Can All Pianists Play The Organ? What’s The Difference?

When thinking of grand and majestic instruments, the piano and the organ can certainly top the list. And watching musicians play them, It’s apparent that these instruments share a striking similarity: they both use the same keyboard setup with black and white keys. That begs the question:

Can pianists automatically play the organ? Pianists can play the organ because both the piano and the organ use the exact same keyboard setup. Without training, however, a pianists can only play the organ at a basic level. The organ has access to different sounds, unweighted keys, more keyboards, and more pedals than the piano.

As with most topics about music and instruments, this simple-sounding question requires a much more in-depth answer to fully grasp. Read on for the detailed answer, plus some tips to help the transition from piano to organ go smoother, and vice versa!

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Can all pianists play the organ? – MusiciansFocus.com

Can Pianists Automatically Play The Organ?

The piano and the organ can seem very similar at first glance. If you’re not already familiar with one or the other, they can appear to be played the same. So, theoretically, a pianist could just switch seats and play the organ, right?

Well, not so fast. While the piano and the organ appear very similar, they don’t really play the same in some very important ways.

Pianos and organs share some features, such as they both use the musical keyboard. But the organ has way more pedals than a piano, and those pedals do more than what they do for the piano. Organs also have what’s known as “organ stops”, and these too can alter notes to make different sounds.

As long as the pianist understands the differences and is willing to put in the work to learn all the new bits and pieces, yes, a pianist can play the organ.


Can An Organist Play The Piano?

Most organists start their musical life playing the piano so the answer is yes, most organists can play the piano to some level. But let’s just imagine a musician who only ever learned and played the organ: would they automatically be able to play the piano? Generally speaking, it’s much easier for an organist to pick up the piano than it is the other way around.

This is mostly because the organ typically has more going on than a piano does. It’s a more complex instrument to learn and master. Pianos are indeed complicated, but organs have a lot of additional parts and functionality to learn. One of the biggest differences for an organist, as we’ll see below in the next section, would be that the keys of the piano are sensitive: the harder you press a key, the louder the sound it makes. Organ keys are not sensitive to this.

For clarity though, the higher in levels that you go for both the piano and the organ, the more that caveat becomes reversed. In simple, popular terms, piano-playing at higher levels tends to get a bit nuts.



Piano vs. Organ: What’s the difference?

Whether you plan on playing both at some point or you just have a penchant for snazzy bullet-list comparisons, I’ve got you covered!

Accessibility

Pianos win this round, as you are more likely to find a piano in a classroom than you are an organ. This is mostly because organs are really, really large. In a standard music room setting, an organ would probably take up most of the space.

Difficulty

Again, the piano will have to win this round. While I’m not claiming that the piano is the easiest instrument to learn, it is generally less intimidating than an organ is.

Instrument types

Pianos are percussion instruments, while organs are woodwinds. Interesting, right? But it’s true: organs are woodwinds because they use a series of pipes and air to make sounds. Pianos use hammers hitting strings.

Comparing how piano and organs make sound
The organ uses wind running through pipe to make sound, the piano uses hammers on strings

Number of keys and keyboards

Pianos typically have 88 keys, while organs usually have 61. Pianos have one row of keys, while organs usually have two or more.

That’s just the main list of differences. There is plenty more to cover. But going by that list alone, it’s safe to say that if you’re starting from scratch, reach for the piano for an easier learning curve. Pretty much all organists start their musical careers on the piano. Once a musician is familiar with the piano keyboard, they are able to move on to the organ and learn its unique features (namely stop knobs, tactile feeling, pedals, and delay).

Stop Knobs

One of the most important differences between the piano and the organ is that the organ has a huge array of different tones that it can make, due to what is known as stop knobs. These stops control the pipes that the air moves through, changing the sounds the organ makes.

Picture of organ keyboards and stops
With several keyboards and multiple stop knobs, the organ is pretty complex!

For instance, when using a stop knob, an organ can emulate the sounds of other kinds of instruments, eg. flutes, brass, and reed. However, there are also stops that don’t imitate other instruments; instead, these stops can make sounds like rolling thunder or the warble of a small bird. I told you organs can be pretty complex!

Tactile Feeling

The keys on a piano are usually weighted, which gives them some oomph. The keys on an organ, though, aren’t weighted. The lightness of the keys can sometimes throw people off, especially for those who play with really weighted keys on the piano. What the lighter keys mean is that now you don’t have to press down nearly as hard as you would on the weighted keys, so you can almost glide majestically across the organ’s keyboards.

Not all piano keys are really heavy though, and some aren’t weighted at all. So, if you tend to play on these lighter pianos, you may not feel much of a difference in the pressure you have to exert for the organ.

Another thing about the keys that may confuse a pianist: the amount of pressure applied to the keys of an organ does not affect how loud a note it will generate. But how do you make the note on an organ sound louder, then? Well brings us to the next big difference.

Pedals

Both the piano and the organ usually have pedals. However, the pedals on an organ behave differently than the piano’s. In addition to the functionality differences, a piano usually has three pedals, and an organ can have a whole slew of them.

The pedals on an organ typically consist of at least one expression pedal, or also called a volume pedal, and a pedalboard that contains the bass notes.

Picture of the bottom of an organ with lots of pedals
The lower part of an old organ: so many pedals (for just two feet!)

When coming from the piano, the general consensus is that the keyboard is the easiest and feels the most familiar, but the seemingly never-ending of pedals may take a little longer to get down. Now, since I understand that everyone learns differently, this opinion may change from person to person, but the majority of pianists said they had the most trouble with all the different pedals. Usually, the weirdest ones were said to be the bass pedals, as the volume pedals tend to be self-explanatory.

Sound delay

If you plan on playing on a pipe organ, you should be aware of the sort of sound delay that pipe organs can have. For all pianos and a lot of organs, the moment you press a key a sound is produced. However, for pipe organs—especially ones that are in a large room such as a cathedral—there tends to be somewhat of a delay from when a button is pressed and a sound is heard. The delay isn’t very long; it’s probably about a half a second or so, but it can be unsettling and awkward if you’re not ready for it.

This small delay is caused by the fact that traditional pipe organs are wind-driven so it takes time for the air to pass through the pipes. While not super noticeable, it does help to think a little ahead when you play, and always be sure to thoroughly practice on a new instrument before any big performances.


Conclusion

Whether you’re a pianist ready to take on the organ, an organist looking to tackle piano, or were just curious about this topic, it’s generally agreed upon that a skilled player of either could learn the new instrument easier than if they were to start from scratch. However, if you are starting from scratch, don’t fret. Many musicians claim that learning the piano is much less of a hassle than the organ, but you can use your piano experience to learn the organ a bit easier down the line.

Just remember that whether it’s a piano or an organ, each and every subcategory and style of each instrument is going to have its own little quirks. What works on one instrument may not work on another, so be ready to adjust on the fly when switching. Don’t give up, keep practicing, and be sure to talk to a music instructor to help you get your learning on track!

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