than anything, they are played differently and serve a different purpose in both popular and classical music.
Thinking of taking up the organ? This guide will explain all of the differences between organs and pianos, which is harder, how they are used,
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Differences Between the Organ And Piano
So what are the physical differences between pianos and organs? This is what we explore below.
You’ll notice right away that a piano has one set of keys all laid out in a row – 88 of them. Organs have two, and often have a set of foot pedals to play bass notes as well.
Reason being, organs have drawbars with different ‘ranks’ or ‘voices’ that can be pulled down to affect the sound. Each rank in an organ can be combined with others to imitate the sounds of woodwinds and reed instruments.
You can have a different sound for the top keyboard, bottom keyboard, and for the bass notes as well. Often, you’ll be playing the melody with on hand on one keyboard, comping and playing chords with the lower keyboard, and playing bass notes or bass lines with your foot.
This is a very obvious difference between the piano and the organ, but it also has ramifications for differences in how the organ is used. Because you can play bass, melody, and chords with an organ, you’ll often see them being used in different settings.
Once you sit down to play either the organ of the piano, you’ll find that they sound completely different. Things that sound good on the piano do not necessarily sounds good on the organ, and vice versa.
This is mostly because the mechanisms for creating sound are completely different. The piano has a hammer which strikes a string when a key is pressed. This create a sound that will ring out and die away naturally, or become a short note if the key is released.
Pressing a key on an organ will complete an electrical circuit, creating a tone, which is then modulated by whatever drawbars are pulled out. This will sustain infinitely until the key is released.
Organs sound completely distinct from pianos. Organs can be high and whistley, or loud and raucous. If the organ is run through a Leslie speaker (in popular music, organs are almost always run through a Leslie) it can be overdriven.
No matter how a piano is being played, it almost always sounds like a piano!
Role In Music
Piano and organ serve different roles in most music.
The piano is often a leading instrument. It’s got a huge range, sounds beautiful up and down the keyboard, and the percussive nature of the instrument lends itself to playing melodies.
You can play faster rhythms and melodies on an organ as well. Because of how percussive it is, it also often serves as an accompaniment instrument in popular music. Think of how Elton John uses the piano to play melodies and accompany his voice.
Organs fill a larger amount of musical space, due to their infinite space. In pop music, they are often used as a pad or an instrument to create a sense of space. In church music, jazz, blues, and traditional styles, the organ will often serve as the main instrument, playing bass lines, melodies, and chords.
Large congregations will often sing along to an organ playing hymns. Overall, the organs primary role is to ‘fill in’ music with a sense of space and to provide supporting chords.
The piano and organ are played differently and they are used differently, so you need to master a different set of techniques.
Piano players have to learn complex chords and fingerings. Developing dexterity, independence, speed, and dynamics are all important parts of being a proficient piano player.
Organ players require dexterity, independence and speed, but in a different sense. Organ players need independence between their hands as well as both of their feet. One foot or both feet might be playing bass lines, and one foot is also often on a volume pedal.
Organ players don’t need to worry about how hard they are playing the organ – all of the dynamics on an organ come from the volume pedal and how the player is using the drawbars to vary the sound.
Is One Instrument Harder Than the Other?
I wouldn’t say that either the piano or the organ is harder. They are both keyboard instruments, so there is a great deal of crossover between the two instruments.
Most people start out on the piano, because they are more accessible. They’ll move to the organ if they are interested in it or are playing in churches with organs.
For that reason, piano players usually have to learn a new set of skills when they are learning organ. I started learning organ at 17 years old after playing piano my whole life, but it took quite a while for me to understand how to play it.
The hardest parts about playing organ are learning how to make it fit into songs, learning to use the volume pedal, and learning how to create sounds that work. Having constant control over the sound of the instrument is amazing and challenging.
As both piano and organ players move into the professional realm, they’ll develop great dexterity and great finger and hand independence.
If you can already play piano, the hardest part about learning to play organ will be relearning how to use dynamics and learning the kind of role that an organ plays.
If you can already play organ, the hardest part about learning to play piano will be getting your head around some of the super technical finger work required of piano players.
Different Types of Organs
We’ve written articles on different types of pianos (grand pianos, upright pianos, spinets, etc.) but these differences are mostly just size. They all sound like pianos. Upright pianos may not be as rich and full as grand pianos, but they are more similar than they are different.
