The pipe organ is a musical instrument that produces sound by driving pressurized air (called wind) through pipes selected via a keyboard. Because each organ pipe produces a single pitch, the pipes are provided in sets called ranks, each of which has a common timbre and volume throughout the keyboard compass. Most organs have multiple ranks of pipes of differing timbre, pitch and loudness that the player can employ singly or in combination through the use of controls called stops.
A pipe organ may have one or several keyboards (called manuals) played by the hands, and a pedalboard played by the feet, each of which has its own group of stops. The organ’s continuous supply of wind allows it to sustain notes for as long as the corresponding keys are depressed, unlike the piano and harpsichord, the sounds of which begin to decay the longer the keys are held.
The origins of the pipe organ can be traced back to the hydraulis in Ancient Greece in the 3rd century BC, in which the wind supply was created with water pressure. By the sixth or 7th century AD, bellows were used to supply organs with wind. Beginning in the 12th century, the organ began to evolve into a complex instrument capable of producing different timbres. By the 17th century, most of the sounds available on the modern classical organ had been developed. From that time, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device, a distinction it retained until it was displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 19th century.
Pipe organs are installed in churches, synagogues, concert halls, and other public buildings and are used for the performance of classical music, sacred music, and secular music. In the early 20th century, pipe organs were installed in theaters to accompany films during the silent movie era, in municipal auditoria, where orchestral transcriptions were popular, and in the homes of the wealthy, equipped with player mechanisms. The beginning of the 21st century has seen a resurgence in installations in concert halls. The organ boasts a substantial repertoire, which spans over 400 years.