The term keyboard is an umbrella term that comprehends a broad spectrum of instruments. Many of them are so dissimilar in their core mechanism that they could be classed under different instrument categories. Two examples that come to mind are the piano and the organ, two of the most popular instruments in existence.
What are the differences between pianos and organs? The differences are as follows:
- The organ is a woodwind instrument. The piano is a pitched percussion/string instrument.
- The pianos are very standard in their design. Organs can vary quite drastically.
- The organ has a distinct timbre with better sustain capabilities.
In this article, we'll disclose more details on the differences between pianos and organs that were just pointed out. However, let's first focus on their backgrounds.
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The Backgrounds Of Pianos And Organs
Apart from the differentiating aspects highlighted at the beginning of this writing, both pianos and organs differ in their historical development, though they likewise converge as the piano took elements of both the organ (as a keyboard instrument) and chordophone instruments.
The history of keyboard instruments goes back to the first pipe organs. These date to around 300-200 B.C in Alexandria and were named “Hydraulis” (hydraulic organs) because they produced sound through water pressure, forcing air to travel across the pipes.
This organ was supposedly designed by a mechanician called Ctesibius and consisted of two parts: The “feeders” (which compressed the air) and the “reservoir” that stored said compressed air.
Soon, a system of wedge-shaped bellows was introduced. These devices would perdure and be included in current-day manually operated pipe organs.
The organ had been used historically for various purposes. Most commonly, it was employed to liven up contests and social events at the Imperial court, but until the 8th century, it was mostly known in the eastern side of the Roman Empire.
By the 8th century, King Pepin the Short was gifted with an organ by emperor Constantine V. This would pave the way for its widespread use in Western Europe and, particularly, in Church services throughout the Carolingian period and beyond. At first, these were portable organs with highly basic functions.
Chapels and churches would see the installation of permanent pipe organs, which sometimes replaced or accompanied Gregorian chants. These organs surpassed the size of a modern grand piano by a large margin and had twenty bellows operated by ten people, making them highly cumbersome to play.
By the 1600s, the pipe organ became more advanced, allowing for better tonal control with less effort. The instrument also became highly prevalent beyond its traditional religious framework, being utilized in chamber music as well. One of the most renowned pipe organ composers was Johann Sebastian Bach, who was wont to write for both secular and religious contexts.
Around that same period, the piano was introduced, though largely developed from chordophones like the dulcimer, clavichord and harpsichord. These chordophones, in turn, can be traced even further back to the monochord that was in use as early as the 6th century B.C., albeit not properly as a musical instrument.
Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano in the 17th century in an attempt to devise an instrument that musicians could have better tonal control over. Cristofori replaced the original plucking mechanism of contemporary chordophones with hammers. This allowed instrumentalists to modulate the intensity of the sound depending on the strength of the action.
The pedals in the piano would not be introduced until two centuries later, enabling further timbre modifications.
For the record, the oldest piano pieces are attributed to Lodovico Giustini, an Italian harpsichord and organ player who was highly impressed with the instrument's dynamic range.
What Are The Differences Between Pianos And Organs?
Now, let's take a deeper look at the distinctions between pianos and organs that were laid out in our initial paragraphs:
Difference 1: Category And General Design
In this regard, I said the following:
“The organ is a woodwind instrument. The piano is a pitched percussion/string instrument.”
Both instruments are classed as keyboard instruments, and the keyboard family encompasses instruments with highly contrasting sound production mechanisms.
In this instance, the keyboard refers to the system of keys responsible for triggering a series of underlying joint components. In other words, It's the interface between the player and the instrument's main resonant device. What lies under the keyboard, that is, the system responsible for producing the notes, is what ultimately defines which class the instrument belongs to.
With that said, the organs generate sound mainly through the interaction of air particles in a medium (the pipes or other similar resonant chambers) propelled by bellows or equivalent contraptions. For this reason, the organ is classified primarily as a wind instrument.
Additionally, the pedal board in organs is more intricate. More specifically, in pipe organs, it has a primary role in rendering pitches. The instrument also has a series of divisions called “manuals” with their own stops and pipes.
Meanwhile, the piano consists of a simpler system of hammers that strike a set of strings of gradually different sizes. The piano, for this reason, is considered to be both a pitched percussion instrument and a string (chordophone) instrument at the same time, as it ultimately relies on concussion and the strings' vibrations. It's also far more basic in its sound production approach as a whole.
Finally, pedals in a piano mostly serve to add distinct colours to the tone rather than to produce extra notes.
Be mindful that electronic pianos/organs aren't taken into consideration here since they operate based on electrical circuitry. Early electric pianos and electrostatic organs retained acoustic tone generators that merged with electronic circuits to amplify the sound and imbue it with some additional hues.
Difference 2: Design
Later, I stated that:
“The pianos are very standard in their design. Organs can vary quite drastically.”
In that sense, there are currently three main piano types:
- Grand pianos (the largest and most expensive, carrying a larger chamber with the strings positioned horizontally)
- Upright pianos (with a vertically-oriented soundboard and slightly weaker action due to gravity)
- Digital/electronic pianos (which rely on sensors rather than hammers)
The organ, conversely, has a wider array of variants. Apart from the water and pipe organs, one can find the following types:
- The harmonium or “reed organ” (one of the first non-pipe organs in existence, consisting of reeds or metal frames like the accordion)
- The electric organ
- The barrel organ (which was a pipe organ fitted into a wooden barrel that is no longer in production)
- The steam organ (using pressurized steam instead of air to deliver notes)
- The portable organ
Difference 3: Sound
Lastly, I stressed that:
“The organ has a distinct timbre with better sustain capabilities.”
The organ's longer sustain is owed to its looping mechanism that guarantees airflow for as long as the key is pressed. On the other hand, the piano operates with a single strike that excites the string. The sound decays as the string loses vibration energy, requiring the player to strike the key again.
Since the piano is also a percussion instrument, it renders notes with a more aggressive percussive attack than the organ, which transitions from silence. Of course, in some of the most common types of organs, the “clicks” from the interaction of vents and bellows are oftentimes factored into the general timbre.
Pianos have a sound that is unlike any other sound in existence. On the flip side, the sound coming out of organs can be likened to that of woodwinds and reed instruments, with more tone-shaping capabilities. Its main drawback with respect to the piano is its inability to play nuanced notes on the spot based on the intensity of the action.
Read How Pianos Compare To Other Instruments
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