Organs however, are varied. From pipe organs to B3s, there are different types of organs and they all sound different, and they are all played differently. Here are a few different types of organs you’ll encounter:
The pipe organ is the largest musical instrument. They are built in synagogues, concert halls, and churches. Smaller pipe organs can be found in homes, but this is rare. Some of the biggest pipe organs have 64-foot-long pipes! Woah!
The pipes are divided into ranks, same as most organs, and they are controlled by drawbars and combination pistons. They don’t usually have volume pedals, and so have no dynamics.
This is what a pipe organ sounds like:
You’ve heard it before, now you know!
Between the pipe organ and the development of the electric organ, there were reed organs. These instruments use reeds similar to those found in an accordion.
Because they use reeds instead of pipes. These were often found in smaller churches and homes.
Reed organs are pretty limited in their use. They have no dynamic range, usually just 4-5 octaves, and just a few manuals to change the sound with. You can still find these around, but they are not common.
The Hammond organ was the first successful electric organ. We’ve already explained how it works – a key is pressed which completes an electrical circuit, creating a tone.
The Hammond organ had drawbars for changing the sound, an on-board vibrato effect, and they are usually connected to a Leslie speaker, which rotates to give the sound a tremolo effect. The Leslie is connected to a foot pedal which is used to speed up and slow down the tremolo.
These organs are popular in jazz, soul, rock and roll. As time went on, it made its way into pop and country music as well, and experienced a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000s.
You can still find these in churches, and in most studios and in jazz and blues clubs around the world.
If you are playing the organ in any popular music setting, you’re probably playing a B3 through a Leslie!
Check out a master of the B3, Cory Henry, playing ‘Wonderful Is Your Name’.
Electronic Church Organs
Chord organs became popular through the 30s-60s. These organs create sound with oscillators and filters. Many of them were ‘chord organs’ which would produce a chord with one part of the organ and a melody with another part. Chord organs often had a drum machine as well.
These organs were once popular home instruments – you can still find them everywhere. If you search for ‘organs’ on Craigslist, you’ll find a lot of electric organs like these for very cheap.
They are big, not very portable, and not overly useful. The sounds are fun to accompany a sing along, but they aren’t heard very often in popular music.
The drum machines in some of these organs are used more often than the organs themselves! Here’s what they sound like:
The Vox Continental is a transistorized combo organ manufactured by Vox. These organs were designed to replace the Hammond B3, because they are smaller and more portable. However, they found their own home in popular music.
They have a thin, bright, breathy sound. The organs have a vibrato setting that is often turned on. You can hear the Vox Continental on tracks from The Beatles, The Animals, The Doors, Elvis Costello, and more.
You don’t need as much physical dexterity to play the Continental, because it doesn’t have foot pedals and only has one key bed. It is also generally used in pop and rock music that doesn’t require as much technique as the B3.
Check out this video of a Vox Continental playing songs from The Animals – you’ll recognize the sound right away!
Farfisa started making electric organs in 1964, and they were immediately unique. Unlike combo organs (like the Vox), Farfisa organs have integrated legs which can be folded up into the base of the instrument.
Electronically, they are similar to the Vox. They are all transistorized organs. Most of the difference lies in all of the different sounds the Farfisa makes. It as many of the same drawbar settings as a B3.
The Farfisa has a different sound and a different set of features compared to the Vox. It’s a little more decked out.
The Farfisa also has 4 vibrato settings, 3 reverb settings, and 3 ‘rockers’ for bass volume. It also has a swell (volume) pedal to create dynamics, a multi-tone booster, and a tube preamp.
You can hear a demo of the Farfisa organ here:
As an instrument, organs are not very portable. Neither are pianos!
That’s why, most players are playing digital pianos and organs these days. Digital versions of both of these instruments have gotten very good in recent years.
Manufacturers like Nord, Korg, and even Hammond make very good digital organs and digital pianos as well.
While I would recommend trying to learn to play the B3 or any kind of organ on the real thing, that is not always possible. I learned to play organ on a Nord, because that is what was available.
In university, I got to play on real Hammond organs, and it changed the way I played, because I understood the instrument better.
Nonetheless, I won’t be hauling a Hammond B3 and Leslie speaker to any gigs any time soon, so learn on whatever you have available!
Organ and Piano Are Both Great Keyboard Instruments
If you’re interested in playing popular music, jazz, or blues, you should learn how to play both the piano and the organ.
The two instruments complement each other, and you may be asked to play both in some sessions and gigs. Learning to play organ can be a fun way to expand the possibilities of your keyboard knowledge!