What Are The Differences Between Pianos & Electric Organs?

The keyboard family is highly diverse nowadays and consists of instruments that can easily be classified into multiple categories simultaneously. Two of these keyboards are the piano and the electric organ, which stem from the same source but operate under distinct mechanisms for sound delivery and resonance.

What are the differences between pianos and electric organs? The following are the most relevant distinctions:

  • The piano is a percussion chordophone instrument. The electric organ is an electronic keyboard instrument.
  • The piano has a distinct percussive sound, while the electric organ offers a more varied timbral spectrum and longer sustain.
  • The piano has a higher pitch range than the electric organ.

Throughout this writing, we'll uncover more details about the distinctions between pianos and electric organs that were briefly described above. However, as usual, we should first flesh out their backgrounds to better grasp the origins of said distinctions.

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The Backgrounds Of Pianos And Electric Organs

It is frequently noted that the first keyboard instrument in existence was the organ. It was a pipe organ developed around the 3rd century B.C. in Hellenic Egypt. This organ was initially powered by water from a natural source which pushed continuous air currents across the pipes. For that reason, it received the name “Hydraulis” or “hydraulic organ”.

Another instrument relevant to this comparison is the monochord, defined by a single string stretched over a wooden soundboard with a movable bridge. Pythagoras designed this device to study the properties of sound and the relationship between tension and pitch.

Though it initially had no practical musical usage, the monochord would play an important role in developing various instruments like the medieval monochord, the psaltery, and the dulcimer; instruments that were imported into Western Europe in the Middle Ages (possibly around the 13th and 14th centuries).

Some centuries prior (in the 8th century), the organ would enter the Western European musical scene thanks to a donation received by King Pepin the Short from Byzantine Emperor Constantine V. The keys on the organ were eventually incorporated into other types of instruments, such as chordophones and metallophones.

The clavichord was one of the first instruments from these experimental combinations. Borne of the medieval dulcimer, the clavichord incorporated a key system with blades that would hit the strings from below. This would be the first step toward the creation of the piano.

The harpsichord, which relied on a plucking mechanism instead of concussion, possessed various convenient traits that were later adopted for the clavichord itself, such as the unfretted string layout by which each string had its separate action. This allowed two adjacent notes to be played in unison or in quick sequences.

The piano was an attempt to improve upon the harpsichord's dynamics and the clavichord's volume. Bartolomeo Cristofori designed the piano in approximately 1700 A.D., inserting a more complex action consisting of hammers instead of tangents, as well as an escapement feature that would lower the hammer upon striking the string, thus improving sustain.

The organ, for its part, was still in constant evolution. An intricate bellow system replaced the water-based system of primitive organs in the 15th century.

Much later, in the 19th century, reed organs were constructed, with a compact build to be played at home. Nonetheless, they were mostly reserved for wealthy families due to their hefty costs, though not as expensive as the much bulkier pipe organs.

The closest version of the contemporary electric organs emerged in the 1930s around the concept of telharmonium – the first keyboard instrument to generate notes electronically by electromagnetic tonewheels. These electric organs had their conventional pipes replaced by electronic oscillators.

The Hammond organ proved to be one of the most popular electronic organs of that time. It was invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934, and it generated sound through electric signals that set rotary generators into motion. The sound was also highly adjustable via a panel, producing a wide variety of timbres.

What Are The Differences Between Pianos And Electric Organs?

In this following section, we'll be revisiting the distinctions between pianos and electric organs mentioned at the beginning.

Difference 1: Class And Design

I started with the following:

“The piano is a percussion chordophone instrument. The electric organ is an electronic keyboard instrument.”

The piano is actioned via a series of hammers positioned below each string. When the key is pressed, the hammer is lifted to strike the string, generating the vibration of the string and the excitation of the surrounding air particles contained within the soundboard. This places the piano in the percussion chordophone category within the keyboard family.

Electric organs, on the flip side, operate on an entirely distinct basis. While retaining the outward characteristics of the piano, their internal composition consists of a combination of mechanic pieces with electrical circuitry and oscillators which radiate energy towards a speaker or amplifier at a given frequency.

The latter explanation enables the electric organ to be classed as an electronic keyboard instrument. On the other hand, traditional pipe or reed organs were categorized as wind keyboard instruments.

Difference 2: Sound

Later, I stated that:

“The piano has a distinct percussive sound, while the electric organ offers more varied timbres and longer sustain.”

In this respect, the distinction is quite noticeable.

The piano has a peculiar bell-like sound with an emphasis on fundamental frequencies and a markedly percussive quality. Not many instruments can be comparable in sound to the grand or upright piano.

Conversely, the timbre and colour of the notes in the electric organ usually resemble those of woodwind or reed instruments. However, electric organs are likewise capable of emulating a plethora of other instruments, such as trumpets, strings, flutes, and the traditional church organ.

What's more, while playing an electric organ, you can keep looping notes ad infinitum for as long as the keys are pressed, whereas on the piano, the notes eventually die down.

Lastly, regarding tone modifiers, electric organs tend to locate them at the top, consisting of digital switches or drawbars (like those on the Hammond). The piano's tone, by contrast, is controlled by the pedals located at the base.

Difference 3: Pitch Range

Lastly, I affirmed that:

“The piano has a higher pitch range than the electric organ.”

The piano is known for having the most manual keys out of any other keyboard instrument (88 keys) and likewise for possessing one of the broadest octave ranges (from A0 to C8).

Nevertheless, while the keys in the organ manuals are fewer (around 61 keys on average), some Hammond models can include a 25-note pedalboard at the bottom, bringing the note count to close to 86 in total.

Read How Pianos Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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