TANGENT #2A: Musical Music, Attacks, and Release: Creating Expression through the Organ Machine

If you ever sang in choir, you probably were forced to try the insufferable exercise of singing on only vowels. This is much-loved by choir directors, likely because of the undeniable entertainment for somebody who gets to hear Orff’s O Fortuna become Oooo ouuaaa and Handel’s Hallelujah as aaaaeua, but it doesn’t allow the words to be immediately comprehendible.

Although instrumental music has no words, we still have consonants. The attack of each note creates the opening consonant. It would be challenging to have a note without a beginning, so the importance of the attack goes without question. The speed and style of this attack (starting with a t-like or an m-like sound) is extremely important in all instruments, especially the organ.

Unlike the piano, however, the organ’s release is equally important as its attack (and arguably even more so, since it is far easier to forget about the release when your conscious thought has already moved further along in the phrase). Since neither the pipe’s timbre nor its volume changes throughout the duration of the held note, it is only during the beginning and end of the note that you can shape it to further a musical phrase.


A beautiful example of mechanical (tracker) action from http://www.die-orgelseite.de/funktionsweise_e.htm
Electric action, from http://www.pykett.org.uk/response_speed_of_electric_actions.htm

With a tracker-action organ , you can control the exact speed at which the pipe opens. If one tries slamming down on the key as quickly and as hard as possible, the pipe will get a lot of air very quickly and, sometimes it will overblow (play a pitch higher than intended) or have a rather unattractive beginning sound. Conversely, if one takes care to lower the key as slowly as humanely possible, they can hear the range of sound between the fully open and fully closed pipe (like closing to an m when singing). Of course, neither of these is really the desired attack when playing organ music. Being aware of this range and the level of control possible can allow more gentle attack (slower opening of the pipe) for a more sensitive musical line and a firmer or even nearly violent attack (quick opening of the pipe [think t or d]) for something more majestic or dramatic.

Additionally, tracker organs sometimes have unstable wind (especially if they’re from an earlier organ building tradition). Listening becomes even more important here, as you have to determine if it’s better to strike all notes together, to make the attack more based on weight than on speed, or if it’s better to slightly arpeggiate to stop the wind from giving the organ some unintended “vibrato.” If that “vibrato” furthers the musicality, then by all means!

These kinds of attacks can be imitated on electric and electro-pneumatic action, where there is no “range” between the pipe being open or closed: there are only the two options. However, they must be done more with timing than with physical opening of the pipe. For example, if one desires a strong opening chord that would call for the pipe opening more quickly, then it is best to play all notes exactly together. If one desired that the same chord be gentler, a nearly undetectable arpeggiation would help to execute the desired effect. Timing the notes of a solo line to arrive just after the accompaniment (not consistently, but on particular notes!) can give the illusion of a slow opening, and thus a more musical phrase.

You deserve a photo of the beautiful Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux. The “pool” in front is just a shallow puddle: it’s quite fun to walk across the water, which is only a few centimeters deep!


One might think of the release as the attack in reverse. It can be equally controlled, whether fast or slow. Slow releases, again, work well with solo lines and with gentler music. Additionally, with solo lines, an overlegato may be used with slow releases. You might notice that overlegato doesn’t sound terribly good when playing a chromatic scale but it creates a beautiful effect the further away from each the notes get. For example, when ascending a sixth, overlapping the two notes for a brief millisecond can create a cantabile or even a portamento effect! Ah, the illusions of music-making on the organ…

However, you may notice that this effect does not work so well when descending, because the ear so readily attaches itself to higher notes. Thus, it is often best to keep to a “perfect” legato when descending with a solo line.

Again, listen for the wind if it happens to be unstable. Sometimes releasing quickly will be best for stability, other times, an undetectable arpeggiated release (usually with the lowest notes releasing last) will give the desired effect.

Similarly, when working with electric or electro-pneumatic, these arpeggiations or slight displacement of attacks and releases can create the effect of slow or fast releases. Since the pipes naturally open quickly with this kind of organ, it is in the slower, gentler moments when one will need to pay extra attention. Often, with a solo line, releasing the note a sixteenth note too “early” will create the illusion of a decrescendo and a slow release.

Repeated notes of the same pitch need extra attention to both the release of the first note and the attack of the second. Most frequently, a slow release followed by a fast attack creates the desired effect. However, the most important thing I can stress in this, and a in all entries about music, is listening to the effect of what you are doing!

It’s also worth listening to how these attacks, releases, and articulations work with different stops and different combinations. The slower attacks and releases tend to work best with flue pipes, while reed pipes call for fast attacks and releases, because of the need for them to sound “cleaner” with these more piercing timbres.

All of these things are just tools. A slow attack, a fast attack, or any attack in between should not be used all the time, without any variance (especially since, if one did that, they would become predictable—the horror!). The importance is in making the informed choice of when to use which and for what reason. The peak of the phrase (after the length of the phrase is determined) may call for a different kind of touch, or there may be a reason to bring out a particular harmony or unusual note.

Above all, remember that, while it’s important to “smell the roses” and illustrate the phrase, every “rose” cannot be “smelled.” We’d never get anywhere!

Some needlessly detailed definitions of vocabulary words that I find somewhat interesting and that pertain to this subject:

Acoustic – the only “stop” on the organ that can never be turned off. This refers to how the room (hall, church, performance space) affects the sound of the organ. A cathedral made of stone with wooden chairs will have a significantly more “live” acoustic than a small, carpeted living room with overstuffed sofas. A large (or live) acoustic means that the sound will continue for several seconds after the organist releases a note, while a small (or dead) acoustic means that the listener can sometimes even hear the pipe closing when the organist releases the key. These dead rooms can even appear to have “negative” acoustic to an organist who is used to playing with a bit more “room.”

Articulation – the aural distance between notes. This can range from a large separation between notes (staccato) to overlapping the notes (over-legato). Pipes can also have their own unique articulation, through an audible attack or chiff.

Attack – after the key is struck, the moment when the pipe speaks

Bloom – when a pipe’s sound does not remain static but expands into the room. This mostly only occurs in large acoustics, as the pipe’s sound changes when it has large spaces in which to travel and a long time in which to do so.

Chiff – when a key is struck and the pipe associated with it makes a consonant-like sound before beginning the tone (quite similar to the ch in the onomatopoeic word of chiff). It is articulation before the vowel-like sound of the pipe.

Legato – this denotes a smaller range of articulation, when there is little or no separation between notes. So-called “baroque legato” denotes the tiniest of separation between notes, while 20th-century organist and composer Marcel Dupré’s “perfect-legato” implies that, as one note ends, another begins, and “overlegato” describes releasing one note after the next has begun.

Staccato – noticeably detaching each note from the next. (N.b. there are numerous other kinds of articulation [that I am sure most of you know about] and it would be a shame to bore you with those details.)

The beautiful Jardin Public in Bordeaux



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