The organ and the piano are two of the most popular keyboard instruments in classical music.
Although they may look similar, they have very different sounds and require slightly different playing techniques from the musician.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced musician, understanding the differences between these two instruments can help you decide which one is best for you.
In this article, we will take a closer look at both the piano and organ to compare their sound production, playing techniques, types of pianos and organs available, and ultimately which is the best choice for you.
By the end of the post, you can better understand each instrument’s strengths and weaknesses before deciding which is the better option for you.
My Musical Background
Before we dive into the differences between pianos and organs, I must give you my background in both instruments, so you know that I’m not simply googling and regurgitating information on the subject.
I started piano lessons at the age of 7 and continued through high school graduation. And my piano studies continued in college, where I pursued a bachelor of fine arts in music degree.
Before college, I had no exposure whatsoever to the organ. I never attended a church with an organ, nor did I ever consider learning to play the instrument.
On a whim, and thinking skills on the organ might come in handy at some point, I began studying with an organ teacher at the university. These lessons opened me up to a whole new world of musical possibilities.
During college and shortly after, I realized that the field of active organists was relatively small, so I began playing at various churches.
Although my full-time career has taken a completely different path since my initial college graduation in 2008, I regularly perform as a church organist at various local churches.
The piano was my first love, but the organ has grown on me through the years, and I love having the opportunity to serve others through my skills.
And I love learning and growing as both a pianist and an organist!
Now, let’s break down the differences between these fascinating instruments!
Pianos can be divided into two basic categories: digital and acoustic pianos.
An acoustic piano’s sound comes from the mechanical action of felt hammers striking a string when piano keys are depressed.
The acoustic instrument has a soundboard, a large piece of wood within the piano, that contributes to the final sound made by the string.
One of the unique features of acoustic pianos is that every piano sounds slightly different. They are all genuinely different instruments in terms of the sound the individual piano produces.
Digital pianos are an electronic representation of the sound made by an acoustic piano.
This type of piano doesn’t have a soundboard, hammers, or strings. It is essentially an electronic representation of the real thing.
Types of Pianos
Pianos can be further categorized based on type.
Upright pianos have vertical sound-making components, meaning the piano has a taller instead of a more extended appearance.
Grand pianos have horizontal components.
Generally speaking, you can buy either acoustic or digital pianos as either an upright or a grand, but the digital version usually takes up less space.
And if you’re curious about other differences between an upright and a grand, check out my recent article Baby Grand vs. Upright Piano: Which is Right for You?
Thanks to its popularity, you can find a vast range of music written for the piano and catering to every possible difficulty level.
You can find music geared towards kids or adults just starting out on the instrument to advanced players who have mastered some of the most challenging music imaginable.
One of the challenges in playing the piano is learning to prioritize certain parts of the music over others while playing everything simultaneously.
In other words, a competent pianist must learn to bring out the melody line.
Another challenge of piano technique is learning to communicate subtle emotions through expressive playing.
And a third challenge when it comes to basic piano skills is mastering excessively chordal or quick playing.
There are so many technical challenges facing piano players!
Aside from the basics of technique, pianists have a long performance tradition of memorization.
This can understandably be a massive struggle for many pianists and can exacerbate underlying performance anxiety.
Organ music is most often heard in traditional styles of church music. Still, it can also be heard in various other settings and genres.
Classical music written for the instrument overlaps to a large extent with religious repertoire, and it can still be heard leading a church congregation to this day.
Although modern organs differ slightly in construction, it’s incredible that the instrument has been leading religious services for centuries!
It’s also fascinating to know that some of the most famous organ composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, were church organists.
Types of Organs
This type of musical instrument can either be a pipe organ or an electronic one, capable of producing a huge range of sounds.
A pipe organ’s sound comes from air passing through pipes when the keys or pedals are depressed.
The size and shape of the metallic pipes determine the type of sound produced, and the combination of pipes creates a unique soundscape.
The church pipe organ is a very large, powerful instrument that takes up extensive space, which is part of the reason you won’t find one in private homes.
Electronic organs have different sound-producing mechanisms than pipe organs and are powered by electricity. This type of organ produces digital sounds through an electronic circuit and external speakers.
They also generally have a volume pedal allowing you to control the volume.
Due to their smaller size, electric organs are a popular choice for home use.
Depending on the type of organ, you may encounter vast differences in key resistance on organ keyboards. While a traditional pipe organ may have stiff keys, digital organs may have lighter ones.
Organ music is often quite complex due to its polyphonic nature – meaning multiple musical lines can be heard simultaneously.
One of the key differences between the organ and the piano is the pedals.
While pianos have up to 3 pedals, organs have an entire keyboard of pedals, creating a unique type of mental gymnastics for players of this incredible instrument.
Organ players must learn to think in 3 different musical lines, and incorporating the pedal into my playing has been one of the most challenging aspects.
Like the piano, figuring out which musical line is most important can be challenging, especially when there’s so much going on at once.
Another challenge of mastering the organ is learning to adapt the sound to the specific piece of music you’re playing.
Some hymns or pieces require a softer reed sound, while others demand the loud blast of trumpets.
Learning to master the volume and all the different sounds of each unique instrument is challenging but one of my favorite aspects of the instrument.
Organ vs Piano: Which is Better for You?
Now that we’ve explored the differences between playing the piano and the organ let’s answer our original question – which one is right for you?
The short answer: it depends entirely on your personal tastes.
Consider the Piano if:
- You want to play a huge range of styles, from jazz to pop to classical
- Accompanying other instruments or choirs or being part of a string quartet is appealing to you
- You aspire to play exceptionally fast or technically challenging repertoire
- Playing music that requires a great deal of musical expression is appealing
- You want to compose music
- Playing your favorite songs by ear sounds like your idea of an afternoon well-spent
Consider the Organ if:
- You’re looking for a unique and powerful sound that is often associated with traditional church music
- You have mastered the basics of navigating a piano keyboard and are craving a new challenge
- Leading a large congregation in worship is where you feel led
- You love the versatility of sound inherent to the instrument
- You’re interested in exploring the more classical repertoire dedicated to the instrument
Although I firmly believe anyone can enjoy learning to play either instrument, it’s helpful to have a solid foundation in piano before moving to the organ.
You don’t need to have mastered the piano, and it’s helpful if you don’t.
But it’s nice to at least know the names of the notes on the keyboard and how to read music before tackling the unique challenges of playing the organ.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which instrument you choose as long as you enjoy making music!
You can even choose both and enjoy the variety that comes from learning each. Playing both instruments has improved my skills in each individually.
You might find yourself loving both the organ and the piano in no time! So pick one and start playing today! Happy playing!
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